Final Word

Many will just have to hack along after website hacking


Scores of people will just have to hack on with their life after it was hacked to pieces by hackers of the Ashley Madison website in what might have been either a white, black or grey hat affair. (Read more)

The worldwide database of the contact website for people, including 49 149 South Africans, looking for extramarital flings, was cracked by a group calling themselves Impact Team. They had said they would leak the personal details of its subscribers roamers on the net if the site was not closed.

It wasn’t and the users of the site now stand nude before the world, with everything from their sexual fantasies to their credit card details, in some cases even photographs, exposed to whoever cares to look.

The word ‘hack’, central to this whole controversy, and many others in the net-connected word of today, has a history long predating the world of computers. It has also had some controversies of its own over time, some of which will probably never be settled fully.

For starters, some sources claim that the word and associated terms like ‘hacker’ and ‘hacking’ take on no less than 69 meanings, depending on the context in which they are used.

‘Hack’ made its first appearance in English around 1200 as the Old English word tohaccian, meaning “chop to pieces” from the West Germanic hakkon from the Old Frisian word hackia, which in Old High German became hacchon and later hacken. In Dutch it became hakken.

In English, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, it was originally used as the word for “to cut with heavy blows in an irregular or random fashion”.  

Its use is rooted in the days when the axe was one of man’s primary tools, used for all kinds of activities, from chopping firewood, to clearing a path through the bush by hacking away at branches or making crude furniture. In a way the expression that someone does not “hack it”, when he or she is not coping with a task, job or situation, goes back to those days.

In similar vein, a person doing boring menial work became called a ‘hack’ or ‘hacker’ – also journalists and writers who produced dull, unoriginal work. It is also in this context that the word first started taking on a more sinister meaning when a writer who used someone else’s work and rewrote it as their own was called a ‘hack’.

Among the other uses that developed for the word over the years are: in the world of sport a wild kick at a ball is to ‘hack it’; a horse rented out for riding is called a ‘hack’, as was a horse-drawn cart for hire, which probably led to a taxi often being called a ‘hack’ in America; and to cough persistently is to ‘hack’.

The word’s real rise to popularity, however, started in the 1950s in the world of telephonic communication. If you were a boy in the 1950s and 60s who at times used a ‘long tickey’ at public payphones (attaching the coin to a string to pull it back after you have been connected) you were ‘hacking’ the system.

Electronic hacking

At least some sources claim that it was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1955 that ‘hack’ was first used in the context of technology, in the minutes of a meeting of the Tech Model Railroad Club. One of the members requested “that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing”.

In 1963 MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech, reported that “many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers …. The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation”.

The term subsequently migrated to computers and by 1976 a book, Crime by Computer, included a chapter called “Trojan Horses, Time Bombs, Round Down, and the System Hacker”.

The term was originally, as in “hacking all the attention”, used to describe people who in their enthusiasm to explore the capabilities of a computer system, “take it over” to develop new programmes. Only later on was the term also used for those who snoop around the system to try and discover sensitive information.

From this developed the notion of ‘white hat’ as opposed to ‘black hat’ hacking. In an ongoing debate some argue that those breaking into computer systems or networks should rather be called ‘crackers’ than hackers.

Final word

Considering that the Impact Force hacking the Ashley Madison site apparently acted on moral grounds and warned that the site had to be closed down, I leave it to readers to decide whether it is a ‘white hat’ or a ‘black hat’ affair. What should be supreme, individual privacy or some people’s notion of what is morally right or wrong?

You may think this is a classic case of a ‘grey hat’ affair – a little bit of both.

Be that as it may, the millions of individuals (including nearly 50 000 South Africans) who used the website’s services, will just have to hack on to survive the hacking to pieces of their lives, reputations, marriages and maybe even jobs.


by Piet Coetzer

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