NYU Prof Wants You to Stop Saying 'Hacker'

How does one define 'hackers?' Are they malicious criminals who obtain illicit information from computer systems? Are they simply people who use computers in ways they're not meant to be used? Or maybe it's a slightly ludicrous film from 1995? One journalist, New York University professor Adam Penenberg, argues that all of us, from writers to law enforcement officers, need to be a lot more specific when we talk about 'hacking.' Schools offering Adult Education degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

hacker hacking Adam Penenberg

What's in a Name?

When someone takes something that doesn't belong to them, it's called stealing. When they attack someone violently, it's assault. When they breach computer security for their own gain, it's known as hacking… right?

NYU journalism professor and computer expert Adam Penenberg recently took to the technology website FastCompany.com to detail why he thinks many of us ought to reconsider how we use words like 'hack,' 'hacker' and 'hacking.' According to Penenberg, their application has become too commonplace, and it's time to show some restraint.

What Penenberg finds particularly objectionable are recent events when so-called 'hackers' obtained access to computer systems through simple trickery. Duping someone into giving up his or her e-mail password isn't exactly hacking, Penenberg argues. If it was, one could claim that any kind of misrepresentation involving technology in the slightest is hacking. Penenberg even extends the metaphor so far as to claim that if you vote for a politician because of what you see on television or online and you end up feeling lied to, you've been hacked.

Is There a Point?

Obviously many people wouldn't really call that last example hacking, and one could argue that all Penenberg's concerned about here is semantics. Yet his underlying point - that we need to address these events more specifically - remains valid.

Penenberg's right that 'hacking' has become something of a catch-all term, and the more ubiquitous such a word becomes, the less meaning it retains. Less-than-careful Facebook users will routinely report that their page has been 'hacked' because they clicked on a malicious link; agents of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World paper 'hacked' voicemails of important figures. Whether or not you want to argue that the essential process behind those two events is the same, Penenberg would claim that using the word 'hacked' in both doesn't really convey enough information about what's going on. How was the information obtained? What was it used to do? When people say their Twitter accounts have been hacked, it's usually not a big deal. But the similar-sounding news that Sony's Playstation Network had been hacked several months ago actually caused massive troubles for a multinational corporation and its customers.

'Hacker' Defined... or Should We Bother?

Penenberg writes that if he had to assign a definition to 'hacker,' he'd make it this: 'a person who uses a computer to illegally gain access to and sometimes tamper with information in a computer system.' This implies a forceful agency that some applications of 'hack' leave out; to Penenberg, hackers aren't messing with your Facebook because you accidentally gave up your password, they're maliciously breaking into secure computer systems and stealing or otherwise tampering with the data therein. The difference is subtle, perhaps, but important, indicating a distinction in both process and results.

Of course Penenberg ultimately wants to see the term used less altogether. Ideally journalists, commentators and anyone else who speaks about these sort of phenomena should become more specific and descriptive in their terminology. Are we dealing with miscreants who scam passwords out of people to repost unpleasant videos on Facebook, or are they breaking into secure networks and stealing credit card information? From a purely descriptive sense, 'hacking' can't seem to convey all the nuanced required of those circumstances any more.

If you don't want to be called a 'hack' author, check out these apps for better writing.

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