The term "hacker" has been used to mean various things in the world of computing: one who is able to subvert computer security (regardless of intentions), one who is a member of the open-source software community and subculture, and one who attempts to push the limits of computer software and hardware through home modifications.

In the world of computer security, the term "hacker" is often portrayed as negative by mass media, despite the prevalence of "white hat hacking", or ethical hacking for the purpose of discovering potential security flaws and reporting them to the proper individuals or organizations so that the flaws may be patched. Black hat hacking, on the other hand, is the breaking into computer systems without any intention of reporting discovered vulnerabilities, often with malicious or financial incentives. The hackers who fall somewhere on the spectrum between "white hats" and "black hats" are referred to as "grey hats". Grey hat hackers will often perform mischievous activities with (usually non-malicious although at times questionably ethical) motivations. Additionally, grey hat hackers often choose not to report security flaws to the proper channels; rather, they report such information to the hacking community and the general public, enjoy watching the fallout as those with the security flaws scramble to fix them before they can be abused by black hat hackers.

Within the open-source software and computer hobbyist communities, however, "hacker" usually has a less negative connotation. Within these cultures, hackers are often individuals regarded as intelligent and clever, and able to come up with creative solutions to existing problems that a software or hardware product developer may have not thought of or publicly released yet. These hackers often refer to "hackers" within the computer security world as "crackers" (as in safe-cracker) to emphasize their belief that calling such individuals "hackers" is incorrect. With the rise of hacker and "hacktivist" groups such as LulzSec (now LulzSec Reborn) and Anonymous, the mass media portrayal of the term "hacker" continues to lead the general public to believe "hacker" is synonymous with "cybercriminal".

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