What Is a Hacker? - Types of Hackers and What They DoUpdated: June 02, 2019
If you use the internet, you are exposed to the risks of being the victim of hacker attacks. But what is a hacker?
We live in an era when anyone can find any piece of information on the internet, they only need to know how and where to find it.
And if you think your private information is safe, think again. Hackers are prolific in the art of getting their hands on the information they need because they have both the knowledge and the tools to do so.
While some hackers do it for fun or with good purposes, lots of hackers are cybercriminals that invade the privacy of people for their own gain. It can be so they spy on the victim, make his/her private data public as some kind of revenge, or they can even use hacking as a way of making money.
Simply defined, a hacker is anyone who poses the technical skills required to get into one's computer or even to get access to entire networks. Although the term hacker is often used to describe individuals who hack devices in order to steal or misuse information, not all hackers use their skills for malicious actions.
Hacking is mostly technical (such as infecting one's computer with malware or bypassing security filters). But hackers can also use psychological tricks to deceive people into providing personal information or to click on malicious links (such as social engineering attacks).
The first recorded use of the term hacking dates back to 1955. In a meeting of the tech model railroad club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Eccles requested that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system should turn off the power to avoid fuse blowing.
Until the 1970s, the term _hacker _was mostly referred to as a way to improve the tech operation systems and wasn't defining cybercriminals. Actually, at that time, hacking wasn't even necessarily related to computers, but was used to define a broader concept and could apply to almost anything. In the 70s, hacking started to get closer to how we define it today. The Blue box appeared, which was a way for users to get free long distance calls.
In 1981, Ian Murphy, also known as Captain Zac, was the first hacker to be convicted for breaking into AT&T's computer system.
The 1980s were the years when the word hacking has taken its role to define cybercrimes as we know it today. That's because various groups started to engage in malicious attacks and people needed a label to place on such criminals. And because hackers had the technical skills and were prolific in coding, the term _hackers _stuck to define individuals who use computer skills to invade devices and steal or damage private information.
The first DoS attack (which is the most common type of hackers attacks to this day) was first seen in 2001.
Although nowadays the term _hacker _has a bad reputation, this is subjected to change in the future as coding becomes more popular. Not all those interested in the hacking culture are using their skills for criminal activities, and there's still a chance for the term to be detached from its bad connotation.
The term hacker was initially used to define those with hacking skills but with no malicious intent. Over time, hacking started to be referred to as using those skills maliciously. To remove the stigma from being labeled a hacker, the term cracker was proposed to define those with criminal intentions, but the term wasn't successful.
If we talk about hacker vs cracker, a hacker is an individual who uses his/her technical skills to identify flaws and vulnerabilities in computer systems and improve them, while a cracker has the intent of exploiting those vulnerabilities for his/her own gain.
But in reality, you won't see the term cracker used too often. To define the difference between a good or criminal hacker, other terms are used such as a white hat or black hat hacker. We'll go through the types of hackers in the following chapters.
Now that you've seen how a hacker was defined over time, is time to find out what exactly hackers do and why they could be a threat for your online security.
Criminal hackers, those you need to protect your computer against, use their hacking skills to get unauthorized access to computers and steal, destroy, or alter personal information. Hackers usually get such access by exploiting the vulnerabilities on your computer system and installing dangerous malware without your knowledge.
Why do people hack?
Most computer hackers hack out of pure curiosity. They enjoy coding and technology and work towards further developing these skills. Other hackers hack for revenge, destruction or for profit gains.
What can a hacker do to you?
There are lots of ways in which a hacker can abuse or misuse your private information, here are the most common:
- Find your usernames and passwords
- Steal your money or open credit cards in your name
- Abuse your Social Security number
- Make your private files public
- Delete or damage the files on your computer
- Lock your files in exchange of a ransom
- Sell your private information to other parties
To better understand the purpose of hackers and to know what types of hackers you should avoid, we'll go through the different types of hackers out there.
White hat hackers are also known as ethical hackers. They use their hacking skills to find flaws and vulnerabilities in computer systems so that the owners can improve their security. A white hat hacker is a good guy or girl who will hack into your computer, not for malicious purposes, but to help you remove malware from your system or even to help you protect yourself against black hat hackers or other malicious cyber crimes.
Black hat hackers are the opposite of the white fellowship. These are the cybercriminals you should worry about and should avoid at all costs. Black hat hackers are mostly about using hacking for their monetary gain. They look for flaws in individuals' PCs, organizations or bank systems and use these vulnerabilities to get access to the networks and steal private information. They can then use various types of malware attacks to trick you into giving them money or even to directly access your bank account and steal your money.
Gray hat hackers fall somewhere between black hat hackers and white hat hackers. They are not using their hacking skills for their own gain, but the actions they take are still illegal so they can't be considered white hat hackers.
For example, gray hat hackers might hack into an organization's system but they won't exploit the access to gain money for themselves. They usually inform the organization about the vulnerabilities or they make the information public on the internet. Because they don't use hacking to make money or to harm an entity, they are not considered black hat hackers. But they weren't authorized to get into the organization's system either, so they are not white hat hackers.
The moment hackers use hacking for their own gain, they are considered black hat hackers.
Script kiddies is a term used to define amateur hackers who are not so interested in learning more about hacking. They often use hacking as a way to impress or to get revenge on someone. They often don't have much coding skills, but use tools downloaded from the internet to hack. This means their attacks are usually not qualitative. The most common types of hacking attacks that come from script kiddies are DoS and DDoS attacks.
Green hat hackers are the hacking amateurs. What differentiates them from script kiddies is that green hat hackers are aiming to become prolific hackers and don't just play around with hacking tools once in a while. They are constantly learning and you can find them really active on the forums around hacking. Similar to how the journey in martial arts starts with you wearing a white belt, hackers start their hacking journey by wearing a green hat.
Blue hat hackers are also hacking amateurs. Similar to script kiddies, they are not interested in learning the traits of hacking. Their only purpose is to get revenge on someone that stepped on their toes. Are considered blue hat hackers script kiddies with a vindictive agenda.
Red hat hackers have a similar purpose to white hat hackers, their aim being to stop the crime of black hat hackers. What differentiates them from white hat hackers is that they will not stop the malware attacks in a peaceful way. They will initiate an attack upon the black hat hacker so to take him/her down.
This type of hackers refers to those hackers that have been employed by governments or states for espionage. Nation-state hackers are not only used by countries to get their hands on sensitive information about other countries, but they can also be used for dangerous cyber attacks. Over the last couple of years, various cyber attacks targeting countries have been reported as coming from other countries. You can read more about cyber attacks between countries and the well-known groups of nation-state hackers here.
Hacktivists are hackers who are not driven by their greed for money and power but are motivated by their political, religious, or social ideologies. Simply put, they are protestors and activists in the online world. They use their hacking skills to hack organizations or governments for an opportunity to share their reasoning. The most well-known hacktivist group is Anonymous. They have been involved in major events such as the Black Lives Matter movement and fighting against ISIS after the Paris terror attacks.
Whistleblowers are usually employees within companies that use their hacking skills to hack the companies' systems and access private information. A whistleblower can be someone that has a grudge against the company or can be someone hired by competitors with the aim of gathering business secrets.
Anonymous is the most popular group of hacktivists consisting of hackers from all around the globe. Their aim is to promote free speech and they fight for transparency in government activities.
Kevin Mitnick is known as the most wanted computer criminal in the US. He was convicted for various computer crimes, including breaking into the national defense system and stealing corporate secrets. He was released from prison in 2000.
Jonathan James, also known as c0mrade, has been in prison while still a minor for hacking into commercial and government networks. He also hacked into NASA's network stealing plenty of source code that allowed him to learn how the International Space station worked. He committed suicide in 2008 thinking he will be charged for some crimes he didn't commit.
Kevin Poulsen, also known as Dark Dante, managed to hack a radio station's phone line impersonating himself as the winner caller of a Porsche. Hacking into federal systems and stealing wiretap information is what got him convicted. After his release in 1995, he began working as a journalist. In 2006, he helped with identifying over 700 sex offenders on MySpace.
Albert Gonzales was the leader of the hackers group ShadowCrew. He became famous after gathering more than 170 million credit card and ATM card numbers in two years. He also hacked into the TJX Companies and Heartland Payment systems databases to steal all their credit card numbers. He's currently in prison set for release in 2025.
Julian Assange hacked into various networks including NASA, Pentagon, Citibank and Stanford University. He created WikiLeaks in 2006, a platform for news leaks and classified documents. He's now in Ecuador fearing extradition to the US.
Guccifer 2.0 is a hacker whose identity is a mystery to this day. In an interview with Vice, he claimed he is Romanian and has no ties to Russian intelligence (how it was initially believed). He hacked into the Democratic National Convention's network during the 2016 US Presidential Election and thousands of documents were leaked on platforms like WikiLeaks.
Hackers can get into your computer by exploiting the vulnerabilities in your computer system security and by infecting your computer with malware. They use various types of malware to get hold of your data such as Trojan Horses, keyloggers, viruses, and rootkits along with different social engineering techniques.
If you want to learn more about the types of malware that could put your online security at risk, give our dedicated post a read.
If you suspect your computer has been hacked but don't know what to look for, these are the most common signs that someone hacked into your computer.
- You notice new programs or files on your computer
- The credential on your personal accounts have been changed
- Your friends receive spam emails from you
- Your internet connection is slower
- You detect unexplained transactions
- Odd or unauthorized changes
- You notice your antivirus program or firewall has been disabled or removed
- You notice your mouse cursor moving on its own
- Your browser homepage has changed or you notice a new toolbar
Mind that the above-listed symptoms are not necessarily coming from a hacker attack. They can also be the sign of a virus and some may also occur when no malware is involved.
If you notice unusual behavior and your computer and think you might've been hacked, here are the first things you should do.
Change your passwords - Most hackers are after usernames and password as the access to your account will give them the opportunity to collect more private data and even to steal your money. If you suspect you've been hacked, immediately change your passwords and make them complex. If the hacker change your password and you're not able to log in to your accounts, nor to reset the passwords, contact the companies and request their action. You should never use the same password on multiple accounts, use a password manager tool to keep track of different passwords.
Check your computer - Scan your computer to detect any malware or spyware that could be stealing your information. If you detect a type of malware that logs your keystrokes, such as a keylogger, you should change your passwords after removing the malware.
Verify your account details - If you've been hacked, you should verify all the accounts and look for any suspicious changes. See if there's any new recovery email linked to an account, if your shipping information is intact, you should even look for what you authorize third-party programs and apps. Make sure you review any detail as a hacker can leave a door open by changing only a small feature in your accounts.
Let your friend know - If you've been hacked, it is important to make your friends aware of this. A hacker might use your email address to send malicious emails to your contact list, turning them into victims also.
Check with your bank - If you think your credit card details have been compromised, you should immediately contact your bank to block your account. If a hacker hacked into your computer, one of the main reasons is to get hold of your money.
To protect yourself from hacker attacks and keep your computer and information private, these are the most important steps you should follow.
- Use an antivirus program and keep it updated
- Use a firewall
- Update your operating system
- Increase your browser security and privacy settings
- Avoid suspicious websites
- Don't open emails from unknown senders
- Don't download software and programs from websites you don't trust, especially free software
- Use a VPN service to maintain your online privacy, especially if you use public WiFi networks
Now that you have a better idea about what a hacker is, you should be more concerned about your online security. It's always best to prevent hackers attacks than to deal with the consequences of being hacked.
We, like many others, advise you to keep yourself safe against hackers but you should keep in mind that the word hacker is not necessary a bad thing.
Hacker refers to anyone with the technical and coding skills required to spot the vulnerabilities of a computer system. But not all those with such skills use their knowledge for criminal purposes.
Still, we use this term to define cybercriminals because we don't have another better universal term for it. Hopefully, with the evolution of technology, the term will be redefined and white hat hackers will be able to escape the stigma around the term.