If you want an exercise in semantics, randomly ask five wired people to define the term hacker
Their answers will vary wildly, I guarantee. An old school techie may
insist a hacker is a black-belt computer programmer or engineer. A
belabored Webmaster may look upon the barbarian hordes trying to stymie
his site with denial-of-service attacks as hackers. An AOL user may
consider hackers to be Lex Luthor-like super criminals, such as how
Kevin Mitnick has been popularly portrayed. Law enforcement, depending
on its point of view, may consider hackers to be the proxies of
corporate spies and nefarious foreign governments or modem-enabled
gangsters. And a journalist, being a journalist, may throw up his or
her hands and say, "They're all of the above."
Whatever definition you chose, you're spoiling for a fight.
ZDNet News, for a number of reasons, and to the chagrin of some of our
readers, does not use the term "cracker" or "cracking" to refer to
illegal hacking activities. Instead, we call it hacking, or, depending
on the story and our access to a thesaurus, cybercrime, computer crime,
electronic theft and the like. Naturally, some devotees of old school
hacking are not amused by such muddying of the sacred waters; as a
writer and editor I've received more than one e-mail that, much as an
adult would to a dimwitted child, explained the difference between
hacking and cracking.
I appreciate the remedial e-mails, but, info-catholic that I
am, refuse to divide the hacking universe into good and bad, hacker and
cracker. Hacking, to me, is a broad church that can and does
incorporate everything from such alternative coding houses as the Cult
of the Dead Cow and the L0pht to the most juvenile of script kiddies.
It can be outside the law, but, more often, is a diverse counterculture
operating outside the tech mainstream.
Or is it?
During the next 16 days, at the apex
of summer, thousands of people will attend two of the world's biggest
hacker cons, in New York and Las Vegas. Starting Friday, H2K, 2600
Magazine's biannual shindig in the Big Apple, will be a continental
affair, with a sizeable European contingent visiting from across the
pond. At the end of the month, DEF CON, the annual bacchanal in Vegas,
will be, well, DEF CON (read: utter chaos). And, sandwiched between H2K
and DEF CON, there'll be the Black Hat Briefings -- the corporate
stepchild of DEF CON.
You'll find all kinds at those three gatherings. Corporate
types with surgically-implanted Nokias, script kiddies in Chekovian
black T-shirts, mild-mannered sys admins, a busload of evangelical
feds, more journalists than you'd see at a free buffet lunch and,
maybe, just maybe, a real old school hacker like Mudge. And expect H2K
and DEF CON, these supposedly alternative high-tech conferences, to
gather more mainstream media attention than just about any corporate
show on the calendar.
It's easy to see why hacker fests like DEF CON have
galvanized the media. They are simply the best conferences on the
high-tech circuit -- give me a choice between a Bill Gates demo of
Windows 2000 and the Back Orifice 2000 launch and I know where I'll be.
Invariably, important, if not core tech issues, are raised at these
supposedly alternative conferences. Issues -- such as digital privacy,
regulation of the Net, corporate responsibility for shoddy software,
and electronic piracy -- that are often shafted at product-focused
conferences. With that in mind, ZDNet News has launched Summer of
Hacking -- a special report in progress that will cover the hacking
culture in general and H2K, Black Hat and DEF CON in particular.
We could have called it Summer of Hacking and Cracking, but I'd miss the e-mail.
Joel Deane is senior executive news producer of ZDNet News.