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What is a hacker?

Popular culture stereotypes portray hackers as mysterious criminals who steal information, subvert top-secret security systems, or strip people of their cash. But this isn’t always true. Hackers can also do a lot of good and serve as a positive force for internet safety. Learn about different types of hackers below and get to know a few famous hackers.

Paul Black

Paul Black

Dec 05, 2019 · 4 min read

What is a hacker?

What do hackers do?

A hacker is someone who uses his or her advanced computer knowledge to exploit security loopholes in digital devices or software/apps. The term was first used in the early ’80s and slowly grew more widespread. Sci-fi movies and novels also popularized the term and even romanticized it (e.g., through movies like Wargames and Hackers). As our lives become more and more digitized, hackers only become more and more significant.

The criminal activities many of us know hackers for are just one side of the coin. Hacker culture also means innovation and creativity. Hackers explore the limitations of software, search for advanced protection solutions, and advocate for internet freedom.

Types of hackers

White hat hacker

These are hackers who use their knowledge for generally acceptable or legal purposes. They are computer security experts who hack into systems to evaluate their security flaws and suggest potential improvements. They can work with organizations and companies to improve their security or as freelancers who fulfill security bounties for cash rewards.

White hats can also operate as modern-day Robin Hood successors. They could use black-hat techniques to subvert laws or steal from corporations for good means (for example, expose some info useful for public interest, help the society, etc.). They can also help companies track down and catch black hatters (for example, by using a honeypot).

Blue hat hacker

There are also blue hat hackers. Software companies contract them to look for software security vulnerabilities before its launch. They do bug tests to find weak spots so developers could fix them. The difference from white-hat hackers is that blue hats are outsourced from external companies. However, they could still be treated as a sub-group of white hats.

Black hat hacker

Black hats use their tech skills for various illegal and sometimes criminal activities. These include:

  • Stealing data, online identities or money;
  • Hacking systems for challenge or entertainment;
  • Distributing different types of malware;
  • Spying on individuals, companies or even countries to obtain confidential data;
  • Cracking software digital rights protection for illegal use;
  • Stalking people.

Apart from trying to hack into your system directly, these hackers might also employ social engineering measures to achieve their goals. In this case, you will provide access by clicking on a malicious link or downloading dodgy apps.

Black hat hackers are the type you usually need to look out for. We’ve covered many of their hacking techniques on our blog. These can include IP fragmentation or the creation of malware or viruses.

Script kiddies

Script kiddies are hackers who exclusively employ scripts developed by others to carry out digital mischief. Hackers sometimes look down on them, since hackers are usually supposed to be capable of hacking without premade tools or of building their own. However, script kiddies still use real hacking tools, so can still do some damage. Script kiddies are also active in the gaming community.

Grey hat hacker

Grey hat hackers fall somewhere between black and white hats. They usually hack for more pragmatic or selfish purposes rather than for the systematic development of security systems. Grey-hats usually act unethically and illegally, but they don’t engage in the criminal activities that black hat hackers do.

For example, a grey hatter may find a loophole in your system without you hiring him or her, notify you, but only agree to fix it for a certain sum of money. Or they may not report it at all.

Hacktivist or red hat hacker

Hacktivists (also known as red hat hackers) perform hacks to convey a political, ideological, social, or religious message. They also might expose confidential information for various reasons (e.g., advocating freedom of information, making a statement, etc.). Their hacktivism can also be a part of a broader campaign, and it is usually a continuous process rather than a one-off affair. Some examples of hacktivism include the activities of WikiLeaks, the Anonymous movement, etc.

Famous hackers

Here are just a few examples of famous hackers:

Kevin Mitnick

This guy is one of the main inspirations for the film WarGames, in which a hacker accesses a US supercomputer used to predict outcomes of nuclear war and initiates a war simulation. In the early 1980s he hacked the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which is responsible for USA air defense. He also infamously hacked the Pacific Bell and Digital Equipment Corporation networks. After serving years in prison, Kevin ultimately became a white hat hacker.

Kevin Poulsen

Kevin managed to take over all the phone lines of Los Angeles radio station KIIS-FM to win a Porsche. Later, he pursued a journalist’s career and developed software for secure communications between journalists and their sources.

Jude Milhon

Jude started a hacking group called Cypherpunks. She was one of the earliest hacktivists to advocate for privacy and women’s rights. She also participated in the Civil Rights Movement and wrote a few books on politically and socially conscious hacking.

How to stay safe from black hatters

  • Update your security software;
  • Do not expose your info publicly or to people you don’t know;
  • Do not open suspicious links, emails or messages;
  • Use strong passwords and double-factor authentication;
  • Only download software from trusted websites;
  • Use a VPN to help safeguard your traffic.