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What is a Hacker?

by Cyberguy | Last Updated | November 16, 2021
Cyber Dictionary|CyberSecurity - Consumer|CyberSecurity - SMB

For most people, hacker or hacking, has negative implications and images of young individuals in hoodies bent over computer keyboards doing evil deeds. Yes, hacking and thus hackers have generally been associated with compromising computer systems, computer networks, and digital devices, but those activities are not always done with malicious intent.  For many, hacking is really about challenging technology to an extended level to see if it can be bypassed, broken, infiltrated, or compromised.

So then, really, what is a hacker? Based on the previous description, a hacker or the hacking process is leveraging technical skills and knowledge to solve a problem or challenge, sometimes using unorthodox approaches. By that definition, there is really nothing inherently evil about hacking.

Why Hackers Hack

So what types of hackers are there?

Hackers come in multiple colors and can and are motivated by a number of reasons, both positive and negative. Criminal hackers create malware to commit crimes, such as stealing information and money. Good hackers use their skills to test systems to expose vulnerabilities so that they can be fixed so criminal hackers can’t exploit them. Criminal hackers work for themselves, criminal organizations or nation states. Good hackers typically work for big companies or governments to protect those entities from the bad actors.

The industry groups hackers into 3 primary categories – black hat, white hat and grey hat. There are other variants of hackers but these are the most common definitions.

Black Hats

These hackers gain unauthorized access into computer systems or networks with malicious intent. They may use technology to attack systems for fun, for profit, for political motivations. They could also use it to destabilize countries or as part of a social cause. Black hat system penetration often involves modification and/or destruction of data and distribution of computer viruses, Internet worms, and spam.

White Hats

Generally known as “ethical hackers,” they are computer security experts specializing in penetration testing and other testing methodologies to validate that a company’s computers and digital infrastructure are secure. These experts utilize a variety of methods to carry out their tests, including hacking tools, social engineering tactics, and digital security evasion techniques to gain entry into secured areas and expose vulnerabilities.

Grey Hats

As with the color, these skilled hackers operate in the grey zone, sometimes with good intentions and sometimes not. They are a hybrid between white and black hat hackers. They usually do not hack for personal gain or have malicious intentions, but may or may not occasionally commit crimes during the course of their technological exploits.

So “Hacker” is generally used to refer to any individual who deliberately tries to compromise a computer system—regardless of objective. Or it can also refer to someone who likes to tinker around with the innards of computer systems, and it may also mean a smart person who can solve any computer problem.

Types of Hackers

So, while many in the mainstream may think of hackers as criminals, the term describes a range of people with different technical skills and motives. So, it’s important to use qualifying descriptors, such as “white hat hacker” or “criminal hacker,” so we have a better idea to whom we are referring.

Hacker Motives

Hackers are usually very talented people We just need more of the good variety: white hats.

The first rule of good cybersecurity and digital protection is simply to apply common sense – “check twice, click once”.

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