Facts About Computer Hacking

By Clare Edwards

Hackers can break into computer systems legally and illegally.
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A computer hacker is somebody skilled at manipulating computers. Generally, the term hacker is used to refer to a person who breaks into computer systems. Hackers may do this for material gain, to harm another person or as a prank. A hacker may also have more positive motivations -- some hackers aim to expose security flaws before other, less scrupulous people can exploit them. Some businesses hire hackers for this purpose. A hacker may break into an individual computer or a network of computers.

Hackers vs. Crackers

The term "cracker" refers to someone who breaks into computer systems maliciously. A hacker on the other hand may possibly have benign motivations. Some people use the term hacker only to refer to non-malicious individuals, with criminals or vandals being branded as "crackers."

Kinds of Hacking

Purely benign hacking is sometimes called white hat hacking. Purely malicious hacking is called black hat hacking. Gray hat hacking means hacking in a non-malicious but not necessarily benign way. Blue hat hackers are hackers who have been hired to look for exploits (security vulnerabilities) in new software before it is launched. A "hacktivist" is someone who uses hacking to pursue ideological ends.

Script Kiddies

At one time, it was necessary to have a degree of programming skill to be a hacker. This changed with the advent of pre-packaged software toolkits that can be used to create malware and hack systems with little understanding of underlying workings. The term "script" came to be applied to these tools and users are nicknamed "script kiddies," implying juvenility and lack of experience. Script kiddies are also known as script kitties, script bunnies, script-running juveniles (SRJs) or skids.


A new hacker who is just starting out may be called a neophyte. Less polite terms include n00b (from newbie, meaning someone who is new). A neophyte differs from a script kiddie in that script kiddies are usually not interested in improving their skills, whereas a neophyte may be keen to learn more about computer technology and hacking. The opposite of a neophyte is an elite hacker -- someone with exceptional skills.


A security exploit is a flaw in a system that allows hackers to break in. Operating systems, browsers and other software can all contain these flaws, as can some websites. Hackers can use these flaws to vandalize computer systems, steal data and take control of computers for their own use. They may also deface websites or make them unavailable.

Hacker Subculture

Hackers have their own subculture. They have their own slang and jargon which helps to demarcate in-groups and also conceal activities from law enforcement. There are books and magazines aimed at improving one's hacking skills. Hacker groups, conferences and conventions allow hackers to trade advice and techniques. Some hacktivists work in groups.

Early Hackers

The first hackers were not breaking into or misusing computer systems, but instead trying to make them do new things. In the late 1950s a group of students at MIT "hacked" an early computer using their own punched cards, the data storage method in use at the time. They were able to use the computer -- an IBM 704 mainframe -- to control a panel of lights.

Hacking in Popular Culture

Hacking first reached general public consciousness during the 1980s. This decade saw the rise of the cyberpunk genre of science fiction and the release of the first movie about hacking, 1983's "War Games." A TV show entitled "Whiz Kids" featured the adventures of a band of school-aged computer wizards who engaged in unlikely adventures as hackers.