There has long been a movement in the geek community to expunge the negative thoughts attached to the word hacker, the image to the right The Glider, being one of the latest and most visible. In the beginning there were hackers (people who worked on computers, programmed and made things work) and crackers (people who would use computers for nefarious purposes, crimes, viruses, etc), these were two distinct camps, with some miscreants jumping the fence back and forth to confuse the issue. Regardless, somewhere along the way popular culture (movies, news, your teachers probably) began to equate hacking as being the bad, crime ridden activity that cracker was supposed to cover. I think it’s a moot point now, as even my Dad was shocked when he learned my annual DefCon trip is billed as “largest hacking conference in the world”. I gave him the above explanation, but I’m unsure if he really believes it. Regardless, the original “How to become a hacker” paper written by Eric S Raymond is always cited as the quintessential word on the use of the word hacker. I found it mirrored online, and it’s a worthwhile read if you have any interest in the topic, or want to cement your own views of your hobby. For now, if you don’t want to read the entire verbiage, here’s the intro to learn and take with you.
There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments. The members of this culture originated the term `hacker’. Hackers built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers run Usenet. Hackers make the World Wide Web work. If you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you’re a hacker.
The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker culture. There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like electronics or music – actually, you can find it at the highest levels of any science or art. Software hackers recognize these kindred spirits elsewhere and may call them “hackers” too – and some claim that the hacker nature is really independent of the particular medium the hacker works in. But in the rest of this document we will focus on the skills and attitudes of software hackers, and the traditions of the shared culture that originated the term `hacker’.
There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers, but aren’t. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phone system. Real hackers call these people
crackers' and want nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers are lazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being able to break security doesn't make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word hacker’ to describe crackers; this irritates real hackers no end.
The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.