The hackers are coming to town

Friday, 7 February 2003, 1:39 PM EST

There was a time when the term hacker, even to the generalist, was nothing uncomplimentary. There were people of all ages who had this compulsive urge to fiddle with computer hardware or meddle with code, late into the night. Mostly good things came out of this activity (though some pimply-faced teens eletrocuted themselves).

Steve Wozniak, one of the original hackers, invented the computer that is regarded as a work of art, the Apple. Another great hacker, Richard Stallman, founded the GNU Project. And a third, no less in greatness, Linus Torvalds, gave the world the Linux kernel.

Once the masses got involved in computing and marketing took precedence over technology, things changed somewhat. And many thousands of Internet viruses and worms and hyped-up Hollywood movies later, hacker is a bad word.

It's come to mean a person who is out there, waiting to break into other people's computers - with malicious motives. The word "cracker" was used to describe such people in the past, but given the plethora of PR hacks who peddle what passes for news, the distinction no longer exists.

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