Here’s a report I wrote back in 2002 for an Composition class. It’s kind of interesting to look back and read some of this stuff, so I thought I’d post it as well. Enjoy!
The word “hacker” brings several images to most people’s minds ranging from sweaty, pimple-faced kids with too much time on their hands, to malicious programmers who feel great satisfaction when defacing web pages and stealing credit card numbers. Near the middle of the 20th century, the word “communist”, to a lot of people, represented all the evil things in the world, and now at the beginning of the 21st century, hackers have been labeled the new age communists. For years, the media has helped to mislead the general public into thinking hackers stand for everything that is evil and unlawful on the internet.
Since the mid-1980s, media attention to technology has increased just as the industry of technology itself has increased. Media sources such as television, newspapers, and movies have used the word “hacker” in a negative way for as long as many individuals can remember. Media resources often have been the first time the vast majority of people had ever publicly heard the word “hacker” being used, which has been detrimental to how hackers are perceived. Unfortunately, many people feel there is a clear consensus that most of the stereotypes given to hackers are true. Only through the realization of what truly defines a hacker, examination of how hackers have contributed to the internet, and learning what hacking really is, can there be any chance of replenishing the soiled name that hackers have been given in the past.
It would appear to be pointless to attempt to change the minds of millions of people by skewing opinions to believe hackers are welcome users on the internet or hackers should be considered acceptable in todays growing internet-influenced society. The US Department of Justice has created several laws regarding hacking on the internet including their own interpretation of what a hacker is. Newspaper articles are printed daily describing how hackers have illegally obtained credit card numbers, illicitly distributed copies of copyrighted proprietary software, and even obtained and used personal identities to perform unlawful acts in the internet community. In addition, according to Security Space, an internet security company, advertising networks such as Double Click, Link Exchange, and America Online benefit from “web bugs” placed on web sites to gather e-mail addresses and online purchasing habits.
Perhaps the most common misperception about hackers has been the word “hacker” itself. Popular, although negative, descriptions of hackers have included “a malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around”. The best choice for a negative description of the word “hacker” would be the word “cracker”. According to Eric Raymond, the President of the Open Source Initiative, a non-profit corporation that promotes and distributes free, open source software, the word cracker would be more fitting for the description of what most people envision a hacker to be “one who breaks security on a computer system or computer network. The definition of hacking originated back in the 1950s as “a teenager who operates ham radios or tinkers with electronics” which pre-dated home computers by over 20 years. Presently, the correct definition of the word “hacker”, as supported by many long-time internet users, is “A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary”. One of the most appropriate ways to help reverse the stereotype that has shrouded hackers would include computer professors to start teaching the difference between “hackers” and “crackers” in public schools and universities. Discussion of hacking in a positive manner in a learning institution would help curb the trend of naming hackers as destructive internet users.
Countless internet users have been led to believe hackers have nothing to offer other than ways to steal credit cards and various methods to break into computers; on the contrary, hackers have always been an immeasurable asset to the internet community by creating software to aid in securing computers. By creating programs to check for vulnerabilities within networks and server computers, hackers have helped system administrators and network administrators find ways to more efficiently and effectively do their jobs. Notable creations by hackers are Linux, a free open-source operating system, and the Apache web server, a free open-source software. As of 1999, there were 12 million internet users using Linux as their primary operating system, and 63% of all web servers were Apache web servers. Linux and Apache have been tested several times against vulnerabilities and security, then directly compared to Microsoft’s operating systems and web server software, continually resulting in Linux and Apache being superior in comparison. Perhaps if more internet users and web site owners switched to using alternative operating systems and superior web server software such as Linux and Apache, the internet would be more secure against crackers.
Online privacy breaches, that have resulted from several credit card number databases being broken into by crackers, have also been a concern to many internet users. The ignorance of system and network administrators who are not imposing strict security measures on corporate and student databases have often resulted in even the most novice internet user accidentally stumbling into “protected” databases by typing a wrong character when entering a URL in a web browser. A disturbing fact associated with virtually unsafeguarded databases ran by corporations that is most corporations sell personal data given to them in confidence by customers making online purchases, signing up for e-mail accounts, or running programs created by online businesses. In addition to the sale of personal information by corporations, personal information is also stolen via a “backdoor” in some programs built by large corporations often without a typical internet user knowing a program they’re using is stealing information from the internet user’s computer. If a typical internet user decided to create a program that steals information from another internet user, the program is then considered a virus by United States Cybercrime Laws. If hackers had not discovered the devious methods used by corporations to gather information, it is unknown what other illegal methods to gather information a corporation could have been presently using. In order to resolve the issue of corporations stealing information through “backdoored” programs, laws need to be enforced equally against corporations as much as the average internet user by the US Department of Justice and FBI.
Media sources such as television, newspapers, and movies continue to use the word “hacker” in a negative way and may not change their attitudes toward hackers unless people are more informed about what hackers are and what they have done for the internet community. The hacker community has lost much of the respect it has earned over time because of inaccurate journalism and unfair stereotypes; meanwhile, hackers have made the internet safer and more enjoyable for anyone who goes online. Unfortunately, persistent negativity being reflected on hackers and the hacker community continually tarnishes the way hackers are viewed by the general public.
In conclusion, educational institutions and media resources need to be persuaded to educate and inform individuals about what being a hacker means and what hackers have contributed to the internet. Over half of all web sites have relied on what hackers have freely given to the internet, so it could be said that the internet may not have grown into what it is today without the aid of hackers. Also, federal laws regarding “hacking” should be clarified by having computer experts help write laws, rather than rely on politicians who only know basic computing, and then rigorously enforced by law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and local police. Perhaps after professors and reporters have been familiarized with the word “cracker”, it may change their usage of the word “hacker” to include the various online definitions in which the word “hacker” had actually been intended, and hackers could finally command the respect they deserve.