Many computer programmers insist that the word "hacker" applies only to law-abiding enthusiasts who help create programs and applications or improve computer security. Anyone using his or her skills maliciously isn't a hacker at all, but a cracker.
Crackers infiltrate systems and cause mischief, or worse. Unfortunately, most people outside the hacker community use the word as a negative term because they don't understand the distinction between hackers and crackers.
Individually, many hackers are antisocial. Their intense interest in computers and programming can become a communication barrier. Left to his or her own devices, a hacker can spend hours working on a computer program while neglecting everything else.
Computer networks gave hackers a way to associate with other people with their same interests. Before the Internet became easily accessible, hackers would set up and visit bulletin board systems (BBS). A hacker could host a bulletin board system on his or her computer and let people dial into the system to send messages, share information, play games and download programs. As hackers found one another, information exchanges increased dramatically.
Some hackers posted their accomplishments on a BBS, boasting about infiltrating secure systems. Often they would upload a document from their victims' databases to prove their claims. By the early 1990s, law enforcement officials considered hackers an enormous security threat. There seemed to be hundreds of people who could hack into the world's most secure systems at will [source: Sterling].
There are many Web sites dedicated to hacking. The hacker journal "2600: The Hacker Quarterly" has its own site, complete with a live broadcast section dedicated to hacker topics. The print version is still available on newsstands. Web sites like Hacker.org promote learning and include puzzles and competitions for hackers to test their skills.
When caught -- either by law enforcement or corporations -- some hackers admit that they could have caused massive problems. Most hackers don't want to cause trouble; instead, they hack into systems just because they wanted to know how the systems work. To a hacker, a secure system is like Mt. Everest -- he or she infiltrates it for the sheer challenge. In the United States, a hacker can get into trouble for just entering a system. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act outlaws unauthorized access to computer systems [source: Hacking Laws].
Not all hackers try to explore forbidden computer systems. Some use their talents and knowledge to create better software and security measures. In fact, many hackers who once used their skills to break into systems now put that knowledge and ingenuity to use by creating more comprehensive security measures. In a way, the Internet is a battleground between different kinds of hackers -- the bad guys, or black hats, who try to infiltrate systems or spread viruses, and the good guys, or white hats, who bolster security systems and develop powerful virus protection software.
Hackers on both sides overwhelmingly support open source software, programs in which the source code is available for anyone to study, copy, distribute and modify. With open source software, hackers can learn from other hackers' experiences and help make programs work better than they did before. Programs might range from simple applications to complex operating systems like Linux.
There are several annual hacker events, most of which promote responsible behavior. A yearly convention in Las Vegas called DEFCON sees thousands of attendees gather to exchange programs, compete in contests, participate in panel discussions about hacking and computer development and generally promote the pursuit of satisfying curiosity. A similar event called the Chaos Communication Camp combines low-tech living arrangements -- most attendees stay in tents -- and high-tech conversation and activities.
In the next section, we'll learn about hackers and legal issues.