Many confidential documents are posted mistakenly on the web, allowing strangers to find them via search engines, according to a front-page article by Yuki Noguchi in today’s Washington Post. I had thought this was common knowledge, but apparently it’s not.
The most striking aspect of the article, to me at least, is that doing web searches for such material is called “Google hacking.” This is yet another step in the slow decay of the once-useful word “hack”, whose meaning is now so vague that it is best avoided altogether.
Originally, “hacker” was a term of respect, applied only to the greatest of (law-abiding) software craftsmen. The first stage of the term’s decline began when online intruders started calling themselves “hackers,” and the press began using the term “hacking” to refer to computer intrusions. This usage tends to reinforce the (often false) impression that intrusions require great technical skill.
As a shorthand term for illegal computer intrusions, “hacking” was at least useful. But the second phase of its decline has drained away even that meaning, as “hacking” has lost its tie to illegality and has become a general-purpose label of disapproval that can be slapped onto almost any activity. Nowadays almost any lawsuit over on-line activity involves an accusation of “hacking,” and the term has become a favorite of lobbyists seeking to ban previously accepted practices. Who would oppose a ban on hacking?
Calling something “hacking” conveys nothing more than the speaker’s disapproval of it. If you’re trying to communicate clearly, it’s time to retire “hacking” from your lexicon. If you don’t like what somebody is doing, tell us why.