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What is Hacking?

by Cyberguy | Last Updated | November 17, 2021
Cyber Dictionary|CyberSecurity - Consumer|CyberSecurity - SMB

Hacking is an old game in the cyberworld with ever changing players and techniques. It may be done with good intentions or malicious motives. It is growing rapidly because of the proliferation of devices.

What is hacking?

Hacking, as the world knows it today, is the act of exploiting computers and other digital devices through unauthorized access. It is often associated with illegal activity, but it is not always a malicious act. 

An old school view of hacking and hackers is a lone con artist who specializes in modifying computer software and hardware. This is a narrow view that does not cover the highly technical and sophisticated nature of hacking. It also stereotypes hacking as a criminal activity, which it is not always. Hackers have different motives when doing their act and they may be either good or bad.

What is Hacking

A brief history of computer hacking

Hacking started for fun and curiosity. Back in 1878, a group of teenage boys hired to run the switchboards of the Bell Telephone would tinker with the boards to misdirect or disconnect calls.

The 1960s saw the first serious hacking attempts. At that time, computers were mainframes housed in temperature controlled glass rooms. Computer programmers had limited access to the machines because it was expensive to run them.

To satisfy their curiosity, a group of smart students from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) created programming shortcuts they then called “hacks” to complete computer tasks more quickly. Some of those hacks were better than the original programs. 

Towards the end of the decade, two employees of the AT&T Bell Labs namely, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, created an open set of commands called UNIX. UNIX is a computer operating system that has come to be identified with the concept of open systems now widely used in PCs, mobile devices and servers.

In the 1970s, hacking went from being fun to serious business. John Draper, a Vietnam veteran, found a way to make free long distance phone calls in 1971. The scheme is what we now know as “phreaking”. Later during this decade, the computer bulletin board system was born. Other new hacks during the period were laser printers and LANs (Local Area Networks).

During the 1980s, there was a drastic increase in personal computer use in the United States. From just over a million units in 1980, the figure increased to 30 million by 1986. Other highlights of the decade included the formation of hacker groups, such as: 

History of Hacking

The succeeding decades made hackers even more notorious. You may have heard of: 

Why Hackers Hack

We have highlighted the historical significance of hacking to let people know that since it began, malicious hacking has done extensive havoc to their victims. There are no signs of hacking letting up and hackers are getting bolder, more sophisticated and always wanting to get ahead of cybersecurity capabilities.

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Types of hacking and hackers

In hacking there are good actors and bad actors and some are in between. Be they white, black or grey, hackers have extensive knowledge and skills in breaking into computer networks and bypassing protocols. Let’s take a look at the common types.

White hat

In white hat hacking, hackers use their skills for good rather than malicious activities. White hat hackers can either be employees or contractors working for companies to test the security loopholes of their networks. They are also called ethical hackers.

White hat hackers use the same methods of hacking as black hat hackers, except that they do it with the permission of the owner of the network, making the process legal. They perform penetration testing and vulnerability assessments and recommend solutions to patch them.

Black hat

Black hat hackers break into systems without the permission of the owners for one or more of the following motives:

They are the bad actors who either spread malware or aim to steal data, such as personal information, financial details or login credentials. They may also seek to modify or destroy data for ransom purposes.

Gray hat

Gray hat hackers are a hybrid between black and white hat hackers. What they do is to look for vulnerabilities of a system without the owner’s permission, but often not for malicious purposes. If they find issues, they then inform the owner and may offer to fix them for a small fee. If the owner does not comply, some grey hat hackers may post the findings online to warn the public.

Types of Hackers

How do hackers hack?

The simplest way to hack a computer is taking physical possession of that computer, say a laptop or a phone. Professional hackers can easily crack passwords to gain access. If not, they can use a third party tool sold on the Dark Web to enter computers by brute force.

Hacking Methodology

Another common tactic of hackers is exploiting human frailty through social engineering. They use phishing techniques to trick people into giving away their login credentials. They will follow them on social media to gather more personal information about them. Then they pose as someone who knows them so their victims finally soften up and give in to their requests.

Hackers’ strategies come in all shapes and sizes. This is true for both ethical and malicious hackers. Ethical hackers exploit computer system weaknesses to patch vulnerabilities and better secure the system. Malicious hackers do the same, but instead of fixing vulnerabilities, they exploit them for nefarious purposes.

Regardless of shade, hackers work in two ways.

The first category of hackers use code that has been written by someone else and is available online. These hackers do not have much programming expertise, so they download malicious software or scripts to launch an attack. They don’t understand the inner workings of computer networking or of software, so they rely on other hackers’ technological expertise.. These types of hackers are often referred to as script kiddies.

Script kiddies often target the gaming community to send off a DDoS (Denial-of-Service) attack on a game or vandalize the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) channel to disrupt group discussion. These attacks can be easily defended by keeping your computer hardware and software up to date with the most recent patches and updates.

The second category of hackers look for zero-day vulnerabilities that are often left unnoticed for a period of time. Zero-day vulnerabilities are loopholes in a system that have been discovered but not yet patched. 

Zero-day hackers are highly skilled and smart. They craft their own hacking tools and take time doing it so they are on target when they launch the attack. The attacks are often carried out on national security systems and corporate businesses. These hackers bank on these types of exploits to demand huge financial returns.

The Heartbleed attack in 2014 is a classic example of a zero-day exploit. It affected Linux servers and websites that use OpenSSL, such as Facebook, Dropbox and online banking.

Devices vulnerable to hacking

The list of vulnerable devices includes more than just your phone or laptop. Our lives are increasingly becoming digital. Whether in the office or at home, we have all kinds of smart things at our beckon call The problem is, they, too, are good targets for hackers especially if they are connected to the Internet. 

 

Phases of Hacking

Phones

Hackers are now able to hack some of the most sophisticated phone software. There are countless free and paid hacking options online. Some hacking software needs to be installed physically on the phone to work. 

Phone hackers can also use other techniques, such as phishing, SIM Card hacking or Bluetooth hacking. Your phone can also be hacked if you: 

Smart devices

Many of your smart devices can put your personal data at risk. And the more devices you have, the more cybersecurity threats exist. Here are some of them:

Web cameras

Just like everything that is connected to the Internet, Webcams can fall victim to hacking. This can happen through phishing scams where victims unwittingly download malware onto their webcam can give hackers complete control of the initial device and possibly everything it is connected to.

Routers

Hackers can attack routers and home Wi-Fi’s hotspots through a DNS (Domain Name Server) hijacking. This involves redirecting your traffic to fake websites or websites run by them so they can steal your login credentials and other personal information. 

Emails

Email accounts are not immune to hacking. Hackers can hack emails by phishing, keylogging and password guessing. If you did not log out when you used an unsecured public Wi-Fi, chances are hackers will easily find you.

Jailbroken phones

Jailbreaking is the process of removing restrictions imposed by the phone manufacturer to allow the installation of unauthorized software. It can create vulnerabilities to your phone that hackers can and will exploit.

How to protect yourself against hacking

Criminal hackers are a scary bunch that will relentlessly attempt to hack vulnerable victims and devices. Think of your phone or laptop as your company. What can you do to protect them and you from hacking?

#1. Update your operating system and other software frequently, if possible automatically. Keep away from old programs that hackers can easily crack.

#2. Download up-to-date security programs, including a firewall and an antimalware program. 

#3. Do not access personal data on public Wi-Fi.

#4. Turn off anything you do not need. For example, you should turn off your GPS, wireless connection and geo-tracking all the time and turn them on only when you need them.

#5. Protect all your devices with strong passwords. The devices include your desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile phone, smartwatch, camera and many more.

#6. Come up with creative answers to security questions. For example, a good answer to “What high school did you go to?” would be “December 20100”. 

#7. Use unique and strong passwords for each account.

#8. Use encryption.

#9. Change the default usernames and passwords on your smart devices and router.

#10. Install antivirus software.

#11. Use a VPN.

#12. Use a password manager.

#13. Do not store passwords on your browser.

#14. Use two-factor authentication.

#15. Avoid clicking on strange ads and links.

#16. Manage your social media settings.

#17. In case your device is stolen or lost, protect your data by programming your device to lock itself after a pre-set number of failed log-in attempts.

Hacking and viruses are here to stay. You might say you are just a needle in a haystack in this boundless world wide web. Think again. Hackers are skilled specialists equipped with the technical know-how and the most advanced hacking tools. They can unleash viruses that feast on every prey they find, and you could be one of them. 

Safety and caution are paramount to protecting data. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure …….. someone once said. 

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