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Just What Is a Hack?

Of several meanings, one matters most.

Sereotypical Hooded Hacker Image
Hack or hacking can mean several different things -- both good and bad -- depending on the context. I'll review the most common definitions.
Question: I see the word “hack” getting used a lot. And by “a lot” mean seemingly everywhere, every day. But not all the uses make sense. What’s it really mean?

The word hack, as perhaps you’ve surmised, can have any of several different meanings, depending on context.

I’ll run through the ones that most commonly relate to computing and technology, including the one you need to understand above all.

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What's a hack?

  • The most basic hack is unauthorized access to an account or data.
  • Hack can also refer to a clever solution to a problem.
  • An obscure or lesser-known shortcut to a desired goal can also be referred to as a hack.
  • Individuals using clever techniques to gain unauthorized access to things are referred to as hackers.

Account hack

Perhaps the most important definition is the most common. In short, it simply means unauthorized access to a resource. A “resource” might be data, an online account, or something else.

Put a different way, an account is said to be “hacked” if someone who isn’t supposed to have access to it gets access. Data is said to have been hacked if someone who isn’t supposed to be able to access it, can. Your computer is said to be hacked if someone unauthorized has access to it or can sign into it.

It’s pretty simple. A hack is all about someone having access to something they shouldn’t.

It’s probably the most important definition since it can affect us all.

Clever hack

Originally,1 a hack was an obscure, clever, or unique way of solving a particularly complex computer problem.

For example, at the lowest level, you can multiply a whole number by two in several different ways:

  • Multiply it by 2. 9 × 2 = 18.
  • Add it to itself. 9 + 9 = 18.
  • Shift the binary bit pattern representing the number one bit to the left. 9, represented as 1001 in binary, shifted left one position becomes 10010, which is the binary representation of 18.

In most computers, each successive technique in that list is generally faster or less resource-intensive than the preceding. Adding is usually faster than multiplying, and shifting is faster than either.

That shifting by one bit might be considered a clever way to solve the problem. Some might call a hack.

More generally, this kind of hack might be an inelegant shortcut eliciting the comment, “It’s not pretty, but it works.”2

Shortcut hack

You’ve probably heard the terms life hack or growth hack.

Much like shifting a binary number being quicker than the work of actually multiplying it, people often look for or identify shortcuts to life: ways to accomplish things — be it something in life or approaches to their own personal growth — more quickly than normal.

These shortcuts — an obscure, clever, or unique way of solving a problem — are often referred to as hacks of some sort.

Search the internet for either, and you’ll find there’s a whole industry of life hacking or growth hacking or who-knows-what hacking available.

This type of hack — a shortcut or a clever or obscure solution — is neither good nor bad. That comes down to how you use it.

Hackers and hacking

Hackers hack by using hacks.

By that, I mean hackers generally gain unauthorized access to resources (the first hack I describe above) by employing clever or unique ways of using or abusing the systems they’re targeting (the second hack I describe above) so as to gain access. That usually comes in the form of exploiting a vulnerability in the underlying system.

Hence their name: hackers.

Hacker culture is built around this ability to discover and exploit hacks of various forms so as to do things that weren’t necessarily meant to be done — like access your account or breach a company firewall to get at their data.

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Footnotes & References

1: Well, in technological terms, at least.

2: Though left shift by one seems both elegant and pretty –to me at least.

12 comments on “Just What Is a Hack?”

  1. We have White Hat hackers who gain unauthorized access to systems to find the flaws and help companies improve security. I remember a time when some were using the term “cracking” to refer to gaining illegal access to a computer, system, or website.

    “That usually comes in the form of exploiting a vulnerability in the underlying system.” In most cases that vulnerability is in the component sitting in front of the computer typing on the keyboard or clicking the mouse. I read Kevin Mitnick’s book, and I was surprised to learn that most of the time, he didn’t hack the computers. He hacked the people who controlled access to the computers. This is called “social engineering”. The most common forms of social engineering are Phishing and tricking people into installing malware.
    That’s why the first line of defense in protecting against malware is vigilance and common sense.

      • The problem with education is that it’s not something you can shove down people’s throats or inject into them. The target must be open to learning and accept that there is someone else more knowledgeable. The target must also be willing to exert some effort. These premises are no longer operative in today’s world for many people. But thank you Leo for continuing to educate and not giving up.

    • Absolutely, Mark.
      When one drills down into the reports in the media about organisations being ‘hacked’ it more often than not turns out to be an employee opening a dodgy attachment or accessing a fake website.

    • A few points in reply here:

      1. I loathe the term, “social engineering“; that makes it sound far too respectable! Instead, call it what it really is: trickery.

      2. The important point to remember about “White Hat Hackers” is that, if they’re at all sensible, they will have contracted with the company they are “breaking in to” (or, failing that, will at least have asked permissuon first), and will have that contract, permission, release, or waiver, signed and in writing. A “White Hat” Hacker sans permission is just a plain ole hacker, period.

      3. In my opinion, “cracker” is a better, and far more descriptive, term. Unfortunately, the word encroaches upon a racial epither used in the South, and so never caught on. :(

  2. Thank you Mark Jacobs (Team Leo) for including the label “Cracker”. It is sad that the term ‘Hacker’ has become nearly universally misconstrued to replace the term ‘Cracker’. When your account is broken into, it is cracked. When a website or a company’s data is stolen, the website’s security is cracked, or the company’s server’s (containing the company’s data) security is cracked. A hacker is someone who experiments with code to find different (and often more efficient) ways to get specific jobs done. A hacker may also examine source code to discover coding errors or security vulnerabilities.

    If the true definition of a hacker is used, a hacker is computer enthusiast who wants to understand how things work under the hood, and to perhaps find better ways to make them work. In this endeavor, they sometimes find security vulnerabilities or coding errors which they report to the code’s developers.

    True hackers are NOT criminals. They just get the bad reputation from the activities of the real criminals who should properly be identified as crackers. Leo, I am genuinely disappointed that you either did not know the existence of the second term (crackers). or that you have adopted the common identifier of the uneducated by lumping the good guys in with the bad ones, and calling them ALL hackers, or that you simply did not do enough research on the subject before writing your article.

    You usually do better,


    • Sorry to disappoint. I’m absolutely bowing to common usage rather than pedantic definition, though. Language is fluid (with which I literally have problems with at times, and where “literally” literally means literally Smile), but it’s something I’ve come to accept as reality.

      More importantly, the majority of my readers encounter the term hack or hacker, not the crack variations, and it’s important for them to understand how those terms are being used, even if technically that usage is considered incorrect by some.

    • That name change probably comes from movies. It’s incredible how movies get so much wrong about computers and the IT world. I could fill a book with what Hollywood gets wrong. I got into a kind of hardware hacking. I was already a software developer but a hobby was making older computers last way beyond their expiration date and attaching hardware that wasn’t supposed to be attached. I called that hacking. The proper term for most “hacks” would be social engineering. OK, I got off topic, but I’m watching a series where they get so much wrong. You’d thing they’d hire an IT consultant like they do with police and military consultants.
      Hey, if any movie producers read this, I’m available. ;-)

  3. Leo, you quoted:

    “It’s not pretty, but it works.”

    Uh-uh: that’s not a “hack,” that’s a “kludge.” :o

  4. There is meaning of hack that you all have missed but being a Norfolk Boy (English county) may I add, Hack within the activity of equestrianism commonly refers to one of two things: as a verb, it describes the act of pleasure riding for light exercise, and as a breed (Hackney/hack), it is a type of horse used for riding and pulling carriages. The term is sometimes used to describe certain types of exhibition or horse show classes where quality and good manners of the horse are particularly important.


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