"You Keep Using That Word; I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means"


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jul 18, 2016 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Recently I was in a book store and saw two books, both related to "hackers". One was "Hacking for Dummies" by Kevin Beaver and the other was "CEH: The Certified Ethical Hacker Practice Exams" by Matt Walker. I posted pictures of these two books on my Facebook page, and for the second one used the classic quote of "Inigo Montoya" from the movie Princess Bride:

"You Keep Using That Word; I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means".

Shortly after that a friend of mine sent me a message on Facebook:

"In the school I am teaching there are at least two "Certified Ethical Hackers". I stand in awe about it. Never heard about it, and now, you publish a picture with the cover of practice exams on it. I'm being cautious on forming an idea about it. Would you be nice to tell me what do you mean by "You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means" - Inigo Montoya, Princess Bride", or, more directly, your opinion on it.

I just thought hackers were computer security experts... it's like using the force, some use it for "good" and others not. No fuss about I thought, until I learned about a certification on ethical hacking."

I suppose that some of my sensitivity to the word "hacker" (and its associated term "hack") came from the fact that I had just introduced two of my young university friends to MIT and the Tech Model Railway Club (TMRC). This was, in my perception, one of the first places that the term "hack" was used as applied to computational logic. The TMRC was first established in 1946-1947.

Even before the students and I went to TMRC, we stopped by MIT's computer science building and saw a plaque with talked about the "Hacker Ethic":

  • be safe
  • not damage anything
  • not damage anyone, either physically, mentally or emotionally
  • be funny, at least to most of the people who experience it

Many people think that the term "hack" was first applied to software, but it was not. The TMRC was using old telephone relays to control their model trains. The logic necessary to control the trains, and keep them from crashing into each other, was created with a very large panel filled with relays. The more of these (expensive) relays you used, the more electricity and space you used, and the less reliable the logic was, since relays often failed and one failing relay could cause the whole circuit to fail.

There are normal methods of mathematical reduction that can cut down on the number of relays, but sometimes a very bright student could figure out a quicker and (perhaps) less elegant way of doing the same thing, and this was called a "hack". A person who did this consistently became known as a "hacker". As TMRC moved from relays to computers (in 1961 with a gift of a DEC PDP-1) with software, the people that could elegantly and simply solve complex problems also moved, and the term was then applied to these people.

We at TMRC use the term "hacker" only in its original meaning, someone who applies ingenuity to create a clever result, called a "hack". The essence of a "hack" is that it is done quickly, and is usually inelegant. It accomplishes the desired goal without changing the design of the system it is embedded in. Despite often being at odds with the design of the larger system, a hack is generally quite clever and effective. - TMRC Web Pages

All of this was documented in Steve Levy's book "Hackers" in 1984.

Some people claim that "hacker" came from those people that created "blue boxes" for telephones. These people were generally known as "phreaks", and the practice was known as "phreaking". Wikipedia gives the meaning of "phreak" as "Phone freak". While there were "phreakers" early in the 1960s., it did not really catch on until the blue box, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, well after the TMRC had their PDP-1, and considerably after their relay controllers.

Others feel that "hackers" were people who break into computer systems, usually remotely over the Internet. The "Internet" as we know it today did not occur until after Levy's 1984 book, and breaking into computer systems before that meant that you needed to have both access to relatively private networks, and the ability to connect to the systems you wanted to invade. Yes, people did break into computers then, and yes, some of them were very good, of "hacker" capabilities. The people in the Hacker community called them "Crackers", feeling that taking the term "hacker" and applying it only to people who break into computer systems was simply wrong.

The media of the day, however, did not understand the difference between a "cracker" and a "hacker", and began to (wrongly) associate the term "hacker" to breaking into computer systems, and so the general public (who knew little about computers at the time) started to follow their terminology.

Which brings me to the two books I saw today.

When I think of a "hacker" I think of the original definition, and associate it with such people as Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Alan Cox, Linus Torvalds, David Miller, Paul Vixie, Donald Becker and many, many more people. People who were of the highest ethics, but also of the highest programming ability.

I realize that there are many people in the "cracker" community that are ethical, but that does not mean that they should take the term that by itself describes an ethnicity above reproach and apply it to a group of people that may or may not be ethical.

There was another issue with the two books. Assuming that the definition of "Hacker" was the one I hold dear, how can a "dummy" be a hacker? The hacker has to have enough experience and knowledge to be able to "hack". And for the second book, how to you test for that level of intellect and ability enough to "certify" that the person is a real "hacker"?

Can you certify that a person has enough knowledge and skill to break into a computer system, or perhaps guard against someone else breaking in? Possibly, and I do not blame either of the authors for using the term “hacker” as they did in their books.

However “Hacking" to me is more than just memorization and applying rules. Hackers have an essence, and a soul. You do not "certify" a true hacker, you can only recognize one when you meet them or see their work.

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