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The American Heritage Dictionary defines a hacker as:

  • One who is proficient at using or programming a computer; a computer buff.
  • One who uses programming skills to gain illegal access to a computer network or file.

I was surprised to find a neutral/positive definition which, as the word history shows below, was the original connotation of the term.

Word History:

  • Computer programmers started using the word hacker in the 1960s as a positive term for a person of skillful programming ability. The usage probably derives from hack meaning "to chop," or from hacker, "an amateurish player, as at golf." As time went on, hacker became less positive, however. Already in the 1960s, engineering students at such universities as Cal Tech used the related noun hack to mean "an ingenious prank." Among the pranks that some computer programmers would engage in, of course, were break-ins into other computer systems. As such break-ins attracted national attention, the media seized upon the word hacker as the label for the perpetrators—a usage that many programmers object to because they know it used to be a term of praise.

Questions:

Has "hacker" still a neutral/positive meaning or has it definitely gained a negative reputation?

When did this semantic change happen?

What terms are commonly used instead of "hacker" with a positive connotation?

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    As such break-ins attracted national attention, the media seized upon the word hacker as the label for the perpetrators... . The media is to blame. The word hacker today carries so much negativity that people had to coin the phrase "ethical hacker" to play it safe! – BiscuitBoy Feb 23 '16 at 16:25
  • You 'Word History' quote seems self-contradictory. It starts off saying 'as a positive term' but the next sentence 'hack...amateurish' is negative. It started off negative but has gained some positive uses for skill or ingenuity. – Mitch Feb 23 '16 at 17:16
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    Back when I was in college ca 1970 "hacker" still had a positive connotation inside of programming circles (and was essentially unknown outside of programming circles). It wasn't until 5-10 years later, when computer-related crimes first started making the news, that it obtained it's negative connotation with the general public. – Hot Licks Feb 23 '16 at 18:41
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    I'm younger than a lot of the commentators here so I don't remember the word from the pre-vilification days. That said, my own sense is that lately the original sense is making something of a comeback and "hacker," "hacker spaces," and "lifehacks" are showing up as terms with positive connotations in general-interest publications more frequently. – Casey Feb 24 '16 at 3:26
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    @BiscuitBoy: respectfully disagree with that last part. "Ethical hacker" refers to someone who practices the same frowned-upon art as in the second definition, but does it for the good guys. It's not the same meaning as the first, original definition of "hacker" (someone clever at computers/coding). On the other hand, I agree with you in pointing the finger at the media. – Mathieu K. Feb 24 '16 at 4:18

10 Answers 10

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+100

Has "hacker" still a neutral/positive meaning or has it definitely gained a negative reputation?

Among the general public, hacker still has a negative connotation. With the exception of "life hacks", a fairly new phenomenon, the most usual use of the work hacker in media is related people who commit crimes by computers or other advanced electronic devices.

When did this semantic change happen?

This happened because of years (decades) of media coverage. From my understanding, it started mostly in the late 70's or early 80's, and has persisted to the current day. Since the media considers anyone that's extremely skilled with computers a hacker, and most of what they report are crimes, the negative connotation was bound to happen sooner or later.

What terms are commonly used instead of "hacker" with a positive connotation?

Among ethical hackers, hacker is the preferred term, while they use negative terms for other types of "wannabees", such as "script kiddies", "crackers" (people that crack a system for malicious intent), and so on. Real hackers are offended when you include criminals in the same group as them, the same as you'd be offended if you were accused of something you didn't do. Here's the Jargon File's definition of a hacker (which is the hacker's definition of a hacker):

hacker: n. [originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe]

  1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. RFC1392, the Internet Users' Glossary, usefully amplifies this as: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.

  2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.

  3. A person capable of appreciating hack value.

  4. A person who is good at programming quickly.

  5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in ‘a Unix hacker’. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)

  6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.

  7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.

  8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.

The term ‘hacker’ also tends to connote membership in the global community defined by the net (see the network. For discussion of some of the basics of this culture, see the How To Become A Hacker FAQ. It also implies that the person described is seen to subscribe to some version of the hacker ethic (see hacker ethic).

It is better to be described as a hacker by others than to describe oneself that way. Hackers consider themselves something of an elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new members are gladly welcome. There is thus a certain ego satisfaction to be had in identifying yourself as a hacker (but if you claim to be one and are not, you'll quickly be labeled bogus). See also geek, wannabee.

This term seems to have been first adopted as a badge in the 1960s by the hacker culture surrounding TMRC and the MIT AI Lab. We have a report that it was used in a sense close to this entry's by teenage radio hams and electronics tinkerers in the mid-1950s.

While you can use terms like "white hat" or "ethical hacker" as a positive connotation to "outsiders," the truth is that "ethical hacker" is considered redundant, since hackers are, by the subculture's definition, ethical, and most hackers (probably) wouldn't be caught wearing a white hat, unless they really felt the need for irony.

When you're speaking about criminals, try to avoid the term "hacker," because they're not part of that global community/subculture-- there are more appropriate terms for them, even if you might have to explain what you're talking about. The correct term to use when speaking about the global community of skilled computer enthusiasts is "hacker."

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    Nobody mentioned "phone phreaking", blue boxes, and how hackers started accessing systems in the early 60's and 70's. – Cascabel Feb 23 '16 at 19:33
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    +1. The Jargon File's definition is as definitive a reference as you can get for the original meaning. However, I'd say that "white-hat hacker" and "ethical hacker" aren't so much redundant as they're different terms than "hacker". Both of those refer to security experts in particular, while "hacker" is much more general. – Ray Feb 24 '16 at 3:25
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    +1 for going to the Jargon File to see how those who call themselves "hacker" define the word, rather than how those who are ignorant of the culture redefined it. – Monty Harder Feb 24 '16 at 18:01
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    A small subculture's continued insistence that 'hacker' is a positive term is a comical farce. That's not how it's used, and that's not what it means, no matter how many times they yell otherwise. – DCShannon Feb 25 '16 at 6:08
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    @DCShannon - in community of skilled programmers, hack is a clever non-obvious solution to a complicated problem. Breaking into systems is cracking. Passwords are cracked, nod hacked. – Peter M. - stands for Monica Feb 25 '16 at 18:07
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Yes, it definitely has gained a negative connotation. In much the same way as terms like "teen" or "youth", used as a noun. They are often enough used to refer to people in that group when they are doing something wrong. A small amount of googling reveals a number of news articles about "youths" and "teens" doing things wrong.

Hacker is similar, unless you are in the field of technology, you'll probably only hear the word 'hacker' used to refer to someone breaking through IT security systems.

It is used, within the field, in a positive way, simply meaning that people are using technology in a way it wasn't specifically intended to. If you go to a Hack Day, you won't be stealing data or breaking into people's bank accounts.

However, most people don't know this, but do know that people described as hackers break past security on the internet to steal data or money. So, unfortunately, it's more likely to be understood with a negative connotation.

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    FWIW, as a computer science major I hadn't heard the term hacker used to denote someone as a programmer until the end of my Junior year of college when a older gentlemen came in and gave a speech. It was only known to me (and my close classmates) as a person that breaks through security. Now being a CS major I knew there was good and bad hackers (whitehat/blackhat), but never a completely alternative definition. – DasBeasto Feb 23 '16 at 18:43
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    That's roughly what I might expect. It can also mean some slap-dash or non-standard programming. To "hack it together". – AJFaraday Feb 23 '16 at 18:44
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    Baffled by the assertion that "youth" and "teen" carry negative connotations just because the words can be found in news reports. – dennisdeems Feb 23 '16 at 21:05
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    I dont think that 'teen' and 'youth' suggest the immediate negative connotation that, generally, 'hacker' conveys. – user66974 Feb 24 '16 at 11:11
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    I can easily collect news articles reporting on bad stuff done by men, women, doctors, teachers, football players. That doesn't mean they have a negative connotation. Whether they have a negative connotation I don't know, but citing news articles reporting on bad stuff certainly isn't any evidence to support this claim. – gerrit Feb 24 '16 at 14:12
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Ethics aside, let's stick to the word alone. Hacker is used more commonly now in everyday speech with it's original intention thanks to meme culture. I hear "Life-hacker" way more then I hear hacker ( as in someone who gains unlawful access to a computer system ) and I work in an I.T. field. The idea of life hacking takes the word hack to the days of tinkering and finding effective ways to make things work.

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    I don't see how this answers the question. – Lilienthal Feb 23 '16 at 21:54
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    That is because the answer is dependent on unknown variables, of which I presented. – Jonathan Piccirilli Feb 23 '16 at 23:41
  • While I think that this answer to the question (as the question is on the "connotation" -- which is socially-defined, at least in the understanding of the question that I have) I disagree with its content. Indeed, "I work in an I.T." too and "I hear 'Life-hacker' way more then I hear hacker" too and I am pretty sure that these are correlate. Indeed, if I worked in social care or nursery I doubt I would hear that often "Life-hack" or such that much. – Auzias Feb 24 '16 at 14:16
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    You're talking about a completely different word, not to mention using anecdotal evidence to support your position. While you say you've heard "life-hacker" way more often than "hacker", I don't know that I've ever heard that particular form of the word. Lifehack and lifehacking? Yes. Lifehacker? No. Regardless of whether your claim about frequency is correct, talking about lifehackers when the question is about computer hackers is kind of like talking about lifeguards when someone asks a question about guards in the NFL. – Kevin Feb 24 '16 at 19:14
  • In addition to the use of "lifehacking" in everyday life, there are also other specialized positive redefinitions in the business world - for example, "growth hacking", referring to the methods that startups use to launch and expand their business. – recognizer Feb 24 '16 at 19:42
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It has gained both a negative connotation (which it did since almost the first time the word was published in mainstream literature) and paradoxically it has also gained a positive connotation (which, among the general public, is a more recent phenomenon).

The word hacker has recently started regaining its original meaning of someone who is skilled at problem solving and workarounds. The term hack itself is nowdays used to refer to creative solutions to problems. Websites like hackaday.com and lifehacker.com have been gaining popularity outside the usual geek/tech subculture especially with the rise of Facebook.

At the same time, programmers have begun to accept the term hacker that is used with a negative connotation when it relates to someone who exploit other people's systems. This is partly because it's easier to talk to people about computer security using the word "hacker" rather than first explain why the word "hacker" is the wrong word to use.

So depending on context, the word hacker can have either positive or negative connotation. When it comes to computers, you sometimes need to clarify which you mean.

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Adding to AJFaraday's answer, I can only answer your third question and the term white hat (hacker) is broadly used to distinguish ethical computer hackers from criminal hackers. The following Wikipedia article explains:

The term "white hat" in Internet slang refers to an ethical computer hacker, or a computer security expert, who specializes in penetration testing and in other testing methodologies to ensure the security of an organization's information systems. Ethical hacking is a term coined by IBM meant to imply a broader category than just penetration testing. White-hat hackers may also work in teams called "sneakers", red teams, or tiger teams.

A white hat hacker breaks security for non-malicious reasons, perhaps to test their own security system or while working for a security company which makes security software...This classification also includes individuals who perform penetration tests and vulnerability assessments within a contractual agreement.

A computer security expert is the general term that has a positive connotation.

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I don't think the original connotation was entirely positive. A hacker would write effective code to get something done quickly, but it might not be a well-engineered solution.

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  • Thank you for being the only one to point out the mixed bag of the original meaning of the term. – Jared Smith Feb 24 '16 at 22:40
  • I also wondered how, especially in the 60s, anyone could divorce the choice of "hack" from the (then) common practice of calling both bad writers and less than qualified surgeons "hacks". – Egox Feb 27 '16 at 12:28
  • @Egox The positive connotation was mostly among technical geeks, who probably didn't use the literary sense much. – Barmar Feb 29 '16 at 17:50
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Adding to Michael Kay's answer. This is a case of the word meaning different things to different groups. The programming community has always used the term differently from the general public.

The original meaning of the term "hacker" within the programming community was definitely negative. It referred to a moderately skilled programmer who was able to solve problems more by trial and error and perseverance than by having a good understanding of the problem area. And the work of hackers was suspect, because it would often fail in circumstances that the hacker had failed to consider. Programmers would sometimes refer to themselves as hackers while learning to navigate unfamiliar systems, as a way of saying that they were not yet experts. The term "hacker" was somewhat related to the term "kludge," which has retained its largely negative meaning. A hacker would be more likely to use a kludge rather than an elegant solution. But "hacker" was never completely negative the way "hack" (from which it presumably derived) is. A hacker will eventually get the problem (sort of) solved. A hack just doesn't know what he's doing.

The positive meaning started coming about around 1980, entirely through the media and entertainment industry misunderstanding the term and then popularizing the incorrect meaning out in the general culture. This new meaning then partially drifted back into the programming community. The people who "hacked into" computer systems may or may not have referred to themselves as hackers, but once it started showing up in movies, that's what they became. (At the time, I remember them being offended, and preferring the term "cracker"). But in any event, the media types considered defeating security systems to be quite difficult and somewhat glamorous, and presumed that therefore that is what the best of the best programmers would choose to do, and from that decided that the term "hacker" referred to a highly skilled programmer. And that's the meaning that the general public knows.

Within the programming community, the meaning of hacker as someone who defeats security systems has stuck, and is used ubiquitously. But the meaning of "highly skilled programmer" never took hold. It has always meant, and still means, pretty much the opposite. So you have an interesting situation where among the general public the word means one thing, but within the group that it refers to, it means something quite different.

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Perhaps much of the negative connotation stems from non-native English writers adopting the word in criminal case reporting, whilst remaining clueless about its underlying, more neutral meaning.

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  • The negative connotation has been used in the mainstream press in the US for decades. I don't recall much contribution from non-native writers. – Barmar Feb 29 '16 at 17:51
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Back in the mid-sixties we used non-hacker to describe someone not well-versed in copying morse code, but seldom used the positive hacker to identify someone who could keep up with some very fast senders. Non-hacker migrated to a person not adept at a given task ("Barfed after 10 beers - what a non-hacker.)

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  • I don't believe I've ever heard "hacker" connected with ham radio operation. Do you have a reference? (There were several good ham magazines such as QSL back then, and one would have expected one of them to mention the term if it were popular, as ham jargon was a frequent topic of discussion.) – Hot Licks Mar 1 '16 at 23:28
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As far as computers go, "hacker" started with negative connotation. I find the (disorganized) campaign to bleach it (e.g. "white hat" hackers, creating the term "cracker" to take the negative connotations, etc.) a childish reaction to the reality of general perception.

"To hack" is to cleave and cut. Trying to inject benign intent is too subtle.

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  • "Hacker" did not have a negative connotation back ca 1970. Skilled "hackers" were admired by others in the computer biz. – Hot Licks Mar 1 '16 at 23:26
  • And hackers were feared by the general public because what they did was criminal. That counts more than fans of would-be Jesse James – Richard Haven Mar 1 '16 at 23:33
  • That was later. If you know the TV show Numbers from a decade ago, Charlie Epps, had his specialty been computers (and had the show been shot 40 years earlier), would have been considered a "hacker" by his cohorts in the university computer center. – Hot Licks Mar 1 '16 at 23:38

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