The Script Kiddies Are Not Alright

13.08.2001

Definitions and Differentiations Among Hackers

As far as the media is concerned, one thing is clear: Hardly a month goes by without some newspaper, some magazine or one of those infotainment clips commercial television uses to bridge the gaps between blocks of ads reporting some horror story about hackers. They're taking down a Web site here, stealing credit cards there, spewing viruses or worms all over the place or glutting email systems around the world with "love letters" or some such. In public conversation, it's long been decided: Hackers are at best juvenile delinquents, at worst, destructive terrorists. They haunt cyberspace where, thanks to black computer magic, they have the power to yank the plug from the information society.

As for the written canon of hackers, at least in the US, something else entirely is just as clear: Whatever passes for "hacker" in the media has nothing to do with "real" hacking. The Jargon File, a sort of encyclopedia of hackerdom which has been updated and expanded by voluntary authors since 1975, painstakingly explains again and again that bad hackers aren't hackers at all and must instead be correctly referred to as "crackers". The Jargon File encourages readers to send to journalists who mix up these terms the same letter Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and literally the "last true hacker," once sent to the Wall Street Journal, which reads:

I am a hacker. That is to say, I enjoy playing with computers -- working with, learning about, and writing clever computer programs. I am not a cracker; I don't make a practice of breaking computer security.

There's nothing shameful about the hacking I do. But when I tell people I am a hacker, people think I'm admitting something naughty -- because newspapers such as yours misuse the word "hacker", giving the impression that it means "security breaker" and nothing else. You are giving hackers a bad name.

[...]

You owe hackers an apology; but more than that, you owe us ordinary respect. Jargon File 4.3.0

It's well-known that the since the 1980s the media have drawn a portrait of hackers that for the most part is denunciatory and sensationalistic and that it rarely bothers with authentic reporting. But that's not what this article is to be about. Because the other side in this standoff is also quite interesting and in no way entirely innocent. The sensitivity of "true" hackers to the misuse of the term is not just a nerdish quirk of linguistic persnicketiness and also not just a defensive insistence on "ordinary respect". In the struggle for the right over the use of the term "hacker", an attempt is also being made to shut out other hackers. An attempt that has much to do with how computers, networks, and with them, the hacker scene itself have all changed over the last forty years.

Steven Levy's "Hacker Ethic"

As early as the very beginning of the problem with the word "hacker", a journalist was involved. The most important declaration of hackerdom does not come from a hacker at all, but from Steven Levy. A writer for Rolling Stone, among other magazines, Levy made this special breed of computer freak known to the broad public in his book Hackers in 1984. The hacker scene he described had by that time already chalked up a good thirty years of existence.

One chapter of Levy's book in particular had a terrific influence within the hacker scene. It's there that he describes how, in the 50s, with the advent of the first computers, "something new was developing... a new lifestyle, with a philosophy, an ethic and a dream." From all the conversations Levy conducted with hackers of the first and second water, he distilled the fundamental values of the hacker scene, which he called the "hacker ethic":

Access to computers -- and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works -- should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On imperative!

All information should be free.

Mistrust authority -- Promote decentralisation.

Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not by bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.

You can create art and beauty on a computer.

Computers can change your life for the better. 3174

Levy's hacker ethic is commonly referred to as the very definition of the term "hacker" or at least as how the hacker scene universally sees itself. But it isn't. What we have here is not the conclusions or the results of discussions among some specific group, not the conditions for some sort of initiation and not a list of individual commitments. Levy's hacker ethic is nothing other than his own (well-meaning) interpretation, after the fact, of a certain historic constellation.

It is marked by a particular sociological situation. Levy is writing about white Anglo-Saxon young men in the elite universities of the 50s through the 70s in the US. These figures were also dealing with a certain set of technical preconditions. Computers and computing time were precious, and at times -- at least in the view of the hackers -- were goods kept artificially scarce, jealously protected by a bureaucratic elite from the "high priests" of the mainframes. Computers tended to be a matter for the military and they were in no way to be seen as a technology for just anyone.

Whether or not Levy's interpretation applies to a specific group from which the legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) would recruit hackers in the 50s can't be determined here. The only important thing to establish is that his hacker ethic is or was not the ticket to becoming a hacker, nor is/was it the typical or even the only motivation for becoming a hacker.

In a discussion on the legendary conferencing system The Well on the occasion of a hacker convention in 1989, Levy was already being criticized for his selective perceptions. In the words of Jef Poskanzer, one of the participants of the online discussion:

"I have come to realize that 'The Hacker Ethic' never really existed. Essentially, Steven Levy was suckered by Richard Stallman into presenting a very limited view of hackers and labeling that as the real thing. But it never was. Even then there was more to hacking than is dreamt of in Stallman's philosophy... Hacking is about exploring and creating. It is orthogonal to ethics."

At about the same time Levy's book appeared, the film War Games hit the cinemas, depicting an American suburban teenager who uses the PC in his bedroom to penetrate a Pentagon supercomputer and comes close to setting off World War III. With that film, the media's contamination of Levy's emphatic conception of hackers was well underway, as Levy himself bitterly complained in an afterword in later editions of his book.

Good Hackers, Bad Crackers

The debate over the term "hacker" has been churning away ever since. The Jargon File offers the following distinctions:

:hacker: n. [originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe] 1. 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. 2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming. 3. A person capable of appreciating {hack value}. 4. A person who is good at programming quickly. 5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in 'a Unix hacker'. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.) 6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example. 7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. 8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence 'password hacker', 'network hacker'. The correct term for this sense is {cracker}.

As for these "crackers", the authors of the Jargon File (the most prominent of whom is Eric Raymond, representative of the right-wing neoliberal faction of the open source movement) merely sneer:

:cracker: n. One who breaks security on a system. Coined ca. 1985 by hackers in defense against journalistic misuse of {hacker} [...] While it is expected that any real hacker will have done some playful cracking and knows many of the basic techniques, anyone past {larval stage} is expected to have outgrown the desire to do so except for immediate, benign, practical reasons (for example, if it's necessary to get around some security in order to get some work done).

Although there is a recognizable effort being made here to play along with the media's denunciation of "crackers", the two definitions betray the fundamental dilemma. The line between what is officially defined in Point 7 as the "intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations" and the "poking around" frowned upon in Point 8 is, of course, quite variable historically and ultimately artificial and arbitrary. For the authors as well, the evidently entirely unproblematic boundaries of the gentlemen's crime of "playful cracking" and cracking as a typical stage of development one eventually grows out of are naturally porous and muddled.

Discussions Within the Hacker Scene

So it wasn't only ignorant journalists who misinterpreted Levy's hacker ethic throughout the 17 years following its appearance, as the author would have it. In the 80s, the camps split on the question of whether penetration of foreign computer systems constituted an infringement of the hacker ethic or whether manipulation with malice was the actual criterion. Again, the Jargon File only goes so far; nose pinched, it delicately holds out the following definition of the hacker ethic on extended fingertips: "The belief that system-cracking for fun and exploration is ethically OK as long as the cracker commits no theft, vandalism, or breach of confidentiality" -- and then rushes to add that not all hackers go along with this.

An example of another way of dealing with the theme can be seen in the history of the German Chaos Computer Club (CCC). Founded in the early 80s, first generation members discovered that, because of the ridiculously restrictive telecommunications laws in the country, they unwittingly and unwillingly nearly always had one foot in jail. One of the Club's first actions was to distribute a modem kit. Whoever built the thing and connected it to the phone system was not honored as a pioneer of the information society; instead, he or she could be prosecuted.

On every page, early editions of the CCC publication Datenschleuder flaunt nonchalant yet shrewd hints at recommendations for breaking these laws. Over the years, the CCC discovered that it wouldn't be so easy to get the genie back into the bottle. The computer fans who now owned the illegal modems wanted to do something with them, and with interesting public offerings sorely lacking, they forged ahead into non-public space.

This raised new problems. It was easy to simply ignore the authoritarian telecommunications laws of the Federal Post Office. But along their data journeys, people in CCC circles were stumbling upon all sorts of things, and this aroused the interest of competing companies, secret services and the media. And the hackers dedicated to freedom of information who had always made the case for openness suddenly found themselves knee-deep in private data which they would rather have seen protected.

This led to moral conflicts which, in turn, led to the CCC adopting a version of Levy's rules. It took on Levy's principles as its own, emphasizing that, besides skin color and social status, gender, too, would not be a criterion on which hackers were to be judged, and then added two new rules, the result of experiences in data networks.

"Don't go poking around in other people's data. Use public data, protect private data."3175

This position of the CCC is absolutely incompatible with the spirit of the Jargon Files. The Club is actually denounced as a ragtag group of "alienated, drug-addled crackers," an image of the CCC whipped up in the works of Clifford Stoll3176 and (in a somewhat milder form) Katie Hafner and John Markoff3177. In Germany, though, the very same Club is all but viewed as an official institution of hackers, as experts and practically as a NGO, and is widely and publicly consulted by the government, political parties, banks, industry figures, privacy advocates and the media. Just to make the confusion complete, the members of the CCC condemned as outcasts in the US use practically the same language to inveigh against young data bad boys over there.

External and Internal Borders

Clearly, there are no scientific criteria when it comes to the perception and self-definition of groups of hackers or to the characteristics which distinguish them from each other. As far as it goes, though, four important complexes of self-perception can be mapped out:

The "Real" Hackers

The "real" hackers are the normative ideal in the Jargon File. This group sees itself as unorthodox, brilliant programmers dedicated to the ideal of freedom of information and opposed to governmental authority, certain large companies (IBM, Microsoft) and a few cultural conventions. Variations of the character are most likely to pop up currently in the Linux/Open Source/Free Software communities. Although they tend to abuse the rules they haven't set up themselves or which they see as nonsensical or unnecessary restrictions, they don't encourage outright illegal activity. Even within this definition, there is a wide range of differentiations between the two poles of Eric Raymond (a representative of the typically American ultralibertarian market and weapon fetishism) and Richard Stallman (a just as typically American leftish liberal).

The "Pedagogical" Hackers

Part and parcel of the characteristic self-image of the CCC, on the other hand, is its role as an instrument of enlightenment, explaining the information society and all it conjures to itself. A similar attitude is found among the Dutch hackers and in the crowd surrounding the magazine 2600. Since 1983, it has pursued the strategy of scrounging for security gaps in the systems of banks and telecommunications companies and then presenting them publicly. In the US, this has led to the cracker image described above, but in Germany, the image is closer to that of a data Robin Hood whose information is, first of all, serious, and secondly, not used for the hackers' own advantage but presented to the public. The more politically grounded of this group is revealed in the use of social hacking techniques such as adbusting or media hacking. Many representatives of this version of the hacker would not see themselves outcast by the Jargon File and would consider themselves "real" hackers.

The Bad Boys: Script Kiddies, warez d00dz and Cohorts

Even second generation hackers distance themselves from the so-called script kiddies. The derogative moniker applied to these bad boys is an expression of the most severe verdict that can be passed on a hacker: That he or she cannot actually program at all, but instead fiddles with prewritten tools of the trade. The section of the hacker scene partitioned off as bad boys often isn't entirely uncomfortable with the image and incorporates it into its own self-image. Among the pop cultural icons reflected in pseudonyms and group names are those of the punk, heavy metal, grunge and hip hop scenes. Parts of the demo scene and the warez/virus group are primarily young and comprised of considerably more immigrants than the traditional hacker scene. But there is nonetheless not a greater number of women among them.

Political Hackers: From the Yippies to Seattle

Finally, a unique subgroup are those hackers who use their forbidden technical know-how for political purposes. There's a long tradition here. The group that made the deepest mark was the "Youth International Party", the yippies of the 60s in the US. The yippies were an attention-grabbing band of fun-loving guerrillas with roots in the Beat generation and famous for actions reminiscent of Situationist stunts such as the one that had a pig run for president against Richard Nixon. In their newsletter "Youth International Party Line", they offered practical tips for how to make free telephone calls with the help of the so-called blue box, an act they claimed as a protest against the Vietnam War. In recent years, acts of technical sabotage such as denial of service attacks or defacing Web sites have been increasingly integrated into political campaigns. Examples would be the Internet attacks against the Mexican government in coordination with the Chiapas resistance or anti-globalization actions on the occasions of WTO meetings or the World Economic Forum in Davos. These political hackers are a special case in that they often don't claim the term "hacker" for themselves even if they quite clearly make use of hacker methods.

Why All This Furious Differentiation?

The attempt on the part of the "real" hackers to shut out their supposedly inferior relations necessarily has to fall back on artificial and arbitrary criteria. There are no positive definitions of "hacker" which don't at least imply as one factor an illegal, forbidden or even illegitimate activity. And there is no form whatsoever of the definition of the term which could in any way be used to make distinctions that doesn't fall back on breaking rules, one way or the other; on knowledge that either doesn't belong in the mainstream or is pilfered from it; or on the use of technology in a way for which it wasn't intended. If one leaves the explicitly anti-cracker paragraphs out of the definition in the Jargon File, there's nothing left there that would prohibit defining a cracker as a hacker. On the contrary. Point 7 ("circumventing limitations") is all but a call to see them as part of the community.

What's also clear is that what a gentleman's crime is to some is a punishable act to others. Levy's Hackers as well as the Jargon File lists countless examples of infringements on the law that, in the eyes of a "real" hacker, would be seen as harmless boyish mischievousness, heroically liberating deeds or justified civil disobedience. But those against whom these acts are committed naturally complain about "juvenile delinquents" just as the "real" hackers do today.

Why all this furious differentiation and exclusion? Changing individual lifestyles are certainly part of the two-fold explanation. Whoever has carefully worked their way from the position of the outsider into the center of society doesn't care to be reminded by later generations that he or she has given up his or her role as a rebel. Or that the current codes of youth culture -- in music, fashion or language -- no longer speak to him or her is also tough to admit. The social context has also changed over the forty years of hacker history. Today, computers -- thanks in no insignificant part to hackers -- are no longer icons of a hermetically sealed off world of elite universities. The uses they're put to are also multi-faceted. And last, but certainly not least, the massive criminalization of the hacker scene that has taken place particularly since the early 90s in the US (impressively described in Bruce Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown3178 and Josh Quittner and Michelle Slatella's Masters of Deception3179) creates an impulse for distance from which few are able to extract themselves.

Boris Gröndahl is the Berlin Bureau Chief for The Industry Standard. In 1996, he curated the exhibition "Hackers" at the Heinz Nixdorf Museum in Paderborn, and in 2000, his book Hacker was published by Rotbuch Verlag.

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