In the class of words called homonyms, 'hack' must be the standard-bearer.

The English language is full of homonyms, words that are spelt and spoken the same way but have a different meanings: bear (to carry or a large mammal), crane (a type of bird, a hoist or turning one's head to an unnatural degree) and park (parking a car, a city green space or a place to park cars).

With its dozen or so definitions, these three homonym examples can't hold a candle to 'hack'.

Different takes on hacking:
Life hacks: tips, tricks and products to make life easier. Such hacks may be cooking hacks, cleaning hacks or time management hacks.
Hacking in Mass Effect: this game franchise calls for players to 'hack' their way through the various levels but these hacks have little to nothing to do with hacking a computer network or system.
Hacking video games is both illegal and unethical. It involves breaking into the game's code to give oneself an unfair advantage over other players.
Ethical hacking: hacking done by certified professionals to find weaknesses in a computer network or system so they won't be maliciously hacked.
Hacktivism is hacking done for a noble or valuable purpose, but done maliciously and/or illegally.
Cyberattacks: any malicious intrusion on a computer network or system, strictly for the purpose of causing harm.

If you've noticed that these six representations of hacking obviously favour cyber activity, good on you. That is our focus for this topic but, on the way to exploring it in-depth, let's take a slight detour.

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The Many Uses of 'Hack'

This article isn't intended as an English lesson. However, to truly understand the point and purpose of hacking, knowing all about the name that describes the act is... not exactly vital but interesting. So, here goes.

This hacker is ready to hack through a jungle, not a computer system
Though armed to hack, this hacker would do great damage to any computer he hacks with these tools. Photo by Stewart MacLean on Unsplash

The word came into use around 1200 CE; it is thought to originate from a Germanic language. That makes sense, seeing as the German verb 'hacken' means 'to hack'. Its initial interpretation meant 'to cut at with a sharp tool, using repeated strokes', as it still does, today. However, in the intervening 800 or so years, this one-syllable word evolved to represent:

  • to clear a path (through a jungle or undergrowth)
  • as a noun, it represents a shallow tool for digging or the marks made by striking with a sharp tool
  • to kick someone in the shins (in rugby)
  • also, the kick itself is called a hack
  • a dry, repetitive coughing action
  • the cough itself may be called a hack, or a hacking cough
  • to tolerate or cope with something or someone
  • a kitchen hack is a way to simplify cooking or cleaning the kitchen while a shopping hack is a way to save money or time
  • a type of coach or carriage; conversely, it may also mean riding on horseback through the countryside
  • today, taxis are also called hacks, as are the drivers of such vehicles
  • a rack for livestock fodder
  • also, the act of placing fodder in that rack
  • something that is mediocre, unoriginal or boring
  • a writer may be a hack, especially one with poor writing skills or who prefers sensationalism
  • any other professional hack - lawyer, doctor and so on, are poorly skilled in their profession

We could go on; we've only covered about half of hack's definitions. But we don't wish to come across as hackneyed - another hack derivative, so let's make our point.

Hack is the logical term for an action or person who clears a path for access using broad strokes and, sometimes, crude or rough tools. The action/activity is certainly repetitive and it can be brutal - like an assault on someone's shins. And, once such a person clears a path (into a computer system or network), they may well take a leisurely ride through the newly-accessible vistas they've opened up.

In short, as hackers and hacking meet so many of that word's definitions, it makes perfect sense to label the practice and those who engage in it with the language's most expansive homonym.

Hacking in Mass Effect

This game franchise annoys some of its players by making them 'hack' their way through various portals or to acquire weapons and powers. This military action/SciFi story revolves around Commander Shepard, who is on a quest to save the galaxy from Reapers - hibernating robots/machines left over from past civilisations.

The hacks in question do not involve hacking the game - discovering its code and writing a few extra lines to give your Shepard an advantage. Instead, it hews closely to the word's original meaning of repeatedly assaulting something with a tool.

The tool in question is your gaming skills.

Gaming skills are all you need to hack your way through Mass Effect
You only need to flex your gaming skills to hack Mass Effect. Photo by Alexey Savchenko on Unsplash

Depending on which edition you play, Mass Effect, II, III, or Andromeda, the way through the game is a series of minigames that allow you to 'hack' your way through each level. With each new access, you gain new powers and abilities.

However, gaming is a far cry from ethical hacking or even hacktivism. And nowhere near malicious hacking. But, it is an engaging franchise So, if you want to learn more about it, read our companion article.

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Ethical Hacking or Hacktivism?

We generally think well of activists because they're trying to bring about actions that will help the planet or a lesser but still worthy cause. So it's natural that one might think of a hacktivist as an ethical hacker but those terms represent two very different types of hacking.

The hacktivist will take any route, legal or illegal, to make their case or fight for what they believe is right.

The hacktivist group Anonymous has registered their discontent with the war on Ukraine by hacking various Russian computer systems. They're not shy about announcing their activities, either. But their hacktivism is altruistic, for the most part. By contrast, the erstwhile group known as LulzSec targeted various systems in the US, including government computer networks, simply for fun.

Their name is a portmanteau of LOLs - laughs, and Security. In other words, their activity amounted to targeting laughable security protocols and letting those systems owners know they were being mocked. They cited freedom of information as the basis for their hacking but the information they hacked - user data and company profiles, served mainly to point out how lax security was. There was no political, social, religious or financial intent behind any of their activity.

They were eventually all arrested and some served time and paid fines.

Ethical hacking, on the other hand, is both legal and necessary. It's done by certified hackers or hacking teams who are contracted by a firm or organisation to deliberately target their networks, systems and equipment to probe for vulnerabilities.

Is that work you'd like to take on? If so, do we have an article for you.

What About Cyberattacks?

Clearly, when ethical hackers hack into a system or network, they're not attacking it - at least, not in the malicious sense. They are attacking a system to see if it can withstand an attack from outsiders. Other than that instance, cyberattacks are bad news, indeed.

So much of the world and our lives now run in cyberspace. Everything from global financial transactions to industry takes place online. These rich targets fairly compel attacks. After all, it's not like physically robbing a bank, when you have to be present to collect on your schemes.

Even cryptocurrencies are vulnerable to hacks.

Blockchain technology is touted as one of the most secure - hack-proof, even, because each transaction must be verified by however many nodes in the network. That hasn't stopped industrious hackers from cleaning out several cryptocurrency exchanges.

Do you remember the 2021 Binance cryptocurrency exchange hack? The thieves made off with around 7,000 Bitcoin; a rather rich payday considering that, at the time, the haul was worth $40 million.

Cyber terrorism, which may take the form of phishing, ransomware, malware, worms, viruses and other malicious code that can infect entire networks is another form of cyberattack.

Cyberattacks are usually money-driven but, often - and particularly in cyber-terrorism cases, any ransom is a secondary consideration; their main objective is to provoke fear and uncertainty.

Unfortunately, cyberattacks are not isolated incidents. From individuals' computers to government systems, the threat of attack is perpetual. And, if any of these instances of cyber-terror are anything to go by, the risk of attack has grown exponentially in the past few years. Everyone needs to take cybersecurity far more seriously.

Hacking teams hack sometimes just for fun.
Often, hackers hack for the thrill of it. Photo by Fredrick Tendong on Unsplash

Why Do Hackers Hack?

Few if any children state/believe they want to be criminals when they grow up. And, while some people may contend that a handful of criminals are simply 'born bad', for the most part, crime is more a matter of 'it just happened'. That idea is reflected in the hacking community.

The simple answer to why hackers hack is 'because they can'. These coding mavericks want to push boundaries; their own and those established by other entities: cybersecurity firms, network protocols and so on. They relish the challenge of breaking through something thought to be impenetrable; it's a thrill to live on a perpetual new frontier.

Outside of the small group of 'black hat' actors who wake up each day, thinking "What/who can I terrorize today?", the joy of hacking lies in going someplace relatively few have the knowledge, skills and abilities to go: a network or computer's code. And it's not just about breaking through; it's understanding everything once you get there.

Much like the feeling you get when visiting a country whose language and culture you understand, white hat and green hat hackers revel in that pleasure.

Some hackers hack for money - a paycheque (blue and white hats) or pay-out (black, blue, grey hats). Others hack for the challenge of it (green hats) and yet others bring about a change by whatever means necessary (red hats).

Why are we suddenly talking about different-coloured hats? Read on to find out...

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