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January 26, 2014

What is a ‘hacker’?

NORMAN — If you pay attention to the news, it seems like every time you turn around, here comes another news report about how some company has been “hacked” by “hackers.” “Hackers” steal credit card accounts from Target, Neiman Marcus gets “hacked,” the Yahoo website serves up “hacked” ads that infect computers with viruses, etc. What’s all this “hacking” stuff mean?

As near as anyone can tell, the term “hacker” was first used by members of the Tech Model Railroad Club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. This merry band of gadget freaks specialized in building sophisticated railroad and train models. They called themselves “hackers” as a way of describing their love for using and experimenting with technology in new and unusual ways.

The ability to use mechanical and electronic devices in ways for which they were not originally designed was highly regarded, and success at doing so was termed “a good hack.”

Early computer pioneers at MIT and around the country soon started to be called “hackers,” too. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were proud to be called hackers, as that included them with the leading tinkerers, experimenters and inventors of the day. Steven Levy’s book, “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution,” documents this exciting time in history and is a wonderfully entertaining book.

With the advent of the Internet and the rise of Internet-related crime, the news media latched onto the term “hacker” and started using it as a name tag for people who committed computer crimes.

What had been worn for years by technology innovators as a badge of honor was turned by the news media into an ugly term associated with Internet criminals.

Many computer buffs are still resentful at this perversion of the word “hacker,” but its long-term misuse by the media has embedded its modern definition in the popular vernacular. Most people today, when asked to define “hacker,” would describe some sort of computer criminal.

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