Jun 16, 2015 · 2 minutes

By now you've probably heard that the St. Louis Cardinals "hacked" into an internal network used by the Houston Astros to scout and recruit new players.

Talk about a neat story. A federal investigation into a baseball team hacking another team? Bring in Chris Pratt as the lead actor and you have a blockbuster. But that's only until you realize that the "hacking" was, or appears to have been, little more than someone using an old password to log into a rival's network.

That's a hack in the same way that a student peering over a teacher's shoulder as they enter a password is a hack -- which is to say that it's nothing of the sort. It was someone using existing knowledge, or exploiting some circumstance in the physical world, to gain access to a computer system they shouldn't have.

It's still an interesting story. Bloomberg Businessweek thought the Astros system was cool enough to warrant a rather long article back in August 2014. That baseball teams are taking "moneyball" to this extreme, and using some underhanded tactics to do so, makes for a fairly compelling sportsball story.

Yet that doesn't warrant further degrading the definition of "hacking." It's a real word! Like other real words, it has a specific meaning, and also like other real words, it can lose that meaning and become little more than meaningless filler. Just think of "like" or "natural" or other words that have suffered the same fate.

Almost two years ago, I made a similar point in regards to the word "smart," which has gone from an adjective to an all-but-meaningless tech-related prefix:

So let’s stop referring to every device that connects to the Internet as “smart.” If not, eventually some (smart) ass is going to take it to the next level and lead us down the (smart) road to the (smart) apocalypse by developing a “geniusphone” or a “savant television.” Or perhaps Florida will accidentally write a law banning the use of just about everything you own. Whichever comes first.
Hacks are interesting. Sports, and the misdeeds of the various people who play them, can also be interesting. The two don't need to be forced together if they don't belong together -- that's how we ended up with "Alien vs. Predator" -- so maybe it'd be best to stop calling this intrusion a "hack" in the paper of record.

[photo by Erin Borrini]