Managing Partner at Archer Energy Solutions Patrick C. Miller gives a brief outline of the origins of the term and how its connotation has changed over time.
Before there were a lot of computer systems the first real digital platforms were the phone systems. That’s where you get the word ‘phreaker’ – as they were originally exploiting phone systems because it was more about trying to find ways to get through interconnected systems beyond the system you are on because there wasn’t really an internet; there was no real routing going on other than basically number routing based on dial codes.
As Mr. Miller has stated, hackers began their journey long before internet became a thing. In fact, if you try to look up the history of hacking, you can find that the earliest ‘hack’ was the ‘hijacking’ of a projector to send insulting Morse code messages in an auditorium in 1903. The advent of hackers as we know them came, of course, much later – in the 1980s, while ‘phreakers’ were most active in the 70s. So what does the word ‘hacker’ mean, anyway? Mr. Miller explains:
"The original meaning of the word goes back to people who are curious about a system. They were not necessarily criminal in nature, they were more or less testing whether the system would work, trying to make the system do things you wouldn’t normally expect. I’d say 9 out of 10, if not 99 out of 100 were not criminal in nature. The current term that the media has used has obviously transformed it into something which implies that there is a criminal element behind it; so the common use today is really focusing on the criminal aspect."
So, are hackers criminal or are they not? Well, it’s a complicated issue. While, as our expert pointed out, when the media talks about hackers, they mean ‘cybercriminals,’ and this is often not the case. Nor is it quite correct to say that ‘your Facebook has been hacked’ when someone simply posts a status update in a system you forgot to log out of. One of the most popular terms to discern hackers is ‘black hat’ and ‘white hat’ – our expert explains the difference.
Traditionally, the black hat hackers are more of the criminal element. The white hat hackers are the defensive elements – however not always, as sometimes they’re on the offensive, hacking for the ‘good guys’. So the white hats are often seen as the good guys and the black hats are often seen as the bad guys. The grey hats are the ones that kind of go back and forth and it’s hard to pin which side they’re on.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg – but it should be enough to provide a basic understanding of who hackers are and serve as a springboard for those who want to research the subject in depth.