NARRATOR: Which of these people is most like a hacker? A Burglar? A vandal? An inventor? Or a spy? The answer completely depends on whom you ask, because the word “hacker” has taken on all of these meanings, and more, over the years. But it’s the wrong question. It’s like asking, is a chisel something you use to break into safes, to deface buildings, or to carve statues?
No, the questions we should be asking are: what is hacking, and why do people do it?
In the broadest possible terms, hacking is creative problem solving that takes advantage of the properties of things in unexpected ways. So when Galileo used curved glass and mirrors to magnify the stars, that was a hack. Or when NASA engineers saved Apollo 13 with a book, a plastic bag, and a roll of duct tape, that was a hack. Of course, usually when hacking comes up, we’re talking about computer hacking. But the idea is the same—computer hacking is just creative problem solving that takes advantage of the properties of computers and networks in unexpected ways.
For example, phone providers used to use tones and beeps to get their phones to communicate with their network. What they did not expect was that hackers would figure out that those tones could be imitated with toy whistles found in Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes, thereby bypassing the need to pay for the call.
So why do hackers hack? Many are driven by intellectual curiosity. They want to learn how a system works, to discover its quirks and hidden secrets. They are like cave explorers, who venture into darkness and see what they can find. Steve Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple—started out like this. Like many hackers, his early explorations inspired him to start tinkering and inventing. Other hackers are like the security forces who want to defend their fortresses of information. They find the chinks in the internet’s armor—such as the Heartbleed Bug—and patch them up before they can be used against you.
And, of course, there are hackers with less than noble intentions. They can be motivated by greed, fame, rebellion, or the desire to hurt others for cheap thrills. These are the hackers that media stories have taught us to fear. Some of them are brilliant minds gone astray. But many of these so-called hackers are just kids who run programs that they don’t understand. Others are criminal syndicates that may know more about cheating and robbing people than creative problem solving.
There are also hackers who operate in morally grey areas, who might steal information to expose corruption, or violate privacy in the name of national security. They consider what they are doing just and for the greater good, while others see their actions as dishonorable and wrong.
But assigning labels of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” to hacking is no more productive than pinning those labels to a hammer. It is how and why the hammer is used—to build or to destroy—that matters—and that you must choose for yourself. Hackers, like hammers, are here to stay whether we like it or not.