Hackey Sackey
September 4, 2011 11:41 AM   Subscribe

When did hacking acquire the patina of illegality?

I am reading Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, and I am curious about something -- the people in the book seem like curious tinkerers and explorers. Occasionally they do things that are illegal it's much more about exploration than anything else, and most of the time they were doing said exploration to pinpoint and plug security issues. When did the popular cultural notion of hackers being these borderline unethical information thieves come about?
posted by to sir with millipedes to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Some history regarding "hacker" vs "cracker" in the Jargon File.
posted by modernserf at 11:48 AM on September 4, 2011

Best answer: Beware: Hackers at play, Newsweek, September 5, 1983, pp. 42-46,48

(It was the cover story.)
posted by Sys Rq at 11:50 AM on September 4, 2011

What Modernserf said. At the time that book was published and for a good while after, there was a distinction between hacking and what the media eventually decided to call hacking.
posted by Su at 11:51 AM on September 4, 2011

posted by Sys Rq at 11:54 AM on September 4, 2011

At the place where I used to work, they had big paper for destruction bins. On the front they were held shut with padlocks that were so big, if you dropped one on your foot, you were looking at an emergency room visit. On the back there were four #6 screws holding the lid to the hinges. When I pointed this out to someone they gave me one of those, "And why is it you noticed this, hmmm?" looks. Now take away the simplicity of an overglorified trash can with a slot in the lid and replace it with a multi-million dollar machine that no one in administration understands, other than that it is obviously magic and vastly powerful.

Also, in the early days, clock cycles had value. So if you were a tinkerer, coming up with clever tricks to access memory and clock cycles that were sitting fallow was like a competitive sport. While the people who managed the system (and knew that you were just soaking up downtime) might not care, it's the sort of thing that is likely to stick in the craw of uptight administrative types.

Combine these two and you get draconian rules that are roughly the equivalent of "no reading for pleasure in the university library". After that, the stage is set.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:41 PM on September 4, 2011

Best answer: I would say ever since the media got hold of the term "hacking", which judging from Google News was basically 1983.

TIME (May, 1983): In Pittsburgh, Hacking the Night Away covers the culture of hackers positively at first, but then delves into illicit break-ins and crime.

It references the 1978 bank heist by Stanley Mark Rifkin, which used social engineering rather than computer skills, but 1983 was also the year that Richard Pryor's character used salami slicing (the same technique, referenced back, as in Office Space) in the movie Superman III. 1983 also saw articles and letter in the New York Times and others discussing questions such as whether authorities are taking hacking seriously enough.

The movement to reclaim the term came later, perhaps around the mid 80s, as computer culture spread into the mainstream and hacker culture was being defined as not cracking. By the late 80s you had Kevin Mitnick, The Cuckoo's Egg, the various federal raids and investigations and other things keeping the bad aspects of hacking in the media.
posted by dhartung at 2:33 PM on September 4, 2011

It's partly Newsweek's fault, or the media's fault in general, that the word got redefined the way it did. But there's also an economic aspect, and a sort of a moral panic aspect.

As long as the hacker world was limited to a few elite research universities, there wasn't much serious computer crime — mostly because there weren't many people who had both the motive and the opportunity to commit it. To put it bluntly, MIT students weren't using their computer access to steal money or destroy data for the same reason they weren't robbing liquor stores or setting cars on fire. These were economically comfortable kids. They had good prospects, good connections, and a lot to lose from stepping too far outside the lines.

But basically as soon as there were people with a motive and an opportunity to commit serious computer crimes, you started seeing those crimes committed. A few big cases took place before the 80s, but the biggest upswing took place during the era of desktop PCs and university computer centers, the 80s and 90s. Because all of a sudden there were significant numbers of kids who were broke, alienated and/or pissed off who were able to get access to a networked computer. And so all of a sudden the computer crime rate was higher than "basically zero."

To people who didn't know any better, an amateur with some computer security skills started looking like a non-locksmith who owns a set of lockpicks — the skillset itself started to look incriminating. And at that point moral panic took over. Scuzzy burnout kids! (Not like those nice grad students who used computers back in my day....) Listening to heavy metal! Using newfangled technology! To commit immoral acts of theft and mayhem! ZOMG!

I dunno. I think even if we'd managed to get the miscreants labeled "crackers" and not "hackers," the non-criminal amateur-computer-security-nerds of the world would have had basically the same image problem in the 80s and 90s. Between the real (if small) rise in computer crime, the generational difference in computer skills between kids and their parents, and the American tendency to freak the fuck out when kids find some new somewhat hinky thing to spend their time on, it just seems inevitable in hindsight.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:38 PM on September 4, 2011

To add further color to the conversation, Wargames was released in early June 1983. For many of us, that was the first time we were exposed to the concept of hacking. Actually, as a 14-year-old geek myself, I'd heard of it before, but Wargames was the first time I'd actually seen it portrayed. But after that film, all of my family and friends knew what hacking was. (Although I'm not sure that word was ever used in the film.)
posted by jdroth at 3:21 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

FWIW, in tech circles, actual hacking has always commanded respect. As opposed to script kiddies (or less), who have earned nothing but derision.

In non-tech circles... They can't tell the difference, so don't sweat it.
posted by pla at 3:23 PM on September 4, 2011

I think in the beginning hacking meant something along the line of 'hacking something together' or 'improvising,' at some point it became equated with 'hacking into something.' Which is an entirely different sense of the word. A bit like the way trolling is now used (something under the bridge, rather than a fishing line).
posted by carter at 3:29 PM on September 4, 2011

Bruce Sterling wrote an excellent book on just this - The Hacker Crackdown. The link is to the full text, on a free licence.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:51 PM on September 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

At MIT in the 60s, "hack" meant "prank," i.e., a complicated brainy adventure, like that MIT weather balloon rising out of the 50-yard line at the Harvard-Yale game.

Seconding nebula and pla above.
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:30 AM on September 5, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for your suggestions in this. I got in touch with Eric Raymond (compiler and custodian of The Jargon File, Aka The Hacker Dictionary) and he traces the notion of hacker criminality to the release of WarGames coinciding with this high profile bust (mentioned upthread by sys rq.) according to Raymond:

"The real damage was done by the followup reporting.  What seems to have happened is that the kids described themselves as "hackers" (in the expert/enthusiast sense) and some idiot reporters thought the term referred specifically to security-breaking activity. We've been trying to shake off that mistake ever since."
posted by to sir with millipedes at 12:00 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

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