So it appears some of you really don't want us to use the word 'hacker' when we really mean 'criminal'

The votes have been cast and counted... and it's a landslide


Register debate Last week, we argued over whether or not the media, including El Reg, should stop using the word hacker as a pejorative.

This debate came about after infosec pro Alyssa Miller and a few others from the Hacking Is Not A Crime movement politely asked Register vultures on Twitter to quit using the h-word as a lazy shorthand for criminal.

We said we'd think about it. And we thought about it, and we thought about it some more. And in the end, since we're writing for you, we decided to put it to the audience: we published an article for and an article against the proposal, and let everyone vote for whichever side they agreed with.

On Wednesday, Alyssa argued in favor of the media no longer using hacker as a pejorative.

It was an articulate, well-written opening that horrified hacks hoping to hang on to hacking. Essentially, she argued that associating the unlawful intrusion of computers and the theft of data with those who innocently hack together unconventional or unorthodox solutions drives a wedge between those relying on today's computer systems and the people trying to protect it all.

And besides, the original meaning of hacker and hacking, in the context of computing, didn't denote criminality nor ill-intent, and referred to an avoidance of a standard solution.

She observed: "Stating that hackers stole 3 million health records when the actors are not known is akin to claiming firearms enthusiasts robbed a bank simply because they were armed with guns."

And that words have consequences: "Allowing our media representations to portray hacker as equivalent to criminal actors makes the work of principled hackers even harder."

Over in the comments, readers reckoned the battle to rescue the word was already lost. Chris G sympathized with the for argument, though thought it would be "easier to invent a new word to describe cuddly hackers" than try to reclaim hacker.

The discussion slipped into the comfy space of hack versus kludge, suddenly lurched toward those who put "life" and "hack" next to each other ("10 Life Hacks to Improve Your Fitness," anyone?), and was perforated by yetanotheraoc's anecdote:

I was a volunteer at the library, and they complained one of their printers wasn't printing. They had called support and it would be some time before the tech arrived from downtown. I walked over to the printer, went through the menu, and saw the IP address was blank. So I typed in the IP address from the label on the front of the printer, and it sprang to life. Let's not ponder the cost of an onsite visit for such a fix. They asked me how I fixed it, and I jokingly said "I hacked it in". I had to go to a meeting, at which they read me the riot act and told me I couldn't be a volunteer any more. The shame! Fired as a volunteer.

OK, definitely don't use the word hack, then. And so we segue to the against argument put forward on Friday by El Reg's US news editor Iain Thomson. By the time we published his piece, despite overwhelming support from comment-posting readers, from the votes cast so far at that point, our man had a lot of ground to gain if he was to win the debate. Just about 10 per cent of the vote was against the motion, the rest for.

Having covered countless security conferences, Iain was supportive of the for argument, yet he highlighted some important points against.

One being that if you will allow for there to be a distinction between ethical and unethical hacking, the vast majority of people will be aware of just the latter – from ransomware, phishing, and account hijacking all the way up to corporate an government espionage. The only hacking people will know is the unethical kind.

"Sad to say, someone developing a particularly elegant hack, in the ethical sense, often won't get the widespread respect they deserve," he noted. "For the non-technical audience, hackers remains a term loaded with suspicion."

Tablet, catfish, and cloud were given as examples of words with meanings that have changed over time, too. "Any living language evolves," said Iain. "It's possible for hack, hacker, and hacking to sustain multiple meanings."

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Over in the comments, the spotlight was turned on the press. "It could be argued," said uro, "that it's a complete failure on the part of mainstream media in such that in order to create the controversial headlines they use to actively drive sales, which they do with with everything, they have completely failed their readers and customers by not fully explaining in non-technical terms the differences between, hacking, cracking, scripting, skimmer, black-hat, white-hat, etc."

Too right, never trust what you read on the internet. "These days, hacking for the great unwashed is anything to do with a computer. Even entering a password is hacking," Madonna herself complained.

On Twitter, people were... surprisingly kind. For instance, Jahid Küreci tweeted: "After reading the for argument I was almost convinced to vote for it, but decided to wait and read the against, and I'm almost equally convinced! I honestly cannot decide, both sides have equally valid points."

Well, my friend, the Reg-frequenting internet believes some points are more valid than others: 84 per cent of votes cast were in favor of the motion, and 16 per cent against. The for motion – the media should stop using the word hacker as a pejorative – wins.

Thanks to Alyssa, Iain, and yourselves for contributing. And so, what does this mean for us journalists? Is this where we're supposed to say the poll's outcome was the result of a sophisticated hacker attack? Ah, if only it were that easy.

We'll take the voting on board, have a confab, and you never know: hacker and hacking as a shorthand for criminality might be put on the banned list, slotted in somewhere near "holistic," "digital transformation," and "brandwidth." ®


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