Hackers are an interesting subculture and, as such, they get a fair bit of attention from the media. The idea of a teenager breaking into high security databases is fascinating and more than a little terrifying. However, hackers aren’t all teenagers, nor are they all focused on breaking into places they shouldn’t be. In this article, we’ll look at some reasons why the general public can actually be thankful for hackers.
The White Hat Hackers
The first reason people should be thankful for hackers is that not all hackers are fixated on breaking into your computer and stealing your data. In fact, hackers see themselves as a group with several subgroups. The black hat hackers are the ones who break into systems for material gain. Gray hat hackers, on the other hand, are in it for personal recognition mostly, but they still break important rules. It's the white hat hackers that really do good work, however, by hacking into sites in order to help those sites test and improve their security so that the other types of hackers can’t gain access so easily. All three groups use the same methods, but their motives are very different. (For more on white hat hacking, see Cybersecurity: The Big, Profitable Field Techies Are Overlooking.)
Hackers Helped Make Your PC
Going back to the early days of the personal computer, many of the members of the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley would have been considered hackers in modern terms in that they pulled things apart and put them back together in new and interesting ways. Although there were no secure sites for these early computer hobbyists to hack, many in the group were also phone phreakers, who cracked the telephone network by using whistles and blue boxes to make free calls whenever they pleased.
This desire to explore systems and find out how they worked made many of these proto-hackers more knowledgeable about the different technologies available – and their shortcomings – than even those who created those technologies. Two former phreakers, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, built Apple; others, like the legendary Captain Crunch, went on to design software and play a role in the development of Silicon Valley culture. (Learn more about the history behind Apple in Creating the iWorld: A History of Apple.)
Hackers Are Some of the Best Coders
Just as many of the early computer enthusiasts turned out to be great at designing new computers and programs, many people who identify themselves as hackers are also amazing programmers. This trend of the hacker as the innovator has continued with the open-source software movement. Much of this open-source code is produced, tested and improved by hackers – usually during collaborative computer programming events, which are affectionately referred to as "hackathons." Even if you never touch a piece of open-source software, you still benefit from the elegant solutions that hackers come up with that inspire (or are outright copied by) proprietary software companies.
Hackers Have Done Some Amazing Things
Hacking is something that hackers don’t grow out of as much as they find avenues to turn it into an actual career. In addition to becoming security specialists, hackers go on to be star programmers and even founded their own companies. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is a self-professed hacker, but he is far from the only hacker whose programming skills helped launch major ventures. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux was a hacker too, as was Tim Berners-Lee, the man behind the World Wide Web. The list is long for the same reason the list of hackers turned coders is long – they all saw better ways of doing things.
Hackers Are Vocal Critics
The last reason to be thankful for hackers is a controversial one. For the average user, it can be difficult to tell right away if a new version of software is actually an improvement, or a quickly cobbled together grab for more of our money. Hackers, however, seem to take offense when a company releases subpar software or a buggy OS, and makes these issues public in a way that the average consumer can’t. Every time a hacker rips through a security gap or flaw in a system, this draws attention to the fact that the company didn’t, perhaps, take enough care in creating the product. This, in turn, encourages most companies to be more careful in the future – something that benefits consumers in a roundabout way.
Black hat hackers are always going to be seen as a menace to society, and in many cases they should be. However, many white hat hackers and even some gray hat and reformed black hat hackers have done great things for technology and the internet. In truth, hackers are almost in the same situation as motorcycle enthusiasts in that the existence of a few motorcycle gangs with real criminal operations tarnishes the image of the entire subculture. You don’t need to go out and hug the next hacker you meet, but it might be worth remembering that the word hacker doesn’t equal criminal – at least not all the time.