The word hacker originates from a 17th century word used to describe day laborers. The term started to gain traction among academic circles in the late 60s, early 70s, and with the proliferation and commoditization of technology, hackers have experienced many different iterations of the word. Hackers of the cultural order pride themselves on promoting learning, openness, and collaboration. It is from these ideals the modern open source software standard of today was formed.
With the continual adoption of software the world over, there is an entire new industry of cyber security that is a fixture and will continue to grow, and in this field we have individuals who hack for security. They are known as white hat, black hat, and grey hat hackers, with each name denoting where one falls on the ethical scale. White hat hackers work to protect data and secure sensitive information from computer criminals. Black hat hackers work to criminally exploit the weaknesses of computer systems, for profit and personal gain. In the middle there are grey hat hackers who either use their skills for good or bad, but more often for personal amusement and entertainment.
Because of the widespread adoption of the negative use of the word, hackers who are not criminals have derived ways of separating themselves from the bad apples. Criminal hackers are often referred to as “crackers”, or “phreakers,” or script kiddies, names that often point to their preferred methods of exploitation. A “cracker” often refers to your standard criminal hacker, one who breaks and steals and exploits. “Phreakers” are typically hackers who specialize in the hacking of telephone networks. Lastly, script kiddies are inexperienced hackers who often use and misuse programs written by more experienced hackers; the script kiddy is essentially the criminal hacker with no skills.
There is a distinct difference between hacker culture and hacking for security. Hacker culture participants usually use their real identity and work to solve problems and develop software that will help others. For example, Ken Thompson, co-author of Unix, discovered vulnerability in some source code, which eventually led to the discovery of what is known today as the Trojan Horse. On the contrary, malicious hackers usually remain anonymous and prefer to commit their crimes in the shadows, often only coming forward sometimes for recognition and notoriety. Similarly, both sides possess exceptional computer and security knowledge.
Hackers will remain a fixture as computers become more entrenched in our daily lives. Whether or not the world decides to use the appropriate terms to separate the bad guys from the good guys remain to be seen, but one can hope.