What is a hacker? The question probably makes you envision a figure in a hoodie, hunched over a keyboard. Fingers type faster than any normal user possibly could, while strange codes and terms fly across screens. Starting as far back as the 1980s, movies and TV have popularized the stereotype.
But are hackers the mysterious villains portrayed in films and TV? Are they just malicious tricksters? Or are they elite geniuses that know how to push systems beyond their limits?
Sometimes hackers are shown as anarchist freedom fighters, striving against evil corporations or governments. And sometimes hackers are portrayed as mere thieves, greedy conmen out to steal from anyone they can.
For the truth, we need to step back and take a wider view.
The term “hacking” is broadly associated with illegal electronic activities, including network intrusion and identity theft. A hacker uses malware, exploits and bugs to gain unauthorized access to a system.
But even this definition only partially describes the activities of a hacker.
The Hacker’s Dictionary (aka The Jargon File) says: “A hacker enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.” This definition sounds a lot more favorable and implies that not all hacking activities are malicious. The phrase also suggests that with the right motivation anyone could learn to hack.
Perhaps the hacker state of mind starts with curiosity and a desire to learn.
Types of Hackers
We categorize hackers according to their goals. Are the goals of a hacker ethical or questionable?
On the spectrum of ethics, the community has given themselves names according to “hat colors”. The hat color is a reference to black-and-white western movies. The villain always wore a black hat and the hero a white hat.
Black Hat Hackers
Black Hat Hackers break into systems illegally. The Black Hats will try to hide their presence on the system. They work with malicious intents.
Once a Black Hat gains access to a system or network, they will often explore ways to gain more access until reaching critical assets, like personal information or financial data. Black Hats can employ tools like malware to tamper with data, or gather information and passwords from users. Some will exfiltrate and sell passwords, sensitive information and financial data, or use this data to attack other systems.
White Hat Hackers
White Hat Hackers include ethical hackers. They make their living probing systems for flaws. White Hats work to protect systems rather than attacking them. They look for bugs, weaknesses and other vulnerabilities and report these problems to the system owner. White Hats also perform penetration testing and vulnerability assessments. They test the security of IT systems and strengthen the cybersecurity of companies, organizations and governments.
Many Black Hat Hackers eventually become White Hats, as computer security and coding skills hold real value in the job market. Many large companies seek to hire White Hat Hackers, to improve their own programs and security.
The penalties for illegal hacking can be severe, and working a high paying job as a security consultant sounds a lot more appealing than prison.
Gray Hat Hackers
This type of hacker falls somewhere in the middle, between Black Hat and White Hat. Gray Hat Hackers may sometimes violate laws or ethical standards. They break into systems, finding exploits and vulnerabilities, but do so without malicious intent. Their real goals might include simple tinkering, curiosity or just showing off.
Sometimes Gray Hats even work for the common good, breaking into systems illegally but then sending information about the exploits to the system owner. In general, Gray Hats do not make use of system vulnerabilities for their own gain.
From so-called White Hats to Black Hats, we normally categorize hackers by their goal. Are they exploiting a system for an ethical purpose, for their own amusement or for illegal gains?
Believe it or not, there are even more types of hackers. The world of hacking includes hacktivists, script-kiddies, cyber terrorists, griefers, sponsored hackers, hacker artists and more.
But all hackers have one thing in common: a desire and quest for knowledge.