Good Hackers, Bad Hackers: What's the Difference?

The Difference Between Destruction and Protection

Cyber Attacks
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You've probably heard the term hackers. And you may have even heard that there are good hackers (also called white hats or white hat hackers) and there are bad hackers (who may be called crackers, black hats, or black hat hackers). But do you really understand what a hacker is or what hackers do?

What Is a Hacker?

The term "hacker" can mean two different things:

  1. Someone who is very good at computer programming, networking, or other related computer functions and loves to share their knowledge with other people
  2. Someone who uses their expert computer skills and knowledge to gain unauthorized access to systems, corporations, governments, or networks, in order to cause problems, delays, or lack of access.

What Most People Think of When They Hear the Term "Hacker"

The word "hacker" does not bring the best of thoughts to most people’s minds. The popular definition of a hacker is someone who intentionally breaks into systems or networks to illegally procure information or infuse chaos into a network for the express purpose of control. Hackers are not usually associated with doing good deeds; in fact, the term "hacker" is often synonymous with "criminal" to the public. These are black-hat hackers or "crackers," the people we hear about on the news creating chaos and pulling down systems. They maliciously enter secure networks and exploit flaws for their own personal (and usually malicious) gratification.

There are Different kinds of Hackers

A community of hackers at a hackathon.
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However, in the hacker community, there are subtle class differences that the general public is not aware of. There are hackers who break into systems that don’t necessarily destroy them, who have the public’s best interest at heart. These people are white-hat hackers, or "good hackers." White-hat hackers are those individuals who break into systems to point out security flaws or bring attention to a cause. Their intentions are not necessarily to wreak havoc but to do a public service.

Hacking as a Public Service

White-hat hackers are also known as ethical hackers; they are hackers who are working from the inside of a company, with the company’s full knowledge and permission, who hack into the company’s networks to find flaws and present their reports to the company. Most white-hat hackers are employed by actual computer security agencies, such as Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC). As stated on their site, "more than 1,000 CSC information security experts, including 40 full-time "ethical hackers," support clients in Europe, North America, Australia, Africa, and Asia. Services include consulting, architecture and integration, evaluation and assessment, deployment and operations, and training.

The deployment of ethical hackers to test the vulnerability of computer networks is one of the many ways CSC can help clients deal with ongoing security threats." These cybersecurity experts look for flaws in the system and repair them before the bad guys can exploit them.

Lifewire Bonus Hacking Tip: Some people are using the internet to demonstrate for political or social causes using actions referred to as "hacktivism."

Getting a Job as a Hacker

Although white-hat hackers are not necessarily recognized as much as they should be, more and more companies are looking for people who can stay ahead of the individuals determined to bring their systems down. By hiring white-hat hackers, companies have a fighting chance. Even though these programming gurus were once considered outcasts in the public eye, many hackers now hold critical and extremely high-paying jobs with corporations, governments, and other organizations.

Of course, not all security breaches can be prevented, but if companies hire people who are able to spot them before they become critical, then half the battle is already won. White-hat hackers have their jobs cut out for them because black-hat hackers are not going to stop doing what they are doing. The thrill of penetrating systems and bringing down networks is just too much fun, and of course, the intellectual stimulation is unmatched. These are very smart people who have no moral qualms about seeking out and destroying computer infrastructures. Most companies that manufacture anything to do with computers recognize this and are taking appropriate security measures to prevent hacks, leaks, or other security mishaps.

Examples of Famous Hackers

An anonymous mask representing the hacker collective, Anonymous.
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Black Hat

  • Anonymous: A loosely associated group of hackers from all over the world, with meeting points on various online message boards and social networking forums. They are most known for their efforts to encourage civil disobedience and/or unrest through defamation and defacement of various websites, denial of service attacks, and the online publishing of personal information. 
  • Jonathan James: Infamous for hacking into the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and stealing software code.
  • Adrian Lamo: Known for infiltrating several high-level organizations' networks, including Yahoo, the New York Times, and Microsoft to exploit security flaws.
  • Kevin Mitnick: Convicted for multiple criminal computer crimes after evading authorities on an extremely well-publicized chase for two and a half years. After serving time in federal prison for his actions, Mitnick founded a cybersecurity firm to help businesses and organizations keep their networks safe.

White Hat

  • Tim Berners-Lee: Best known for inventing the World Wide Web, HTML, and the URL system.
  • Vinton Cerf: Known as the "father of the Internet," Cerf has been highly instrumental in creating the Internet and the Web as we use it today.
  • Dan Kaminsky: Highly respected security expert best known for his role in uncovering the Sony BMG copy protection rootkit scandal.
  • Ken Thompson: Co-created UNIX, an operating system, and the C programming language.
  • Donald Knuth: One of the most influential people in the field of computer programming and theoretical computer science.
  • Larry Wall: Creator of PERL, a high-level programming language that can be used for a wide variety of tasks.

Hackers: Not a Black or White Issue

While most of the exploits we will hear about in the news come from people who have malicious intentions, there are much more incredibly talented and dedicated people who are using their hacking skills for the greater good. It's important to understand the difference.