Types of Computer Hackers

By Shea Laverty

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Every corner of cyberspace has been influenced by the efforts of hackers. Hackers exploit weaknesses in security systems and computer programs to gain unauthorized access. What they do with that access ultimately depends on the type of hacker they are. Hackers are typically categorized into two main groups: white hats and black hats. From these roots, a diverse lineup of other hacker types has emerged.

White Hats: IT Security Specialists

Despite being hackers, white hats are the good guys. McAfee describes white hats as trained IT specialists who are hired by organizations to test their cyber defenses against attack and inform them of any weaknesses. White hats work to improve overall computer and Internet security and prevent intrusions into protected or privileged networks. As experts in the only form of hacking considered a legitimate form of business, white hats are employed by governments, private companies and nonprofit organizations to safeguard their information.

Black Hats: Malicious Cyber Criminals

The polar opposite of white hats, black-hat hackers are motivated by the potential for self-gain or amusement. According to SecPoint security experts, black hats -- also called crackers -- exploit weaknesses to steal information for fraud or resale. Black hats are also responsible for the creation of viruses, usually to accomplish the same goals of information theft or to create mayhem for their own amusement. Black hats generally operate independently, almost always outside the law.

Grey Hats: Somewhere in Between

SecPoint also describes grey-hat hackers, who are neither entirely positive like white hats nor entirely negative like black hats. Grey hats are mostly motivated by the desire to test their own skills, cracking security systems and leaving a handle as a calling card without taking any information or leaving a virus. Many times they may even inform the owner of the system after the fact and help them build a stronger defense for a fee, like a white hat hacker. However, grey hats are not invited and act of their own volition, much like black hats.

Hacktivists: Hacking for a Cause

According to the McAfee website, hacktivists crack into computer networks in the name of a cause, usually a religious, political or environmental one. What hacktivists do after breaking into a computer depends primarily on their goals. Sometimes, they'll vandalize a company's website or do something else to embarrass or discredit their target, while other times they'll actively steal and publish confidential information. Examples of the former include the efforts of anonymous hackers to embarrass the Church of Scientology and other entities, while example of the latter include WikiLeaks finding and releasing U.S. diplomatic messages in a scandal now known as Cablegate. While hacktivists may believe they are acting for the good of others, their methods still classify them as a suborder of black hats.

Other Hackers: The Rogues Gallery

Both McAfee and InfoWorld websites describe other types of hackers, most of whom fall into the black hat category of hacking. Spy hackers are hired by corporations to steal information from their competition or from anyone else who may threaten their business, while state-sponsored hackers act on behalf of governments to steal information. State-sponsored hackers may also be involved in cyberwarfare, where they exploit the computer systems of enemy states to create weakness or confusion. Cyber terrorists are generally motivated by religion or politics and attack critical infrastructure to create terror and confusion.