A couple of days ago, Jesse Sheidlower wrote to me about the recent climate-scientist email controversy. Since Jesse is a lexicographer, he wasn't writing about whether this is the blue-dress moment for anthropogenic climate change, or a nontroversy based on the shocking discovery that scientists are not always scrupulously fair-minded in private. Rather, Jesse was concerned about the argument structure of the verb hack.
For example, the lede sentence in the NYT's article on the subject (Andrew C. Revkin, "Hacked E-Mail Is New Fodder for Climate Dispute", NYT 11/21/2009) was this:
Hundreds of private e-mail messages and documents hacked from a computer server at a British university are causing a stir among global warming skeptics, who say they show that climate scientists conspired to overstate the case for a human influence on climate change.
This sentence assumes the frame <PERSON> hacks <DATA> from <SYSTEM>, where hack means something like "steal". This same frame is implied more succinctly by the headlined phrase "hacked email". A Google News search for "hacked email|emails" and "hacked data" shows that Norma Loquendi is happy with this. But Jesse expected hacked data to be data that has been modified illicitly, not data that has been obtained illicitly.
Some commenters will hasten to complain that illicit access to computer systems is cracking, not hacking. For the standard take on the origins of the positively-evaluated term hack among techies, see the Jargon File's entries for hack, hack value, hacker, etc., or read Stephen Levy's classic 1984 pop-ethnography Hackers (relevant quotes discussed here; or read the Wikipedia article on the Hacker Ethic). For some discussion of the diverse pre-electronic roots of hack, see "Joy and contempt", 5/25/2005.
But that's all irrelevant to the commonest contemporary usage, which centers on unauthorized or irregular access to computers, and involves at least the following frames:
- <PERSON> hacks <SYSTEM>
- <PERSON> hacks into <SYSTEM>
- <PERSON> hacks <DATA> [from <SYSTEM>]
The problem is that hacking (in this sense) involves an illicit purpose that might include either stealing data or modifying data. In either sense, hacked-as-modifier is not very common — but to the extent that it occurs, it seems to mean "stolen" rather than "modified". Before the recent East Anglia climate heist, I could only find one example of "hacked data" in the NYT archive (from 2005):
(link) Before 2003, there were plenty of examples of hacked data.
And one in COCA (from 2007)
Investigators believe it is the boldest tangible evidence of criminals cashing in on hacked data from TJX.
In both cases, hacked meant "stolen". However, the distinction between hacking-as-access and hacking-as-modification seems to depend in an obvious way on the contextual motivations involved.
There are lots of examples on the web where (for instance) the object of the verb hack is "credit card numbers", and all those that I've looked at involve stealing, not modifying. [Update: some also involve creating fake numbers that pass redundancy tests.] That's presumably because there's an obvious motivation for stealing credit card numbers, and little motivation for modifying them.
In contrast, if we search for something like "hack|hacked|hacking Wikipedia entries", we find exactly the opposite situation: people who hack Wikipedia entries don't steal them (since they're freely available), but rather modify them in an illegitimate way (since they have personal, political, ideological, or commercial motivations for doing so).
In the case of the emails from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia U., both sorts of motivation are present, and which one comes to mind first may depend on your beliefs. If you think that mainstream climate scientists are the agents of a conspiracy to destroy civilization, then you're likely to think that their e-mail archives contain proofs of their guilt, and so a scandal based on their "hacked e-mails" probably involves mere theft. If you think that mainstream climate scientists are rational people trying to prevent the destruction of civilization, then you're likely to think that their email archives are innocent, and so a scandal involving the contents of their "hacked e-mails" probably involves counterfeiting.
[Update — this is a bit like the changing frames of the verb rob, and many other examples of change-of-possession verbs where there are several different ways of organizing the participants. In current standard use, you rob someone (or a more figurative possessor) of something; but it used to be normal to rob something from someone, as in this couplet from Dryden cited in the MWDEU entry:
… They themselves contrive
To rob the Honey and subvert the Hive.
There are several verbs where the loser and the thing lost can be arranged in several ways: "strip A of B" and "strip B from A"; "take B from A" and "take A for B".
So it doesn't surprise me to find that "…hack [into] A for B" turns into things like "How to hack money from the Godfather in Mafia Wars", or "They hacked the [credit card] numbers from 9 major retailers", or "Many people used to hack CSS files from the web".]