"Hackers have infiltrated the power grid." "Hackers stole credit card data." "Hackers created a virus." We've all heard and read these stories on the news. What are hackers though? In this article, I will discuss what hacking is, and what hacking isn't.
What is hacking?
While there are many definitions of hacking, a general definition is to modify something to make it work for you. For computers, hacking includes fixing programs until they work. Also, hacking includes modifying the computer hardware to make it work better or tuned to the person's wishes. The type of hacking that the media discusses includes breaking into secure systems to determine their weaknesses and to explore them. However, the media only points out the malicious uses for breaking into systems.
Black Hats, White Hats, Crackers and Phreakers
What do these terms have in common? They're all terms used by hackers to describe hackers. Just like in typical cowboy fashion, the "white hats" are the good guys and the "black hats" are the bad guys. Although the lines are blurred greatly when it comes to hacking. The "White hats" are security experts who try to find the vulnerabilities in programs and systems, and report them to the manufacturers. They would be considered "ethical hackers" because they either have authorization to break into the system or program, or they do so with the intent of assisting the manufacturer in securing them. The "Black Hats" are the ones who are trying to find those same vulnerabilities and exploit them. "Cracker" is another term for the Black Hat hackers, usually referring to the creation of software cracks to bypass anti-piracy methods. A "Phreaker" is a person who hacks into telecommunications services.
While the media has portrayed all hackers as malicious and evil, the reality is that some (if not most) of them are either working as/for security professionals or are only hacking to improve their personal experience. Some of the white hats only hack their own systems in order to tweak them to the fullest extent that they can. Most of the "white hat" hackers are working behind the scenes or in the shadows. The media hardly, if ever, discusses them or their work. Through movies, and sound-bites, the media has jumped on the "hackers are bad" bandwagon-- totally overlooking the people who are trying to make their (and our) lives better through their hacking.