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Saturday, 22 June 2013

How To Become A Hacker

                                         How To Become A Hacker

Revision History
Revision 1.4512 May 2013esr
Open Solaris isn't, and Unity screwed the pooch.
Revision 1.4420 May 2012esr
Updated the critique of Java.
Revision 1.4307 Feb 2011esr
Python passed Perl in popularity in 2010.
Revision 1.4222 Oct 2010esr
Added "Historical note".
Revision 1.403 Nov 2008esr
Link fixes.
Revision 1.3914 Aug 2008esr
Link fixes.
Revision 1.388 Jan 2008esr
Deprecate Java as a language to learn early.
Revision 1.374 Oct 2007esr
Recommend Ubuntu as a Unix distro for newbies.

What Is a Hacker?

The Jargon File contains a bunch of definitions of the term ‘hacker’, most having to do with technical adeptness and a delight in solving problems and overcoming limits. If you want to know how to become a hacker, though, only two are really relevant.
There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments. The members of this culture originated the term ‘hacker’. Hackers built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers run Usenet. Hackers make the World Wide Web work. If you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you're a hacker.
The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker culture. There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like electronics or music — actually, you can find it at the highest levels of any science or art. Software hackers recognize these kindred spirits elsewhere and may call them ‘hackers’ too — and some claim that the hacker nature is really independent of the particular medium the hacker works in. But in the rest of this document we will focus on the skills and attitudes of software hackers, and the traditions of the shared culture that originated the term ‘hacker’.
There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers, but aren't. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phone system. Real hackers call these people ‘crackers’ and want nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers are lazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being able to break security doesn't make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word ‘hacker’ to describe crackers; this irritates real hackers no end.
The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.
If you want to be a hacker, keep reading. If you want to be a cracker, go read the alt.2600 newsgroup and get ready to do five to ten in the slammer after finding out you aren't as smart as you think you are. And that's all I'm going to say about crackers.

Basic Hacking Skills

1. Learn how to program.

This, of course, is the fundamental hacking skill. If you don't know any computer languages, I recommend starting with Python. It is cleanly designed, well documented, and relatively kind to beginners. Despite being a good first language, it is not just a toy; it is very powerful and flexible and well suited for large projects. I have written a more detailed evaluation of Python. Good tutorials are available at the Python web site.
I used to recommend Java as a good language to learn early, but this critique has changed my mind (search for The Pitfalls of Java as a First Programming Language within it). A hacker cannot, as they devastatingly put itapproach problem-solving like a plumber in a hardware store; you have to know what the components actually do. Now I think it is probably best to learn C and Lisp first, then Java.
There is perhaps a more general point here. If a language does too much for you, it may be simultaneously a good tool for production and a bad one for learning. It's not only languages that have this problem; web application frameworks like RubyOnRails, CakePHP, Django may make it too easy to reach a superficial sort of understanding that will leave you without resources when you have to tackle a hard problem, or even just debug the solution to an easy one.
If you get into serious programming, you will have to learn C, the core language of Unix. C++ is very closely related to C; if you know one, learning the other will not be difficult. Neither language is a good one to try learning as your first, however. And, actually, the more you can avoid programming in C the more productive you will be.
C is very efficient, and very sparing of your machine's resources. Unfortunately, C gets that efficiency by requiring you to do a lot of low-level management of resources (like memory) by hand. All that low-level code is complex and bug-prone, and will soak up huge amounts of your time on debugging. With today's machines as powerful as they are, this is usually a bad tradeoff — it's smarter to use a language that uses the machine's time less efficiently, but your time much more efficiently. Thus, Python.
Other languages of particular importance to hackers include Perl and LISP. Perl is worth learning for practical reasons; it's very widely used for active web pages and system administration, so that even if you never write Perl you should learn to read it. Many people use Perl in the way I suggest you should use Python, to avoid C programming on jobs that don't require C's machine efficiency. You will need to be able to understand their code.
LISP is worth learning for a different reason — the profound enlightenment experience you will have when you finally get it. That experience will make you a better programmer for the rest of your days, even if you never actually use LISP itself a lot. (You can get some beginning experience with LISP fairly easily by writing and modifying editing modes for the Emacs text editor, or Script-Fu plugins for the GIMP.)
It's best, actually, to learn all five of Python, C/C++, Java, Perl, and LISP. Besides being the most important hacking languages, they represent very different approaches to programming, and each will educate you in valuable ways.
But be aware that you won't reach the skill level of a hacker or even merely a programmer simply by accumulating languages — you need to learn how to think about programming problems in a general way, independent of any one language. To be a real hacker, you need to get to the point where you can learn a new language in days by relating what's in the manual to what you already know. This means you should learn several very different languages.
I can't give complete instructions on how to learn to program here — it's a complex skill. But I can tell you that books and courses won't do it — many, maybe most of the best hackers are self-taught. You can learn language features — bits of knowledge — from books, but the mind-set that makes that knowledge into living skill can be learned only by practice and apprenticeship. What will do it is (a) reading code and (b) writing code.
Peter Norvig, who is one of Google's top hackers and the co-author of the most widely used textbook on AI, has written an excellent essay called Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years. His "recipe for programming success" is worth careful attention.
Learning to program is like learning to write good natural language. The best way to do it is to read some stuff written by masters of the form, write some things yourself, read a lot more, write a little more, read a lot more, write some more ... and repeat until your writing begins to develop the kind of strength and economy you see in your models.
Finding good code to read used to be hard, because there were few large programs available in source for fledgeling hackers to read and tinker with. This has changed dramatically; open-source software, programming tools, and operating systems (all built by hackers) are now widely available. Which brings me neatly to our next topic...

2. Get one of the open-source Unixes and learn to use and run it.

I'll assume you have a personal computer or can get access to one. (Take a moment to appreciate how much that means. The hacker culture originally evolved back when computers were so expensive that individuals could not own them.) The single most important step any newbie can take toward acquiring hacker skills is to get a copy of Linux or one of the BSD-Unixes, install it on a personal machine, and run it.
Yes, there are other operating systems in the world besides Unix. But they're distributed in binary — you can't read the code, and you can't modify it. Trying to learn to hack on a Microsoft Windows machine or under any other closed-source system is like trying to learn to dance while wearing a body cast.
Under Mac OS X it's possible, but only part of the system is open source — you're likely to hit a lot of walls, and you have to be careful not to develop the bad habit of depending on Apple's proprietary code. If you concentrate on the Unix under the hood you can learn some useful things.
Unix is the operating system of the Internet. While you can learn to use the Internet without knowing Unix, you can't be an Internet hacker without understanding Unix. For this reason, the hacker culture today is pretty strongly Unix-centered. (This wasn't always true, and some old-time hackers still aren't happy about it, but the symbiosis between Unix and the Internet has become strong enough that even Microsoft's muscle doesn't seem able to seriously dent it.)
So, bring up a Unix — I like Linux myself but there are other ways (and yes, you can run both Linux and Microsoft Windows on the same machine). Learn it. Run it. Tinker with it. Talk to the Internet with it. Read the code. Modify the code. You'll get better programming tools (including C, LISP, Python, and Perl) than any Microsoft operating system can dream of hosting, you'll have fun, and you'll soak up more knowledge than you realize you're learning until you look back on it as a master hacker.
For more about learning Unix, see The Loginataka. You might also want to have a look at The Art Of Unix Programming.
To get your hands on a Linux, see the Linux Online! site; you can download from there or (better idea) find a local Linux user group to help you with installation.
During the first ten years of this HOWTO's life, I reported that from a new user's point of view, all Linux distributions are almost equivalent. But in 2006-2007, an actual best choice emerged: Ubuntu. While other distros have their own areas of strength, Ubuntu is far and away the most accessible to Linux newbies. Beware, though, of the hideous and nigh-unusable "Unity" desktop interface that Ubuntu introduced as a default a few years later; the Xubuntu or Kubuntu variants are better.
You can find BSD Unix help and resources at
A good way to dip your toes in the water is to boot up what Linux fans call a live CD, a distribution that runs entirely off a CD without having to modify your hard disk. This will be slow, because CDs are slow, but it's a way to get a look at the possibilities without having to do anything drastic.
I have written a primer on the basics of Unix and the Internet.
I used to recommend against installing either Linux or BSD as a solo project if you're a newbie. Nowadays the installers have gotten good enough that doing it entirely on your own is possible, even for a newbie. Nevertheless, I still recommend making contact with your local Linux user's group and asking for help. It can't hurt, and may smooth the process.

3. Learn how to use the World Wide Web and write HTML.

Most of the things the hacker culture has built do their work out of sight, helping run factories and offices and universities without any obvious impact on how non-hackers live. The Web is the one big exception, the huge shiny hacker toy that even politicians admit has changed the world. For this reason alone (and a lot of other good ones as well) you need to learn how to work the Web.
This doesn't just mean learning how to drive a browser (anyone can do that), but learning how to write HTML, the Web's markup language. If you don't know how to program, writing HTML will teach you some mental habits that will help you learn. So build a home page. Try to stick to XHTML, which is a cleaner language than classic HTML. (There are good beginner tutorials on the Web; here's one.)
But just having a home page isn't anywhere near good enough to make you a hacker. The Web is full of home pages. Most of them are pointless, zero-content sludge — very snazzy-looking sludge, mind you, but sludge all the same (for more on this see The HTML Hell Page).
To be worthwhile, your page must have content — it must be interesting and/or useful to other hackers. And that brings us to the next topic...

4. If you don't have functional English, learn it.

As an American and native English-speaker myself, I have previously been reluctant to suggest this, lest it be taken as a sort of cultural imperialism. But several native speakers of other languages have urged me to point out that English is the working language of the hacker culture and the Internet, and that you will need to know it to function in the hacker community.
Back around 1991 I learned that many hackers who have English as a second language use it in technical discussions even when they share a birth tongue; it was reported to me at the time that English has a richer technical vocabulary than any other language and is therefore simply a better tool for the job. For similar reasons, translations of technical books written in English are often unsatisfactory (when they get done at all).
Linus Torvalds, a Finn, comments his code in English (it apparently never occurred to him to do otherwise). His fluency in English has been an important factor in his ability to recruit a worldwide community of developers for Linux. It's an example worth following.
Being a native English-speaker does not guarantee that you have language skills good enough to function as a hacker. If your writing is semi-literate, ungrammatical, and riddled with misspellings, many hackers (including myself) will tend to ignore you. While sloppy writing does not invariably mean sloppy thinking, we've generally found the correlation to be strong — and we have no use for sloppy thinkers. If you can't yet write competently, learn to.
How do I tell if I am already a hacker?
Ask yourself the following three questions:
  • Do you speak code, fluently?
  • Do you identify with the goals and values of the hacker community?
  • Has a well-established member of the hacker community ever called you a hacker?
If you can answer yes to all three of these questions, you are already a hacker. No two alone are sufficient.
The first test is about skills. You probably pass it if you have the minimum technical skills described earlier in this document. You blow right through it if you have had a substantial amount of code accepted by an open-source development project.
The second test is about attitude. If the five principles of the hacker mindset seemed obvious to you, more like a description of the way you already live than anything novel, you are already halfway to passing it. That's the inward half; the other, outward half is the degree to which you identify with the hacker community's long-term projects.
Here is an incomplete but indicative list of some of those projects: Does it matter to you that Linux improve and spread? Are you passionate about software freedom? Hostile to monopolies? Do you act on the belief that computers can be instruments of empowerment that make the world a richer and more humane place?
But a note of caution is in order here. The hacker community has some specific, primarily defensive political interests — two of them are defending free-speech rights and fending off "intellectual-property" power grabs that would make open source illegal. Some of those long-term projects are civil-liberties organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the outward attitude properly includes support of them. But beyond that, most hackers view attempts to systematize the hacker attitude into an explicit political program with suspicion; we've learned, the hard way, that these attempts are divisive and distracting. If someone tries to recruit you to march on your capitol in the name of the hacker attitude, they've missed the point. The right response is probably Shut up and show them the code.
The third test has a tricky element of recursiveness about it. I observed in the section called “What Is a Hacker?” that being a hacker is partly a matter of belonging to a particular subculture or social network with a shared history, an inside and an outside. In the far past, hackers were a much less cohesive and self-aware group than they are today. But the importance of the social-network aspect has increased over the last thirty years as the Internet has made connections with the core of the hacker subculture easier to develop and maintain. One easy behavioral index of the change is that, in this century, we have our own T-shirts.
Sociologists, who study networks like those of the hacker culture under the general rubric of "invisible colleges", have noted that one characteristic of such networks is that they have gatekeepers — core members with the social authority to endorse new members into the network. Because the "invisible college" that is hacker culture is a loose and informal one, the role of gatekeeper is informal too. But one thing that all hackers understand in their bones is that not every hacker is a gatekeeper. Gatekeepers have to have a certain degree of seniority and accomplishment before they can bestow the title. How much is hard to quantify, but every hacker knows it when they see it.
Q:Will you teach me how to hack?
A:Since first publishing this page, I've gotten several requests a week (often several a day) from people to "teach me all about hacking". Unfortunately, I don't have the time or energy to do this; my own hacking projects, and working as an open-source advocate, take up 110% of my time.
Even if I did, hacking is an attitude and skill you basically have to teach yourself. You'll find that while real hackers want to help you, they won't respect you if you beg to be spoon-fed everything they know.
Learn a few things first. Show that you're trying, that you're capable of learning on your own. Then go to the hackers you meet with specific questions.
If you do email a hacker asking for advice, here are two things to know up front. First, we've found that people who are lazy or careless in their writing are usually too lazy and careless in their thinking to make good hackers — so take care to spell correctly, and use good grammar and punctuation, otherwise you'll probably be ignored. Secondly, don't dare ask for a reply to an ISP account that's different from the account you're sending from; we find people who do that are usually thieves using stolen accounts, and we have no interest in rewarding or assisting thievery.
Q:How can I get started, then?
A:The best way for you to get started would probably be to go to a LUG (Linux user group) meeting. You can find such groups on the LDP General Linux Information Page; there is probably one near you, possibly associated with a college or university. LUG members will probably give you a Linux if you ask, and will certainly help you install one and get started.
Q:When do you have to start? Is it too late for me to learn?
A:Any age at which you are motivated to start is a good age. Most people seem to get interested between ages 15 and 20, but I know of exceptions in both directions.
Q:How long will it take me to learn to hack?
A:That depends on how talented you are and how hard you work at it. Most people who try can acquire a respectable skill set in eighteen months to two years, if they concentrate. Don't think it ends there, though; in hacking (as in many other fields) it takes about ten years to achieve mastery. And if you are a real hacker, you will spend the rest of your life learning and perfecting your craft.
Q:Is Visual Basic a good language to start with?
A:If you're asking this question, it almost certainly means you're thinking about trying to hack under Microsoft Windows. This is a bad idea in itself. When I compared trying to learn to hack under Windows to trying to learn to dance while wearing a body cast, I wasn't kidding. Don't go there. It's ugly, and it never stops being ugly.
There is a specific problem with Visual Basic; mainly that it's not portable. Though there is a prototype open-source implementations of Visual Basic, the applicable ECMA standards don't cover more than a small set of its programming interfaces. On Windows most of its library support is proprietary to a single vendor (Microsoft); if you aren't extremely careful about which features you use — more careful than any newbie is really capable of being — you'll end up locked into only those platforms Microsoft chooses to support. If you're starting on a Unix, much better languages with better libraries are available. Python, for example.
Also, like other Basics, Visual Basic is a poorly-designed language that will teach you bad programming habits. No, don't ask me to describe them in detail; that explanation would fill a book. Learn a well-designed language instead.
One of those bad habits is becoming dependent on a single vendor's libraries, widgets, and development tools. In general, any language that isn't fully supported under at least Linux or one of the BSDs, and/or at least three different vendors' operating systems, is a poor one to learn to hack in.
Q:Would you help me to crack a system, or teach me how to crack?
A:No. Anyone who can still ask such a question after reading this FAQ is too stupid to be educable even if I had the time for tutoring. Any emailed requests of this kind that I get will be ignored or answered with extreme rudeness.
Q:How can I get the password for someone else's account?
A:This is cracking. Go away, idiot.
Q:How can I break into/read/monitor someone else's email?
A:This is cracking. Get lost, moron.
Q:How can I steal channel op privileges on IRC?
A:This is cracking. Begone, cretin.
Q:I've been cracked. Will you help me fend off further attacks?
A:No. Every time I've been asked this question so far, it's been from some poor sap running Microsoft Windows. It is not possible to effectively secure Windows systems against crack attacks; the code and architecture simply have too many flaws, which makes securing Windows like trying to bail out a boat with a sieve. The only reliable prevention starts with switching to Linux or some other operating system that is designed to at least be capable of security.
Q:I'm having problems with my Windows software. Will you help me?
A:Yes. Go to a DOS prompt and type "format c:". Any problems you are experiencing will cease within a few minutes.
Q:Where can I find some real hackers to talk with?
A:The best way is to find a Unix or Linux user's group local to you and go to their meetings (you can find links to several lists of user groups on the LDP site at ibiblio).
(I used to say here that you wouldn't find any real hackers on IRC, but I'm given to understand this is changing. Apparently some real hacker communities, attached to things like GIMP and Perl, have IRC channels now.)
Q:Can you recommend useful books about hacking-related subjects?
A:I maintain a Linux Reading List HOWTO that you may find helpful. The Loginataka may also be interesting.
For an introduction to Python, see the tutorial on the Python site.
Q:Do I need to be good at math to become a hacker?
A:No. Hacking uses very little formal mathematics or arithmetic. In particular, you won't usually need trigonometry, calculus or analysis (there are exceptions to this in a handful of specific application areas like 3-D computer graphics). Knowing some formal logic and Boolean algebra is good. Some grounding in finite mathematics (including finite-set theory, combinatorics, and graph theory) can be helpful.
Much more importantly: you need to be able to think logically and follow chains of exact reasoning, the way mathematicians do. While the content of most mathematics won't help you, you will need the discipline and intelligence to handle mathematics. If you lack the intelligence, there is little hope for you as a hacker; if you lack the discipline, you'd better grow it.
I think a good way to find out if you have what it takes is to pick up a copy of Raymond Smullyan's book What Is The Name Of This Book?. Smullyan's playful logical conundrums are very much in the hacker spirit. Being able to solve them is a good sign; enjoying solving them is an even better one.
Q:What language should I learn first?
A:XHTML (the latest dialect of HTML) if you don't already know it. There are a lot of glossy, hype-intensive bad HTML books out there, and distressingly few good ones. The one I like best is HTML: The Definitive Guide.
But HTML is not a full programming language. When you're ready to start programming, I would recommend starting with Python. You will hear a lot of people recommending Perl, but it's harder to learn and (in my opinion) less well designed.
C is really important, but it's also much more difficult than either Python or Perl. Don't try to learn it first.
Windows users, do not settle for Visual Basic. It will teach you bad habits, and it's not portable off Windows. Avoid.
Q:What kind of hardware do I need?
A:It used to be that personal computers were rather underpowered and memory-poor, enough so that they placed artificial limits on a hacker's learning process. This stopped being true in the mid-1990s; any machine from an Intel 486DX50 up is more than powerful enough for development work, X, and Internet communications, and the smallest disks you can buy today are plenty big enough.
The important thing in choosing a machine on which to learn is whether its hardware is Linux-compatible (or BSD-compatible, should you choose to go that route). Again, this will be true for almost all modern machines. The only really sticky areas are modems and wireless cards; some machines have Windows-specific hardware that won't work with Linux.
There's a FAQ on hardware compatibility; the latest version is here.
Q:I want to contribute. Can you help me pick a problem to work on?
A:No, because I don't know your talents or interests. You have to be self-motivated or you won't stick, which is why having other people choose your direction almost never works.
Try this. Watch the project announcements scroll by on Freshmeat for a few days. When you see one that makes you think "Cool! I'd like to work on that!", join it.
Q:Do I need to hate and bash Microsoft?
A:No, you don't. Not that Microsoft isn't loathsome, but there was a hacker culture long before Microsoft and there will still be one long after Microsoft is history. Any energy you spend hating Microsoft would be better spent on loving your craft. Write good code — that will bash Microsoft quite sufficiently without polluting your karma.
Q:But won't open-source software leave programmers unable to make a living?
A:This seems unlikely — so far, the open-source software industry seems to be creating jobs rather than taking them away. If having a program written is a net economic gain over not having it written, a programmer will get paid whether or not the program is going to be open-source after it's done. And, no matter how much "free" software gets written, there always seems to be more demand for new and customized applications. I've written more about this at the Open Source pages.
Q:Where can I get a free Unix?
A:If you don't have a Unix installed on your machine yet, elsewhere on this page I include pointers to where to get the most commonly used free Unix. To be a hacker you need motivation and initiative and the ability to educate yourself. Start now...