The term hacker has been in circulation in day to day language for almost thirty years, but what they do and what makes someone cross the line into being a hacker is still something many people are confused about. Simply put, computer hackers are any users who exploit network systems to gain access to areas they aren’t credentialed for. They are adept at finding weaknesses in security at many levels of network design, being versatile with not only network administration, OS administration, and programming, but also social engineering and corporate protocols for their targets. It is the computing equivalent of being a spy or intelligence operative and requires many of the same research and analysis skills, as well as the technical skills employed in the process.

White Hat vs. Black Hat Hackers

The term hacker is itself value neutral, because there are many good reasons why users with no intent to harm a system or steal data might engage in system exploitation. When a hacker is dedicated to finding exploits and documenting them for the purpose of eliminating them and increasing security, the term “white hat” is used. It’s a name for them that comes from old westerns, where the color of the hat a cowboy wore coded their virtue or villainy. White hats are employed by security firms and IT departments within companies to help them stay ahead of hackers who would cause damage. Many are also hobbyists who report their findings independently to the companies affected.

Black hats are just the opposite. These computer hackers are dedicated to using their skills to compromise systems in order to take data for themselves or third parties, or to cause other havoc. Ransomware attacks that wall a company off from its cloud applications and data are one example of a black hat attack that is carried out for reasons other than information theft. Black hat hackers are sometimes freelance criminals who are looking to enrich themselves through direct fraud or the sale of financial identity information. Many are also employed by governments around the world to carry out operations against hostile powers.

  • Information theft
  • Asset compromises
  • Virus injection
  • Botnet operations

The famous Stuxnet worm that infected Iranian nuclear facilities is one example of a government-backed black hat operation.

Motives Beyond Profit

Hacking often requires hours or even weeks of research, tedious trial and error searches, and a close examination of the code that keeps computer systems working. Its motives go beyond profit even for those who tend to hack for profit, and this is shown by the way hackers continue to target difficult systems with low economic payoffs just to discover new ways into them. It’s a trait common to both white hat and black hat hackers, and the reasons given by those who are asked are varied.

Hackers often describe what they do as a vocation, and many of the ones who choose to work to improve computer security view it as a moral calling. Protecting one’s system from hackers is important, but it’s also important to realize most of their targets are businesses with large stores of information like customer identifiers and credit card numbers.