Are you worried about being hacked? Have nightmares filled with shadowy hooded hackers prying into your deepest secrets? If you’re concerned about hacking, you’ve come to the right place: our ultimate hacking guide will answer all of your hacking questions.

What is Hacking?

Hacking compromises computer systems, personal accounts, computer networks or digital devices. But it’s not necessarily malicious activity: there’s nothing inherently criminal about the official definition of hacking. Another way to define hacking is as simple as using technology or related knowledge to overcome a challenge.

So what is a hacker? Based on how we have defined hacking, a hacker is someone who uses their technical skills and knowledge to solve a problem or challenge. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

When hackers break into a network or computer system, it’s called a security hack. And, even though hackers oft portray in the media as cybercriminals who make a living by stealing data and causing all sorts of digital mayhem, the proper term for such illegal hacking is cracking.

A brief history of hacking

The first people to apply the expression hacking in a technical context were the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club members. After World War II, these students began using hacking to describe creating an innovative solution to a technical challenge. Then, with the advent of computers in the 1960s, curious club members took the term with them as they entered a new technological space.

A hacker uses their technical skills and knowledge to solve a problem or challenge.

But it wasn’t awaiting the 1980s that hacking skyrocketed. Then, computers were available to the general public and at affordable prices for the first time: almost anyone could buy a computer and experiment with hacking.

And they experimented: Criminal hacking was so prevalent that in 1986, the US passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the world’s first cybercrime law. Unfortunately, many of the world’s most dangerous hackers have followed in the footsteps of those pioneers in recent years.

Types of Hackers

At its core, hacking is about unbridled originality, fearless innovation, and the audacity to break through standard ways of thinking. But not all hackers have enough of hacking for the love of the art.

The hacker community can divide into three broad groups based on the legality of their activities.

Illustration showing the three types of hackers: black hats, white hats, and grey hats. Three types of hackers are black hats, white hats, and grey hats.

Black Hat Hackers

Black hat hackers are the ones the media loves to describe: the hidden cybercriminals who skillfully break into a computer system to steal data, alter records or perform any other illegal activities.

If a black hat hacker discovers a susceptibility in a software program, they will exploit it for criminal purposes. For example, they may create an exploit (a software tool used to control a particular vulnerability) to access a computer system to spread malware. They may also sell your discovery on the dark web.

Sometimes black hat hackers will still try to coerce (or bribe) people into hacking for them in what is known as an insider threat. For example, in August 2020, a hacker offered a Tesla employee $1 million to covertly install ransomware at their Nevada Gig factory in the US. But luckily, the employee reported the offer to the FBI, and the hacker was arrested.

Ethical and White Hat Hackers

Unlike their black hat brethren, white hat hackers do all their hacking in the open. White hat hackers are the conflicting of their black hat counterparts. Companies often hire white hat hackers to hack into their systems and software to identify potential security vulnerabilities or flaws, a technique known as penetration testing. That way, companies can beef up their security before a black hat hacker can breach it. This is why white hat hackers are said to practice ethical hacking.

Some white hat hackers work on the staff of large organizations, while others are freelancers or contractors. In addition to security hacking, ethical hackers may conduct phishing campaigns against employees to test an organization’s resilience against real-world attacks and help identify areas where additional cybersecurity training may need.

Grey Hat Hackers

Grey hat hackers straddle the fuzzy boundaries between black and white. They are not explicitly altruistic like white hat hackers, but they are not exclusively focused on criminal activities either. Grey hat hackers tend to cut first and ask for consent later, unlike ethical hackers who ask for permission first.

Many grey hat hackers start by testing a company’s systems or software to identify a security flaw. They only then contact the company to offer a solution (for a price, of course). Others use the hack as a tool for activism, publicly revealing vulnerabilities so that the target company has no choice but to fix them. For example, in 2013, a grey hat hacker confronted Mark Zuckerberg directly by using the security bug he had discovered to post on the CEO’s private wall after Facebook had repeatedly rebuffed his previous attempts to report the bug.

While grey hat hacking can yield positive results, it is still illegal to practice security hacking without prior consent.

Is Hacking Illegal?

By itself, hacking is acceptable. But by hacking without obtaining prior consent, you cross the line between legal hobby and illegal cybercrime. That’s why what pallid hat hackers do is fine (their employees and customers permit them to hack), and at the same time, grey hat hackers can face legal consequences if they go to the police with their findings.

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