When your Facebook account or email gets hacked (proper use of the verb) it wasn’t a hacker who did it, it was a criminal. Hacking is a skill, a tool, like a chainsaw. If you use said chainsaw to take down a rotting tree before it falls on somebody’s house you are benevolent neighbourhood hero, if you do it to dismember a body you are Very Very Naughty. It isn’t about the chainsaw, it’s about the human who picks up that tool and decides what to do with it.
We all have skills, we all have choices, what we do with those skills is up to us. Not all hackers are committing crimes, just as not all locksmiths are burglars. Every time I tell people I’ve become a director of the local hackerspace here in Calgary I have to follow by explaining it’s not the same as becoming a mafia don. I didn’t have to kill a rival to get this position (though I did have to learn how to solder and start using IRC). We are not some evil cyber crime think tank; we are a group of people who are deeply curious, very playful, take great joy in taking something apart to see how it works and how we can make it better or do something else with it. We live and breathe on the internet, it is our work, our entertainment, our social connections, the tool we use to leverage our lives.
We are not criminals, the majority of us are innovative social thinkers as well as tech geeks. We want to make the word a better place (all that talk of world domination is for good, not evil – we swear!). Hackers move fluidly in a realm that touches all our lives, a realm most people don’t really understand. I can program a VCR, but don’t ask me how it works. It’s the same with computers, we all use them, we’re all connected by them, they are integral to our lives (as you’ll notice any time yours crashes). When we get a virus or our email is hacked, it has a huge impact on us and we don’t understand what happened we just know it’s upsetting and scary. So we blame “hackers” because they know all about that stuff, so one of them probably did it.
And that’s a crass generalization. We’re working hard in the hacker community to differentiate “hackers” and “crackers.” Those white-hatters who are using their skills for good or benign activities and crackers – those black-hatters those cyber-criminals who are stealing private data, committing fraud, and generally being Decidedly Not Nice. Most hackers are advocates for the public, the first line of defence when things on the internet threatening our rights or our privacy. Hackers do know about “that stuff” and most of the time they are more concerned with the risks of crime associated with it than you are.
The media gives us a bad rap, not when they report about someone being hacked, but when they start using the noun “hacker” to refer to the person who did it. We need to get a new entry into the Associated Press Style Book clarifying: hack, hacked, hacker, cracker, and outright cyber criminal. The words are absolutely not interchangeable. Journalists are literary and literal people, they know their words, we’ve just got to help them get these words right.