101 - Basics of Hacking

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In this series of lectures, tutorials and laboratory sessions we are going to investigate the social origins, human drivers and technical skills required for successful and enjoyable hacking. The primary driver of most hacking is personal satisfaction - you, as an individual, should gain satisfaction in some form from hacking process and its outcomes.

The skills developed as a hacker are invaluable in many areas of computer science and the wider information technology landscape. An engineer that has the ability to hack additional features onto existing tools is a valuable addition to any project or team. A hacker will ask themselves "How can I make it do more?" Non-hackers will ask "Is there an expert I can call?". As a hacker you are the expert that others will call.

You will learn to hack real code in active open-source projects and contribute your hacks back to the projects and their user communities. Most importantly you will develop the mindset of a hacker: "Nothing is impossible".

Don't be fooled into thinking becoming a hacker is easy; far from it. Hackers are pursing excellence and perfection.

You will often need determination and resolve to drive yourself forward when the going gets tough. One of the rewards but also the pains of hacking is that you'll always be learning something new. Learning, as you have no-doubt already experienced, can be extremely difficult, frustrating and depressing especially if you can't make sense of things immediately.

You will need to be prepared to spend long hours of intense focus to master multiple disciplines at the same time. You will need to learn when to stop, when to take a break, when to leave it for a few days and go do something completely different.

At times you will feel like giving up - we all do. At times you'll want to throw the computer out the window, swear at the incompetent idiot that came up with the convoluted un-commented code you've spent the last day trying to figure out. You should warn your house-mates that they might hear raised voices and things being thrown and they should just turn the music up!

But later, when you've figured it out and your brain is churning out new code faster than your fingers can type, you'll experience the exhilaration and joy at having beaten the thing into submission and made it do your bidding. If the hack also solves issues that other users of the project have then you may get to bask in the glory of appreciation - for maybe five minutes until the requests start coming in for you to "just add feature X" or "fix bug Y".

So let's start by correcting some media myths about what a Hacker is.

The Hacker Ethic (what is a Hacker) ?

In 1997 Eric S. Raymond published an essay on software engineering methods entitled "The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary" which became an influential observation and critique of software development. Later he included a Frequently Asked Questions answered (FAQ) titled "How to Become a Hacker"1 that describes the attitude, skills and cultural of hacking:

Note: If this frame is blank and you see a shield in the browser address bar you must click on the shield and disable protection to allow mixed content in order to view Eric Raymond's FAQ.

A summary which I cannot improve upon comes from Wikipedia2

A hacker is someone who loves to program or who enjoys playful cleverness, or a combination of the two3. The act of engaging in activities (such as programming or other media4) in a spirit of playfulness and exploration is termed hacking. However the defining characteristic of a hacker is not the activities performed themselves (e.g. programming), but the manner in which it is done: Hacking entails some form of excellence, for example exploring the limits of what is possible5, thereby doing something exciting and meaningful.

Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software movement explains about hackers who program:

What they had in common was mainly love of excellence and programming. They wanted to make their programs that they used be as good as they could. They also wanted to make them do neat things. They wanted to be able to do something in a more exciting way than anyone believed possible and show "Look how wonderful this is. I bet you didn't believe this could be done."6

What a Hacker Is NOT!

Wikipedia continues:

Hackers from this subculture tend to emphatically differentiate themselves from what they pejoratively call "crackers"; those who are generally referred to by media and members of the general public using the term "hacker", and whose primary focus — be it to malign or benevolent purposes — lies in exploiting weaknesses in computer security.7

Hackers - Wizards of the Electronic Age

The hacker community began life - as many technology cultures did - in the United States of America; mainly in California and Massachusetts. By the 1980s it was a sub-culture being recognised outside of the technology world. In 1984 Fabrice Florin produced a documentary for Public Broadcasting Service (PBS - the USA's poor cousin of the BBC) at the first Hackers Conference in California. This was a decade before the Internet became a common public communications system.

Many of the unknowns attending the conference have since become some of the most well-known and influential personalities of the information technology revolution. So, with apologies for the over-abundance of beards, please meet the unsung heroes of the computer revolution.

Watch the Video

"Hackers - Wizards of the Electronic Age" - Fabrice Florin, 1984

Also in 1984 Eric Corley, under the pen-name Emmanuel Goldstein, began publishing "2600" in the USA, a magazine for hackers of all shades. Now known as "2600: The Hacker Quarterly" and available globally online, the magazine catered to the growing community of hackers.

In those days - before the public Internet - communication was done using telephone modems dialling into bulletin board services (BBS) where users could send and receive messages to other users of that BBS much like today's internal company email. Many BBSes allowed upload and download of files for sharing. Calls to BBSs were charged per-minute by the telephone company so the low transmission rates and poor connection quality could lead to large telephone bills especially if the BBS wasn't local or even in the same country.

Networks of BBSs developed the largest of which was FidoNET. Created by two hackers, Tom Jennings in San Francisco and John Madil in Baltimore, it allowed a subscriber to dial into a local BBS and exchange messages with subscribers of other BBSs around the world. The services were all text - including the Fido dog logo:

                  /  \
                 /|oo \
                (_|  /_)
                 _`@/_ \    _
                |     | \   \\
                | (*) |  \   )) 
   ______       |__U__| /  \//
  / FIDO \       _//|| _\   /
 (________)     (_/(_|(____/
(c) John Madil

In educational establishments the demand for sharing information and research drove the development and transformation of the USA's ARPANET into the public Internet that we take for granted today. Growing demand required more, better, and faster software to operate and manage the increasingly sophisticated networks of computer systems as they developed.

At this time most computer systems came complete with not just the binary executable code but the full source-code as well. Access to the source code and build tools allowed software hackers to fix faults (bugs) and add new features to the software programs themselves. There was a culture of sharing and source-code was passed around.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technologies Artificial Intelligence Media Lab, Richard Stallman was single-mindedly expressing his belief that "Software should be free" - "free" as in Freedom. Freedom for users to read, modify, and distribute the software they used without restriction. This was a reaction to the increasing trend of computer manufacturers to impose restrictive copyright licenses which prohibited copying and redistribution whilst no-longer providing the source code.

In 1983 he began the GNU operating system project and in 1985 founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF). In 1989 the FSF published the first GNU General Public License (GPL) which was designed to protect user's rights using Copyright law.

Required Reading and Viewing

  1. "FAQ: How to Become a Hacker", Eric S. Raymond, 2001, HTML
  2. "Hackers - Wizards of the Electronic Age", Fabrice Florin, 1984 Publisher. DVD ASIN: B0009RS0EM. Video YouTube.
  3. "From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism", Fred Turner, 2006, University of Chicago Press, 360 pages, Hardback ISBN: 0226817415. Paperback ISBN: 0226817423. Kindle Edition ASIN: B004BKJVYG.
  4. "The Cathedral & the Bazaar", Eric S. Raymond, 1999, HTML
  5. "FAQ Collection: Hacker History And Culture", Eric S. Raymond, HTMl


  1. FAQ: How to Become a Hacker
  2. Hacker (programmer subculture)
  3. The GNU Project
  4. The Hacker Community and Ethics: An Interview with Richard M. Stallman, 2002
  5. On Hacking - Richard Stallman
  6. Hackers - Wizards of the Electronic Age. Video/TV/DVD. 1985
  7. Eric Raymond - How to Become a Hacker