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What Is Hacking?

Image which depicts various forms of hacking, which is black, gray and white.

Hacking involves using technical skills to break into computer systems and access sensitive data. Even though hackers have been around for decades, with our increasing reliance on data and technology, they've been playing a far more significant role in recent years.

Still, hacking isn't always a bad thing. There are good hackers, too, and you could become one. Keep reading to learn about the different kinds of hacking, how to protect yourself against malicious hacking, and how you can hack to help companies improve their systems.

The different types of hacking

There are three basic categories of hackers: black hat, gray hat, and white hat.

What is a black hat hacker?

Black hat hackers are the bad guys. They infiltrate systems without asking for permission, and they do it for personal gain or to sabotage a system.

When not motivated by greed, black hat hackers often hack to impress other hackers in their communities. When they penetrate a system known to have tough defenses, they earn the kudos of other hackers. Their skills can also earn them a spot within a team of hackers that exploit vulnerabilities to steal information for profit.

Generally, a black hat hacker programs malware, viruses, and ransomware attacks to:

What is a gray hat hacker?

Gray hat hackers may not be malicious, but many consider their practices to be less than ethical. The typical gray hat hacker is, like black hat hackers, out for respect or monetary gain.

Here's the kind of playbook you can expect from a grey hat hacker:

This leaves you with a difficult decision. Do you reward the hacker's shady tactic by paying them to fix the problem, or do you reject their offer on principle but leave the vulnerability in place? If you reject their offer, you may also be left wondering what other vulnerabilities exist in your system.

What is a white hat hacker?

Hackers can also provide crucial cybersecurity services to defend companies from these kinds of attacks. In this way, a hacker — specifically a white hat hacker — can be a powerful resource.

A white hat hacker hacks for the benefit of others, particularly organizations trying to discover (and close) security vulnerabilities in their system. The biggest difference between a white hat hacker and a black hat hacker is a white hat hacker always obtains permission before penetrating someone's system. A black hat hacker invades a system without asking.

A white hat hacker will typically engage in a normal business meeting with a company and listen to their concerns. Then, they'll attempt to hack areas of their network to reveal its weaknesses. After they finish, they provide a report to the company and potential next steps.

Generally, white hat hacking involves:

How to protect against malicious hacking

It's difficult to protect against malicious hacking 100% of the time, but there are some steps you can take. For example, you can:

Jobs that involve hacking

As we explained, white hat hackers use their skills to benefit companies and public organizations. A white hat hacker can perform jobs like:

Penetration testing

A Penetration Tester is someone that a company hires to try to hack either their general network or a specific element of it.

For example, say a company is concerned about how easy it would be for a business partner to get inside their network. They can hire a Penetration Tester and give them the kinds of credentials a strategic partner may be granted. The Penetration Tester will then try to do one or more of the following:

Software testing

Hackers hired to do software testing will often be given a completed version of a software while it's still in development. They'll then be asked to try to hack it, and when they're done, they provide written feedback to the dev team.

A hacker may also be hired to test a specific element of the application early on in the development life cycle. In this way, the hacker helps the company avoid accidentally coding in vulnerabilities.

Overall cybersecurity readiness testing

Suppose a company has purchased the services of a managed security provider, has all their hardware and software in place, and has installed a full suite of antimalware. They may then turn to a hacker to have them evaluate their system.

The hacker wouldn't just try to penetrate it but also give advice — from a hacker's perspective — on how to improve the company's cyber defenses.

Cybersecurity testing for a managed security service provider (MSSP)

Some companies don't want to go through the trouble — or invest the funds — in establishing an in-house cybersecurity defense team. Instead, they hire an MSSP, or managed security service provider, that gives them what they need to protect their on-premise and cloud-based digital resources.

As a hacker, you can work for an MSSP, giving them a perspective they couldn't get from a regular Cybersecurity Admin.

While working for an MSSP, you may be called in to work as a consultant on an as-needed basis, or they may hire you and present your skillset as part of the package they offer to their clients.

Government Cybersecurity Specialist or hacker

Because governments are constantly trying to hack each other, many have teams of hackers on their payrolls. In this position, you may be asked to hack into sensitive areas of another government's system.

You could also be tasked with testing various government-managed systems or those that support crucial infrastructures, such as water systems or power grids.

Getting started with hacking

If you're interested in becoming a white hat hacker or if you'd like to get familiar with the tools hackers use so you can stop them, there are courses which can provide you a solid foundation. To learn how hackers think, the languages they often use or gain experience and knowledge you need to understand the technical aspects of hacking check out these courses.

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