What Does “Hack” Mean?

The word “hack” has taken on multiple, conflicting meanings, that contribute to confusion over global political events.

Once upon a time, everyone knew what hack meant: it was closely related to chopping, but somewhat less delicate. Then computers came along, and people started using “hack” metaphorically, to mean ”illicitly accessing a computer system, usually by using a tool in an unintended way.” Finally, as computer culture spread into popular society “hack” started to mean “do something in a way not originally intended (but not necessarily inappropriate or illegal) to acheive a desired outcome.” This final usage has led to the rise of “hackerspaces” where nary a computer can be seen.

While it is somewhat easy to see how “hack” has migrated its meaning over the past few decades, that migration has confused a lot of discussions, especially since computers are ubiquitous. To many people, computers are generally black magic wizardy, beyond comprehension. Many people even forget that their smart phone, and indeed every phone, is essentially a computer.1 If someone  uses “hack” to mean “creating a desirable outcome by using a tool in an unintended way,” without understanding how computers were designed to be used, nearly anything can become a hack.

On the other hand, within computer security, hacking has a very specific meaning and loosely claiming that something was “hacked” can give false impressions. For example, most people were unaware the degree to which social media collects information on them, and the ways different groups could use tools to exploit that information. Groups like Cambridge Analytica used information in exactly the way Facebook intended it to be used, and nevertheless, the incident was initially treated as a data leak in many media outlets.

Misunderstanding the different uses of hacking causes tremendous confusion regarding information leakage online. While most people do not read the “Terms of Use” for websites, and may not be aware of the permissions they give to their information, information you put on a social media site are fair game for the the social media site to use, within limits.

Obviously, online companies could not turn around and use your information to do something otherwise illegal, in itself, but they can use information you provide in ways you might not think about. If someone at Instagram was using information users provided to reset bank account passwords and transfer money to themselves or the company, that action would still be inherently illegal, even though you wittingly provided the information. Many jurisdictions have limitations on the kind of information companies can disclose, requiring reasonable anonymization for the information. Nonetheless, a major revenue stream for many online media remains selling users’ information, which the buyers can use for whatever purchase they choose, and selling targeted ads is essentially selling information and ads at the same time.

The difference between a computer hack and “hacking” as used in other contexts becomes vital when understanding global politics, especially in democratic societies. In common parlance, one could think of the Jacksonian party system, FDR’s direct appeals to the public using radio fireside chats, or direct mail campaigns as “hacks,” but none of those things were illicit, nor involved computers. Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall or Klan terrorism are also “hacks” to the political system, but are illegal and not part of a healthy democratic process. Similarly, targeted political ads, innovative messaging informed by data analytics and new uses for mailing lists could fall within the popular, non-computer meaning of “hack,” and would be part of democracy so long as they were legal in other contexts.

“Hack’s” divergent meanings create chaos when casually employed in public conversation. One neither needs to imply nor assume nefarious intent when public figures speak of Russia “hacking” an election to realize that different listeners could understand such a statement differently depending on how they understand the work “hack.” The problem becomes further compounded by the fact that, at least in the 2016 Presidential election, the two uses overlapped: Russia used illicit cybersecurity exploits (hacks) to conduct information operations that would (hack) affect the American electorate in a way Russia would like. Russia “hacked” DNC computers in the computer science sense, but their involvement in the election itself was functionally more akin to the Tammany Hall.

Understanding the different underlying issues is essential to appropriately explain effects and prescribe potetial policy solutions. Improved technology can solve a technological electoral problem a computer “hack” implies. However, the most reliable voting system in the world would be powerless to stop problems from “hacks” like Tammany Hall or the Klan.

No one is perfect, but I always try to use specific verbiage to remain clear. I do not commonly refer to kludges, novel techniques or other innovations as “hacks” and I will resist starting the practice. I will also try to always refer to “cybersecurity attacks,” “data leaks” or “security violations” to be as accurate as possible, and I encourage others to do the same. Unclear information is hardly information at all, and we should treat unclarity when discussing information as a mortal sin.

1 I am actually writing this on a phone, now.