What Is the Difference Between a Hacker and a Cracker?
December 20, 2006 8:21pm CST
There have been many articles written (particularly on the Internet) about the difference between hackers and crackers. In them, authors often attempt to correct public misconceptions. This chapter is my contribution in clarifying the issue. For many years, the American media has erroneously applied the word hacker when it really means cracker. So the American public now believe that a hacker is someone who breaks into computer systems. This is untrue and does a disservice to some of our most talented hackers. There are some traditional tests to determine the difference between hackers and crackers. I provide these in order of their acceptance. First, I want to offer the general definitions of each term. This will provide a basis for the remaining portion of this chapter. Those definitions are as follows: A hacker is a person intensely interested in the arcane and recondite workings of any computer operating system. Most often, hackers are programmers. As such, hackers obtain advanced knowledge of operating systems and programming languages. They may know of holes within systems and the reasons for such holes. Hackers constantly seek further knowledge, freely share what they have discovered, and never, ever intentionally damage data. A cracker is a person who breaks into or otherwise violates the system integrity of remote machines, with malicious intent. Crackers, having gained unauthorized access, destroy vital data, deny legitimate users service, or basically cause problems for their targets. Crackers can easily be identified because their actions are malicious. These definitions are good and may be used in the general sense. However, there are other tests. One is the legal test. It is said that by applying legal reasoning to the equation, you can differentiate between hackers (or any other party) and crackers. This test requires no extensive legal training. It is applied simply by inquiring as to mens rea. Modern hackers, however, reach deeper still. They probe the system, often at a microcosmic level, finding holes in software and snags in logic. They write programs to check the integrity of other programs. Thus, when a hacker creates a program that can automatically check the security structure of a remote machine, this represents a desire to better what now exists. It is creation and improvement through the process of analysis. In contrast, crackers rarely write their own programs. Instead, they beg, borrow, or steal tools from others. They use these tools not to improve Internet security, but to subvert it. They have technique, perhaps, but seldom possess programming skills or imagination. They learn all the holes and may be exceptionally talented at practicing their dark arts, but they remain limited. A true cracker creates nothing and destroys much. His chief pleasure comes from disrupting or otherwise adversely effecting the computer services of others. This is the division of hacker and cracker. Both are powerful forces on the Internet, and both will remain permanently. And, as you have probably guessed by now, some individuals may qualify for both categories. The very existence of such individuals assists in further clouding the division between these two odd groups of people. Now, I know that real hackers reading this are saying to themselves "There is no such thing as this creature you are talking about. One is either a hacker or a cracker and there's no more to it."