What is a Hacker? - Definition & Overview

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Raymond Blockmon

Raymond has earned a bachelor's degree in computer information systems and a master's degree in organizational leadership.

Expert Contributor
Christianlly Cena

Christianlly has taught college Physics, Natural science, Earth science, and facilitated laboratory courses. He has a master's degree in Physics and is currently pursuing his doctorate degree.

A hacker is someone who illegally gains access to a system through the use of computer or technical skills. Learn about the definition of a hacker and explore an overview of the three types of hackers--black hat, white hat, and grey hat. Updated: 10/03/2021

What Is a Hacker, Really?

The basic definition of a hacker is someone who uses a computer system to gain unauthorized access to another system for data or who makes another system unavailable. These hackers will use their skills for a specific goal, such as stealing money, gaining fame by bringing down a computer system, or making a network unavailable -- even sometimes destroying them. However, there are three different types of hackers, each with a particular goal, and not all are the bad guys.

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  • 0:01 What Is a Hacker?
  • 0:32 Three Types of Hackers
  • 1:17 Black Hat Hacker - Evil Doer
  • 2:58 White Hat Hacker - Savior
  • 4:14 Grey Hat Hacker - Curious
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Three Types of Hackers

The three types of hackers are the white hat hacker, the grey hat hacker, and the black hat hacker. Each type of hacker hacks for a different reason, a cause, or both. All have the required skills needed to accomplish their mission. At one end of the spectrum is the black hat, who hacks for evil and malicious intent and without permission. On the other end of the spectrum is the white hat, who hacks against a black hat in order to protect computer and network access and has the company's permission to do so. In the middle is the grey hat, who hacks not for evil and not for good; they are neutral in their cause and usually try to sell their skills for monetary gain, like a mercenary.

Black Hat Hacker - Evil Doer

The black hat hacker is the one who hacks for malicious intent - he is the bad guy. This type of hacker uses his or her skills to steal money or data, knock a computer system offline, or even destroy them. Some of these hackers love to see their work and name in the news, so they would try to target big name organizations and companies. For instance, they might change the front page of a company website.

Black hats also try to break into computer systems to steal credit card information and possibly steal valuable information to sell on the black market. They may even lock out the computer and network system from the owners and then hold them for ransom.

The black hat works outside of the law. This is the hacker that we as a society are most familiar with. Some black hats have cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for credit card and social security information theft. They can work alone, in that case known as a lone wolf, or with a team. They work slowly and methodically, since the black hat knows it takes patience to compromise a computer or a network system in order to a hit a big payoff and not be caught.

Have you heard of the hacker group called Anonymous or LulzSec? These are black hat hackers whose goals are more driven for a cause rather than monetary gain are known as hactivists. In 2014, following the Michael Brown shooting in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, a group associated with Anonymous said that they will bring down the city and police servers if protestors were harmed in any way.

White Hat Hacker - Savior

The white hat hacker is one who is an ethical hacker. This type of hacker usually hacks for a company or organization for defensive purposes. The white hat is given special permission with limits on what the hacker can and cannot do on their customer's computer and network systems. This special permission is usually given in a legal document signed by both the white hat and the company, which keeps both parties out of legal trouble.

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Additional Activities

Writing Prompts on Hackers

Prompt 1

You are a well-respected black hat hacker. One night, as you felt bored earning loads of cash from stolen credit card information, you felt the urge to hack and spy on your neighbor's activity by hacking his cloud storage. Since your neighbor recently transferred into your small town, you thought of checking him out. A couple of minutes went by and you somehow managed to gain access to his cloud. As you browsed through his files, you clicked on a folder entitled "Neighbors" and you found out that he had photos of you and all of your other neighbors in his cloud. The most recent photo that he had was you sitting on your computer minutes ago. How would you respond on this invasion of privacy given that you are a hacker yourself? Will you report him to the police?

Prompt 2

As what you've learned, internet hacking is a crime that is punishable by law. Are the laws regarding hacking in the place that you reside strict? What could be the possible punishments that a hacker might face when convicted?

Prompt 3

Suppose you work as an IT specialist at a construction firm. While being bored at work, you opened your computer and watched the film "Snowden". It was about the real-life American whistleblower Edward Snowden who copied and leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency. From the film, the leaked data revealed the extent of the global surveillance programmes run by American and British spy agencies. And because of what he did, he was charged with espionage and has since sought refuge in Russia. From this information, how will you classify Snowden as a hacker? Is he a black hat, a grey hat, or a white hat hacker? List the reasons that led you to classify him that way.

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