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Tech Alert: What is a Hacker?

What is a hacker?There is a fine line between having heard of hackers or hacking, and knowing what a hacker or hacking really is. We get it. You’ve heard the term and kind of, sort of, possibly know what it is. But you wouldn’t be comfortable explaining what a hacker is to a room full of people, even if public speaking wasn’t involved, am I right?

Guess what? The majority of computer users don’t know what a hacker is either. In fact, most people use the term to mean more than one thing.  And as the Internet evolves, so does the definition of “hacker.” That is partily why putting your finger on the meaning is a bit complicated. What’s even more confusing is that the same words can be applied to both criminal and non-criminal activities.

That’s about as clear as mud, isn’t it?  Let's get to the bottom of what hackers are and what they do.

What Is a Hacker?

Oddly enough, a hacker used to be someone who made furniture with an axe. There are a lot of theories about how the term became synonymous with computers, including the urge to smash your computer with an axe when it isn’t working, but the origins can’t be verified. What we do know is what “hacker” means in the computer world today. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

  • An expert at programming and solving problems with a computer
  • A person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system [for personal gain]

Now, this is where things get muddy. If a hacker is just a great computer programmer, why do they break into corporations like Target and steal all of my information?

Unfortunately, most hacker news is the negative type, especially during high retail seasons. There are always stories about stores being hacked, leaving thousands of credit cards compromised. So the image of a villain, in a dark room with a hoodie has some truth to it. But that’s only one side of the story.  

A Tale of Two Hacking Styles  

To quote Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, “the word ‘hacker’ has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.”

To simplify, let’s assume that a hacker is a computer wiz who is great at programming and solving issues, better, faster, and easier than all the computer savvy people you know. Now, just like with anything, with great power comes great responsibility. Hackers can choose their path.  

Criminal Hacker or Crackers

Criminal hackers, or crackers, are what most people think of when discussing hackers. Their whole goal is to get through network security, access information stores to gather information and then use that information for financial gain. The information can be used to steal with methods like corporate espionage, extortion, and blackmail. Or it can also be sold to the highest bidder on the Dark Web or Deep Web. These are the bad guys. They create malware and spyware to break into the system and steal everything for personal gain. 

Ethical Hacking

Ethical hacking, on the other hand, is like a Brotherhood/Sisterhood that comes with a code.  And while people argue that hacking is wrong no matter how you use it, this system not only keeps them honest, but is also extremely helpful at protecting us.

Here is a sample code from Computer Hope:

  1. Expressed (often written) permission to probe the network and attempt to identify potential security risks.
  2. You respect the individual's or company's privacy.
  3. You close out your work, not leaving anything open for you or someone else to exploit at a later time.
  4. You let the software developer or hardware manufacturer know of any security vulnerabilities you locate in their software or hardware, if not already known by the company.

This is actually a career path. Many ethical hackers work with government agencies, the military, law enforcement and large corporations to safeguard networks from bugs, loopholes, and other vulnerabilities. These powerhouse hackers, develop ways to block cyber attacks and make the world around us safer.

This brings us full circle. Cut yourself some slack if you couldn’t quite describe what a hacker was. The definition of "hacking" or "hackers" is far from black-and-white. But the takeaway should be this: a hacker can be good or bad. The bad ones might make the news more often, but the good ones take swings in the ring as well.

Related: 1 in 5 Business Are Affected by Hackers Are You Next?

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