I say "hacker", and you think "someone breaking in into my computer". Even Wikipedia, that indisputable source of knowledge, says "a person who engages in illegal computer trespass remotely via some sort of communications network (e.g., the Internet, a LAN or a dial-up network)", and claims "its original meaning referred to an unauthorized user of the telephone company network (now called a Phreaker)".
I think this is wrong. Let me tell you why.
Let's look at the etymology of the word first, and see if it sheds some light on what might be the original meaning. According to the On-line Dictionary of Etymology, hacking, or to hack : in O.E. tohaccian "hack to pieces," from W.Gmc. *khak- (cf. O.Fris. hackia, Du. hakken, O.H.G. hacchon), perhaps infl. by O.N. höggva "to hack, hew," from PIE *kau- "to hew, strike." Noun meaning "an act of hacking" is from 1836; The word may also be related to Middle English haggen, "to chop", from Old Norse höggva.
Tools that you can "hack" with, are strong, heavy blades such as axes, hatchets and adzes. Today, we associate these with rough, crude work such as chopping down a tree, hacking something to pieces, or chopping someone's head of. However, not too long ago, axes, hatchets and adzes were the tools of the trade of carpenters, sculptors, and other woodworkers.
Modern day carpenters use saws to cut wood to size, and join them together with glue, nails and screws. Now try to imagine what a carpenter would do in an age where there were no screws, and nails were scare and expensive, for they were hand-made by blacksmiths. Or imagine the time and effort it would take to cut planks and beams with a hand saw, powered by the carpenters arm ...
Fortunately for those carpenters, there were also axes, hatchets and adzes, which were used to turn trees into beams, and shape planks into forms that would neatly fit together in joints, with then could be glued or pegged together - or just kept together by the join itself. This craft is still practiced today, mainly by hobbyists, boot-builders, and sculptors. Specialized shops still sell axes as carpenters' tools for this type of work. And while we usually associate it with crude "hacking", an axe in a skilled hand is a a precision tool for fine woodwork.
Here you can see some pictures axes used by carpenters and other wood workers :
GRANSFORS BRUKS (very illustrative examples)
The original meaning of "hacker" may well have been "someone who works with an axe", e.g. a forester, a carpenter or a sculptor. When I was working in Azerbaijan in 1997, there was a carpenter, Ali, who still worked in the traditional way, and the beds, tables and cabinets he made were better and stronger than those of his younger colleagues, who used more modern techniques. They also had a rough kind of beauty to them. Ali was a hacker.
So, hacking in the woodworking sense can apply both to the crude, heavy duty work of felling trees and chopping firewood, or to the fine craftsmanship of the carpenter, cabinet maker or boat-builder. In the 1960's, students at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and members of the Tech Model Railroad Club started to use the word "hack" in a different meaning : they would "hack" at computers and computer programs. The word would refer both to a quick, crude fix to get some piece of equipment or a program working, or to a clever, ingenious solution to a difficult problem - the type of solutions that no one could think of, yet look easy once someone (the hacker) has done it. Like Christopher Columbus's egg.
According to the online dictionary of etymology, hacker was used in the sense of "one who works at writing and experimenting with software, one who enjoys computer programming for its own sake," in 1976, "reputedly coined at Massachusetts Institute of Technology". Stories of people who were there confirm this.
"The hacking community developed at MIT and some other universities in the 1960s and 1970s. Hacking included a wide range of activities, from writing software, to practical jokes, to exploring the roofs and tunnels of the MIT campus." (R. S. Stallman, 'on Hacking')
"[Hackers are] people who love and understand the technology they use. These are people who can "hack" together a solution to a problem with a soldering iron and a few paper clips. People who modify operating systems because they don't like the way they work. If that's a hacker, that's me. " (Gary Robson, Am I a Hacker ?")
"Samson, who reacted with impatience to those who warned he was attempting the impossible, wanted a computer playing music right away. So he learned to control that one bit in the accumulator so adeptly that he could command it with the authority of Charlie Parker on the saxophone. (...)
When outsiders heard the melodies of Johann Sebastian Bach in a single-voice, monophonic square wave, no harmony, they were universally unfazed. Big deal! Three million dollars for this giant hunk of machinery, and why shouldn't it do at least as much as a five-dollar toy piano? (...)
Samson did not say any of this to the outsiders who were unimpressed by his feat. Nor did the hackers themselves discuss this (...). Peter Samson did it, and his colleagues appreciated it, because it was obviously a neat hack. That was justification enough. " (Steven Levy, Hackers, heroes of the computer revolution)
Another indication that "hacking" in the 70's was primarily about solving computational problems, can be found in the 1972 HAKMEM (Hacker Memorandum).
See also A Little Bit of Hacker History, Erik Brunvand, Department of Computer Science, University of Utah. Apart from the academic computer scene, there was also a hobby scene, focused around the Homebrew Computer Club. This Memoir of a Homebrew Computer Club Member, By Bob Lash, illustrates another aspect of what "hacking" in those days was about.
Wikipedia mentions (but without reference to any sources) that "to hack" also may have entered the computer slang because "programs too large to run on the limited computer resources of the time had portions 'chopped' or 'hacked' out in order to be reduced to a more reasonable size".
To this day, (advanced) programming can be referred to as "hacking", as in
"Welcome, gentle reader, to Rusty’s Unreliable Guide to Linux Kernel Hacking. This document describes the common routines and general requirements for kernel code: its goal is to serve as a primer for Linux kernel development for experienced C programmers" (Paul 'Rusty' Russel, "Unreliable Guide to Kernel Hacking", Introduction).
The slang sense of "cope with" (such as in "can't hack it"), was first recorded in American English in 1955 (according to Dictionary.com), with a sense of "get through by some effort". Etymology : Middle English copen, coupen, to strike, from Old French couper, from Vulgar Latin *colpre, from Late Latin colpus, blow;. The french "couper" also means "to cut (to pieces)". It all ties nicely together.
People enjoy doing things they're good at. Why do crossword puzzles, sudokus, ... other than because you enjoy feeling your brain working ? Why do people climb a mountain ? ' because it's there'. In the same way, those original hackers also used the computers and other equipment just for joy. This applications of skill without direct purpose or usefulness evolved into pranks which usually involved a certain level of ingenuity and the use of technology. It is still a tradition at MIT (and other universities with a technology department) to pull pranks such as turning the front of a multi-store building into a giant LED display or a giant VU meter and Tetris game. These pranks are referred to as hacks. (Wikipedia has more links to MIT Hacks and similar pranks).
So, in the 1960s, when hacking became a computer-related term, the meaning of the word involved skill, competence, ingenuity, and playfulness. Today, this would probably be called "thinking outside the box" or "lateral thought", yet usually with an assumption of some technical or engineering skills as well.
Lateral thinking, creativity, technical skill, ... are all very useful to circumvent boundaries and limitations. One of my favorite stories is How Samba was written. Samba is software to add Microsoft Windows-compatible file sharing functionality to non-Windows systems.
In the 1980's, the personal computer enters the scene, soon accompanied by Billboard Systems (BBS) and PC Games. Technically capable PC enthusiasts start 'pushing the limits' and 'circumvent boundaries' to
Here, we see a small shift towards breaking security. Likewise, in the academic scene, hackers would apply their understanding of computers and their technical skill to explore the newly created internet and other networks. However, to hack was still not understood to mean "network intrusion" or "breaking in to computer systems", and even those hackers that engaged in network exploration would do so "because it's there".
In an interview with the Finnish Tere Vadén (Koodi vapaaksi - Hakkerietiikan vaativuus, Tampere University Press. 2002, sivut 62-80. - English translation) Richard M. Stallman, sometimes called 'the last true hacker', describes what a hacker is :
It means someone who enjoys playful cleverness, especially in programming but other media are also possible. In the 14th century, Guillaume de Machaut wrote a palindromic three-part musical composition. It sounded good, too — I think I played in it once, because I still remember one of the parts. I think that was a good hack. I heard somewhere that J. S. Bach did something similar.
One possible arena for playful cleverness is breaking security. Hackers never had much respect for bureaucratic restrictions. If the computer was sitting idle because the administrators wouldn't let them use it, they would sometimes figure out how to bypass the obstacles and use it anyway. If this required cleverness, it would be fun in itself, as well as making it possible to do other hacking (for instance, useful work) on the computer instead of twiddling one's thumbs. But not all hackers did security breaking. Many never were interested in that.
This illustrates that "hackers" would sometimes do security breaking, but not all hacking is about security breaking, and not all security breaking should be called "hacking".
However, in the 1980's, news papers and other mass media started to report on computer crime and network intrusions, and used the therm hacking to denote it. According to the Online Dictionary of Etymology : Hacker - sense of "one who gains unauthorized access to computer records" first appeared in 1983 (eg "Beware: Hackers at play", Newsweek: pp. 42-46,48, September 5, 1983). This is probably a misconception : the hackers would call themselves hackers, and "hacking" would refer to their activity of using, exploring and playing with computers and telecom systems, but the media would focus only on the illegal aspects of this activity. So to the media, and to the general public, hacker became a synonym for computer criminal, and today hacking is associated with any and all malicious activity involving or related to computers and computer networks.
Since the 1990's and the birth of the world wide web, we also see the emergence of "script kiddies", kids who try to break in to computers by means of step by step recipes they don't understand, or create viruses : no skill required, just follow the recipe, run automated 'exploits' or use programs that do the actual cracking without any user skill required. And this too is called "hacking" nowadays.
This, understandably, annoys real hackers to no end, because they see their craft abused and their good name smeared, but attempts to turn the tide seem to fail. Newer terms such as "white hat", "black hat" and "gray hat" to denote hackers with good, bad, or miscellaneous intentions serve as an uneasy compromise. See also Hacker Definition Controversy, Wikipedia. However, it is clear that, since the word "hacker" in the sense of "skilled craftsman" predates the use in computer jargon, and the connotations of skill and competence in computer or technological fields predate any use related to computer security,
the use of the word "hacking" to denote computer crime, is just wrong.