A Brief History of Hacker Culture

The annual Harvard-Yale football game doesn’t really excite many college football fans, played as it is between two schools known more for intellectual than athletic prowess. So on November 30, 1982, during the 2nd quarter of the 99th meeting of the two teams, it was largely students and alumni of those two Ivy League colleges in the stands watching.

As the teams faced off after Harvard’s second touchdown, a strange noise drew the crowd’s attention to the sideline at midfield. Springing out of the turf and slowly growing was a black balloon. As it continued to inflate, stopping the game, a set of letters became clearly visible. “MIT” read the balloon, before it exploded with a bang and a swirl of white vapor.

The Harvard-Yale game had just been hacked.

Hacking Was Never Intended to Be About Thievery Or Malice

Today, because of the way the news has reported on it for decades now, the public has been conditioned to think of hacking as an inherently malicious activity, the province of terrorists and criminals. But the term was never meant to be shorthand for something malicious of mischievous and has always had more nuance within the information technology community.

MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is widely considered the birthplace and ancestral home of hacking. The modern use of the term is thought to have originated there in the mid-1950s.

When researchers dug into the archives of MIT’s own Tech Model Railroad Club (a classic hacker group if ever there was one) they discovered the first known use of the word in the same sense it’s used today was first recorded in minuets from a meeting the organization held in April 5, 1955. Alumni from the era generally credit William Eccles and Jack Dennis, both TMRC members, for initially using the term to describe technology-based practical jokes played at the school.

Hackers weren’t necessarily into computers. In 1955, computers weren’t even an option for most people who might have that classic hacker mindset. Back then, hacking was a broader concept and could apply to almost anything— consider the fact that one of Kevin Mitnick’s first hacks in the ‘80’s was the paper bus ticket system used by the Southern California RTD (Rapid Transportation District).

Technically, that made him a fare evader, but even though most hacks probably involved certain technical violations of the law, the violation was never the point.

Being called a hacker wasn’t originally meant to be defamatory and hackers weren’t seen as evil. They thought differently about the systems that made up their world and had an insatiable appetite for taking them apart and making them work slightly differently than intended.

The best hacks were the ones that combined technical finesse or originality with a keen sense of humor. A hack might earn some extra points in the community if it required obscene amounts of time and dedication with no real motive other than entertainment and maybe a few lulz. It’s telling, for example, that the Harvard-Yale game hack, pulled off in 1982, had originally been conceived by MIT students in 1978, and the idea passed down from graduating seniors from year to year until the right technology and team was established to pull it off.

When The Press Needed A Label For Cybercrime, Hacking Was There For The Taking

It’s also telling that the MIT balloon gag, a 20-man operation, which involved breaking and entering and destruction of property, would likely result in an FBI investigation if attempted today. The stadium would be evacuated and HAZMAT teams would be called to investigate the suspicious white gas that came from the balloon (it was just Freon). The world changed while hackers weren’t looking.

Many of them inevitably became involved in the exploding computer industry during the 80’s and 90’s. Nothing rewarded the ability to investigate and tinker like the hardware and software companies whose products were suddenly everywhere. Hackers became coders, doing interesting and innovative things with machines that were initially built to be little more than glorified bean-counters.

As computer crime increased, hackers started to lose control of the label. Some preferred to label the malicious interlopers as “crackers” but the term never really caught on. The positive overtones of being considered a good hacker were slowly overshadowed by the implication that your hacking skills were probably being used to do bad things.

The negative rebranding that occurred was largely the fault of hackers themselves. Like Mitnick, many failed to realize that what they saw as light-hearted hijinks had a more nefarious appearance when looked at through the eyes of businesses and authorities. Self-described hackers were being caught and charged with crimes, creating a natural association for prosecutors and press looking for a label for anybody who broke a law of any kind with the help of a computer.

Hacking May Go Through More Changes As Computing Becomes Ubiquitous

Hackers never wholly gave up on the notion that at its heart, hacking is a useful practice that doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with criminal activity. Today, as coding becomes cool and hacker culture hits the mainstream, there’s another chance for the term to be redeemed and redefined.

There has never been any widespread agreement on what hacking is or who hackers are, other than within the culture itself. RFC 1392, The Internet Users Glossary, defines a hacker as, “A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.”

Hackers have always had ethics, and a code of sort. Creativity, sharing information freely, looking past superficial and meaningless criteria to get at the heart of meaning, and learning through exploration have always been valued highly in the hacking community. There are also more traditional codes of conduct, if unstated; at MIT, for example, it’s considered a matter of pride and perfection that hacks do not cause lasting damage and can be undone easily. Some hackers even leave detailed instructions for the authorities to undo their own work.

Recently, the term has started to come around again to embrace it’s original, broader meaning: “life hacks” have entered the popular lexicon as small, clever tricks for dealing with day-to-day issues that may not have anything to do with computers and certainly aren’t criminal in nature.

Although the cybersecurity community will likely have to live with the term and practice of hacking being associated with security issues, there has at least been a general willingness to separate the good from the bad with labels like white hat, black hat, or grey hat being used as a way to identify different types of hackers according to their motivations and intentions.

Hacking isn’t going away, but cybersecurity pros can once again hold their heads high when someone happens to call them a hacker.