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Hacking is the act of using one's technical knowledge to gain unauthorized access to a any kind of computer system or program.
There are several instances of hacking that appear in the Half-Life and Portal universe.
Alyx Vance shows considerable prowess at handling computers and demonstrates a high level of hacking ability. She is able to use her Multi-tool and later EMP Tool to hack effectively. This allows her to operate and manipulate all kinds of electrical equipment (Including those manufactured by the Combine) in various ways, such as hacking Rollermines or Combine Sentry Guns to be friendly to herself and others (such as Gordon Freeman) and attack Combine forces, disabling Force Fields, disabling Combine locks and opening Combine Heavy Doors by hacking into their Combine interfaces. However, in Episode One, her hacking attempts can be stopped by Stalkers and this requires some of them to be neutralized before Gordon and Alyx can proceed.
In Half-Life: Alyx, “hacking” appears as an essential puzzle element of the game. Interestingly, the hacking puzzles appear to be less hacking and more of some kind of feature built into Combine devices. Along with re-wiring puzzles also featured in the game, neither fit the definition of hacking despite being commonly referred to as such. In Half-Life: Alyx, all Combine devices appear to feature an outlet which when connected to a compatible device such as the Multi-tool, activates a holographic projector also built into the device which displays a puzzle that when solved, unlocks or deactivates the device, depending on what it is. This suggests that this is perhaps a way of unlocking/deactivating Combine devices purposely built into them. Another explanation is that Alyx is indeed hacking the devices but the player see it as a mini-puzzle for gameplay purpose.
Hacking also appears throughout the Portal series. On ApertureScience.com, Entering THECAKEISALIE into the prompt shows a message left by what is most likely either a Test Subject or a former employee (possibly Doug Rattmann) who seems to have hacked the system, with the view of Test Chamber 00’s Relaxation Vault through a security camera browsing from side to side. In the message, the hacker expresses their concern about their freedom, among other things.
In Portal 2, Wheatley, a Personality Core, can hack into the Aperture Science network to perform tasks such as opening doors or other secret panels when plugged into Aperture Science Core Input Receptacles, and sometimes even remotely. For example, in test chamber 21, Wheatley succeeds in turning off the lights to help Chell escape. It should be noted that Wheatley's understanding of hacking is dubious and his attempts are poorly thought out. For example, he claims in the Turret Production Line to "hack" the door only to physically break the glass, and none of his attempts to stop the Neurotoxin Generator were successful. This may be explained by his purpose as he was meant to be an "intelligence dampening core" and is unable to come up with well thought out ideas.
In real life
In 2002, Axel Gembe used the Asynchronous Full Zone Transfer (AXFR) tool, used for synchronizing servers, to discover an unguarded entrance into Valve's internal network through a port used by Tangis, managed by Gabe Newell's brother, Dan. He used this to find various details about the beta of Half-Life 2, which was still in production at the time. On September 19, 2003, Gembe downloaded the unfinished source code of Half-Life 2. Gembe was eventually arrested.
Alyx disabling a Force Field with her EMP Tool.