July 15, 2024

Time to Retire "Hacking"

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.


  1. RSS for TV, Music

    Andrew Grumet is developing a very interesting TiVo hack (RSSTV: Syndication for your PVR). Basically the idea is to share PVR program recording information via RSS. So, when you subscribed to an RSSTV feed, your PVR would record the shows…

  2. New Hacking Blog

    Ed Felten writes about the Freedom to Tinker, “the right of technologists and citizens to tinker with technological devices.” Anyone who has ever pulled something apart and tried, successfully or not, to put it back together understands the freedom Fel…

  3. aNonMooseCowherd says

    I wonder if anyone has tracked down the source of the transformation of the word “hacker”. My guess is that it happened in the context of some clever person figuring out how to defeat security on some computer, whereupon a journalist heard the person described as a “hacker”, drew the wrong inference, and started using the term in that way without ever bothering to ask anyone what it meant. Since most journalism consists of regurgitating the words of other journalists rather than doing any real investigation, it is not surprising that the misuse of the word took over and supplanted the earlier meaning.

  4. I would avoid altogether any use of “hack”, except in a closed audience, in a context where everybody understands that the traditional, positive meaning applies.

    It’s too late to fight for the traditional meaning. It’s gone.

  5. I found this article on zone-h a reasonable argument:


    I think we have to accept that the term ‘hacker’ will, primarily, be used to mean malicious computer users.

  6. “Hacking” Revisited

    I wrote yesterday about the degradation of the term “hacking”. Today, the perfect illustration of my point turned up: a Hacker’s Hall of Fame published by The Learning Channel. It includes legitimate uber-programmers like Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchi…

  7. It’s not clear to me: are you asking that ‘hack’ no longer be used incorrectly, or that it no longer be used at all?

    Because, if we’re not going to use it at all (which I won’t assume is a bad idea, though it may be) we’re going to need to know to use in place of genuine hacking.

  8. J.B. Nicholson-Owens says

    The part of the intro that disturbs me is that we (the community, including hackers in the original sense of the term) should give up whatever influence we might have because mass media has created a de facto redefinition of the term to mean something else. Are you saying this term is not valuable enough to fight for?

    Don’t we risk sending the wrong message–that whatever community philosophy we build and whatever term we coin (and the meaning we chose for it) can be appropriated and we’ll peacefully walk away? That sounds self-destructive to me, particularly if we deem this term and its original meaning to be important. Although you didn’t mention going beyond the terminology in your blog entry, I’d hate to think how this example scales up: go ahead corporation X, take our democracy, we we won’t defend it.

  9. I think the terms “hacks” and “hacking” are become more popular than ever and have a generally positive connotation. Although the terms reference to software craftsmen has been denigrated to a certain extent, it is only to the fact that it is being used to denote cleverness with regard to software use. A hack is fun, interesting or practical use of software that was not intended or anticipated by the software designer. It is a very positive use of the word. Although some will continue to use the term negatively, I think that it is more likely than not to be seen as something positive. See, for example, all the “Hacks” books from O’Reilly. They are hardly there to denigrate their contents.