What Are Black Hat and White Hat Hackers?

What are grey hats and hacktivists?

A hacker is a tech-savvy computer user who manipulates and bypasses computer systems to make them do the unintended. Sometimes this manipulation is noble with a goal to create something beneficial. Other times, hacking is done to hurt people through identity theft or other damage.

Black had and White hat hackers in dark and lit rooms
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Types of Hackers

You are likely familiar with the stereotypical 1980s hacker, the evil criminal who is socially isolated. While this stereotype does indeed describe some modern hackers, other hackers exist who are not criminals. There are many hackers who use their knowledge for good. The main categories of hackers are:

  • Black Hat Hackers: Criminals and wrongdoers.
  • White Hat Hackers: Ethical hackers who work to protect systems and people.
  • Grey Hat Hackers: Dabble in both black hat and white hat tinkering.
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Classic Black Hat Hackers

Person in hoodie and mask on computer representing a hacker

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A black hat hacker is a computer user who willfully vandalizes or commits theft on other people's networks.

The term "black hat" is a way to describe their malicious motivations. Black hats are gifted but unethical computer users who are motivated by money, fame, or criminal purposes. They may steal data to sell it or attempt to extort money from system owners. They are the bad guys of the hacking world.

Black hat hackers are renowned for these common cybercrimes:

  • Distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks that impair computer networks
  • Identity theft
  • The creation of worms and other destructive programs
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Ethical White Hat Hackers

Men working on laptop in server room

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Different from the classic black hat hackers, white hat hackers are driven by honorable motivations or honorable agendas. Also known as ethical hackers, white hats are talented computer security users often employed to protect computer networks.

Ethical hackers usually have permission from the owner of any system they work on. These cybersecurity specialists are experts on closing vulnerabilities and dealing with attacks from black hat hackers.

Some white hat hackers are academic hackers. These are computer artisans who are less interested in protecting systems and more interested in creating clever programs and beautiful interfaces. Their motivation is to improve a system through alterations and additions. Academic hackers can be casual hobbyists, or they can be serious computer engineers working on their graduate-level degrees.

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Grey Hat Hackers

Man in hooding using two separate computers

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Grey hat hackers are often hobbyists with intermediate technical skills. They enjoy disassembling and modifying their own computers for pleasure, and they sometimes dabble in minor white-collar hacks such as file sharing and cracking software. They aren't usually motivated by personal gain.

Gray hat hackers rarely escalate into becoming serious black hat hackers.

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Script Kiddies and Hacktivists

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Sub categories of hackers include:

  • Script Kiddies are novice hackers who are unskilled. They rely on programs and files to hack and don't bother to learn how they work. They have little respect for the skills involved and aren't motivated to learn. Script kiddies can be white hat, black hat, or grey hat. 
  • Hacktivists are hackers who are also social activists fighting for a cause. Some people would argue that famous hackers such as Lulzsec and Anonymous are hacktivists fighting government corruption and corporate misdeeds. Hacktivists can be white hat, black hat, or grey hat.
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More About Computer Hackers

Man with backpack on using computer, hacking WiFi on the roof with laptop and antenna

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Computer hacking is exaggerated by the media, but every savvy web user should know about the unsavory people on the web. Understanding common hacker attacks and scams helps you navigate safely online.