The real meaning of “hack”

By Adam Penenberg
The opinions expressed are his own. This piece originally appeared in Fast Company.

Over the years I’ve published tens of thousands of words on “hackers.” I wrote “Hacking Bhabha,” a story about the “hack” of an Indian atomic research station, when gangs of computer miscreants went wilding through its servers, and the 1998 takedown of the New York Times website, which, for me, resulted in the threat of a justice department subpoena.

I interviewed Kevin Mitnick while he was still in prison and sat at my computer one night as someone who called himself MagicFX replaced eBay’s home page with his own that said: ”Proof by MagicFX that you can’t always trust people… not even huge companies.”

I profiled an IT consultant selling exploits to compromise software products as varied as Microsoft Office, Mozilla Firefox, SAP, and HP while working for HP in France. In my first book, Spooked, I dedicated a chapter to a hacker who was threatened by terrorists. I outed a guy who made up a whole magazine story about hackers extorting the corporations they penetrated, and fell for a hoax about a self-proclaimed online kiddie porn vigilante. And I’ve also been called a “talentless hack” by enraged readers, usually in invective-filled emails.

So if there are two words I’m familiar with, they’re “hack” and “hacker,” and I’ve done my fair share in graffitiing the web with their overuse. That’s why I say it’s time to re-examine how we use them, because they’re relied on far too often to describe all kinds of activities that don’t qualify as hacks or hacking. They’ve become so common they’ve lost all cachet–like ponytails and earrings on middle-aged dudes.

Hack attack spares MySpace injury, but not insult dodged a bullet on Thursday, but in the process the social networking site may have gotten a stinging slap in the face instead.

Hackers trained their fire on social media highflyers Twitter and Facebook Thursday morning, knocking the former entirely offline for a few hours and slowing things down on the latter site.

LiveJournal, a blogging site, was also a victim of the so-called denial of service attacks.