Hacking ≠ Cracking

Hacking is not illegal.

Cracking is illegal. But hacking is not cracking.

Hackers build things. Crackers break into them, tear them down, destroy them, or steal them.

(There’s a big difference. Needless to say, hackers don’t like when people imply they’re crackers.)

About Hackers

Hacking is about making things. In fact, hacking is so deeply tied to making things that computer hackers recognize the hacker spirit in certain artists, writers, architects, carpenters, welders, etc… especially those who have a spark of creative unruliness to them.

The simple explanation is that, to programmers, “hacker” means a good programmer. But if you know a hacker and want to understand them, you should know it isn’t all there is to hacking.

Computer hacking–in the true sense, not that dispensed by the media–is mainly programming. One hacks open-source projects to make them better, or hacks one’s own computer to get it to do something cool or solve a problem. Hackers like to solve problems and fix things, because it’s a fun intellectual challenge and getting it right in the most creative, efficient, beautiful way possible begets its own sort of euphoria: the feeling that you’ve achieved a small work of creative genius.

Because hackers love solving problems and fixing things using their computers, they’re better at it than other people. You can’t pay someone enough to make their motivation or ability to program rival that of a hacker’s. You can only try to hire people who genuinely like programming (which you’ll recognize because they’ll have projects of their own, or work on open-source, and some even have blogs about what they’re doing [cough]).

This is also why if you give hackers a simple, easy job they already know how to do well at work, they’ll get it done (and probably well; they tend to be perfectionists), but more slowly and without the flair for design displayed when given a true challenge. A happy hacker is one doing something that interests them–basically, something intellectually challenging–which often means something they don’t entirely know how to do. This makes them incredibly useful in a workplace if management knows what’s going on, because a hacker won’t drag their feet about learning something new if it’s sufficiently interesting. Offload your dull (easy), repetitive work on employees who’ll appreciate the break.

Hackers like hard problems. They seek them out like generals looking for new land to conquer, and view bugs as if they were local barbarian tribes to squash with the skill of their army. Except that if a hacker ran an army, it would not look much like an army, because the traits that make them good programmers also make them somewhat anti-authoritarian. Hackers will respect authority… if they see it doing something useful and not interfering too much with their work. The best managers are programmers, but you won’t find many programmers who are willing to be managers because they’re (literally?) addicted to coding, but managers who respect that programming takes long stretches of uninterrupted time are also greatly appreciated. Hackers will tolerate the average (unfortunately, average is crummy in this department) manager and mostly do what they say, but probably won’t hold much (any) real respect for them.

Hackers have their own slang, which is silly and consists mostly of metaphors about and descriptions of technology, and also puns. Hacker slang, called “jargon“, tends toward a certain eloquence of speech not usually found in slang. Which isn’t surprising, because hackers developed their jargon on purpose (see the fifth paragraph of that link), because making up slang words is playing with language, a fun thing to do if you’re a hacker.

About Crackers

(I know less about these guys, because I don’t really care about them and have zero association with them. If you’re a proud black-hat and I’ve gotten something wrong, comment on this post so I can block you.)

Crackers are egotistical. Hackers also are, to an extent, but a hacker’s ego depends on the skills they have and the things they’ve made; crackers’ ego relies on breaking into something before the other people in their Usenet group and thus somehow proving their junk is bigger.

Crackers also have their own slang; it involves a lot of z’s and x’s and weird characters. It’s closer to what marketing people a decade ago thought was chatspeak.

People breaking into their own systems to do penetration testing are exempted from hackers’ contempt for crackers, as are white-hats and samurai. Hackers recognize that these people are doing a legal and necessary job being paid by corporations to do security testing, and what they do of course isn’t morally wrong. These people may know more about cracker culture than hackers, but are not black-hats themselves; if they manage to be black-hats and still evade the background checks imposed by their employers, they’ve beat the system in a way that would make a hacker sad that they’re wasting that much creativity on something so losing. Either that, or their employer needs to be more careful. Some white-hats are even hackers, and just do penetration testing as a day job.

Basically, if you want to know about crackers, a really good description is (somewhat ironically) the 1995 movie Hackers, although the cracking displayed in that movie is laughably inaccurate. Actual hackers either hate the movie or think it’s hilarious.


Mixing up these two terms is on the order of a dire insult to a hacker; get them straight, and don’t confuse them. Of course, calling a cracker a cracker will probably offend them, but you don’t want their respect anyway. If you’re worried about your security, get a hacker to design your security system. 😉

5 thoughts on “Hacking ≠ Cracking

    • Depends. The definition of “grey hat” varies so much from person to person that it’s hard to make a statement about all of them.

      Assuming you’re talking about sense 2… there’s a lot of wiggle room in there to be manipulated, and I’d feel ishy about condoning it, especially here. Breaking into a system and then letting the sysadmin know how to patch it might be a form of courtesy, but you may also end up with an entire room full of sysadmins freaking out before you let them know you come in peace (or after, because who believes you? They could lose their jobs!), and that’s not cool.

      On the other hand, the presence of a defined category of crackers who don’t do damage allows for the possibility that people who are drawn to the “master thief” image might not cause as much destruction if they can camp out under a compromise label.

      On the gripping hand, if it’s your friend’s startup they founded or their personal blog or something, and you want to test their system for the lolz but not mess with anything, well… they’re probably not going to be too offended by your security tips, especially if it means they don’t end up with something embarrassing on their front page by someone who isn’t as nice as you are. It’d still be a good idea to tell them what you’re doing first, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hey, I was wondering what do you think about people who crack into, for example, a corrupt politician’s email to expose some of their corruption? Because they are not doing it for bad intentions necessarily, and may be trying to use their cracking skills to help people (even though what they did might be illegal)?


    • Define corrupt. That’s the problem. To some people, “corrupt” means “doesn’t agree with me.”

      I agree that politicians are often corrupt, but sometimes they make decisions based on some really complicated factors that are maybe not apparent to the casual observer. Sometimes they have secret sources of information that, for the safety of the people they lead, aren’t disclosed to the public. Sometimes there’s a very good reason they do things that may appear corrupt to outsiders. Politics is not black and white.

      What I’m saying is, such an act would not only be a violation of privacy, but the information gleaned could be taken entirely out of context.

      If the politician in question is some total wacko who’s killing people or something, you don’t even need to expose them. You’ve got bigger problems than breaking into their email.

      If you’ve declared war and are cracking into the enemy’s systems in order to stop the war faster, that’s war. People have been doing that with various modes of communication for centuries. That’s acceptable.

      Finally, despite good intentions, a grey-hat cracker may end up seeing something they really shouldn’t. Like that information that’s kept away from the public for national security, kind of thing.

      Oh, but if you’re writing a novel and that’s why you’re asking, GO FOR IT ANYWAY. Your characters don’t have to have sensible or always-right motivations. A little moral ambiguity in a hero is really interesting.


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