Posted on April 17, 2017 11:46 am

What Are 'Black Hat' and 'White Hat' Hackers?

A hacker is a tech-savvy user who manipulates and bypasses computer systems to make them do the unintended. Sometimes this manipulation is noble, with the goal to create something beneficial. Other times, hacking is harsh and done with the wicked goal to hurt people through identity theft or other harm.

You are likely familiar with the stereotypical 1980’s hacker: the evil criminal who is socially isolated. While this stereotype does indeed describe some modern ‘black hat’ hackers, there exists a subset of hackers who are not criminals. In fact, there are many hackers who use their knowledge for good. This is broken down into three categories

Today, ‘hacker’ is a descriptor that subdivides into 3 categories:

  1. ‘Black Hat’ Hackers: criminals and wrongdoers.
  2. ‘White Hat’ Hackers: ethical hackers who work to protect systems and people.
  3. ‘Grey Hat’ Hackers: dabble in both black hat and white hat tinkering.

Classic ‘Black Hat’ Hackers = Criminals/Lawbreakers

'Black hat hacker' = criminal with evil intent
‘Black hat hacker’ = criminal with evil intent. Gu / Getty

This is the classic definition of a hacker: a computer user who willfully vandalizes or commits theft on other people’s networks.

‘Black hat’ is a stylish way to describe their malicious motivations. Black hats are gifted but unethical computer users who are motivated by feelings of power, money and petty revenge. They are electronic thugs in every sense of the word, and they share the same personality traits as emotionally stunted teens who smash bus stop windows for personal satisfaction.

Black hat hackers are renowned for the following common cybercrimes:

  • DDoS Distributed, Denial of Service (flood) attacks that impair computer networks.
  • Identity theft, Phishing, scams, social engineering schemes.
  • Vandalism of systems, defacing, disabling, removing access.
  • The creation of destructive programs, like worms, and CryptoLocker!

‘White Hat’ Ethical Hackers = Network Security Specialists

'White hat' hacker = security professional
‘White hat’ hacker = security professional. Yan / Getty

Different from the classic black hat hackers, white hat hackers are either driven by honorable motivations, or they are mercenaries working on honorable agendas. Also known as ‘ethical hackers’, white hats are talented computer security users often employed to help protect computer networks.

Some white hats are reformed black hats, like former convicts who take on work as store security guards. While they themselves may have been unethical in the past, their current vocation is considered a white hat. With experience in what the ‘bad guy’ can do, these reformed hats, are among the most skilled at protecting their clients.

Ethical hackers are motivated by a steady paycheck. It is not surprising to see ethical hackers spending those paychecks on very expensive personal computers in their personal lives, so they can play online games after work. As long as they have a good-paying job to support their personal habits, an ethical hacker is usually not motivated to destroy nor steal from their employer.

Special note: some white hat hackers are ‘academic hackers’. These are computer artisans who are less interested in protecting systems, and more interested in creating clever programs and beautiful interfaces. Their motivation is to improve a system through alterations and additions. Academic hackers can be casual hobbyists, or they can be serious computer engineers working on their graduate-level degrees. These are the people who create new viruses, as proof of concepts.  No intentions on making the world worse, but to help bright to light problems that need solving.

‘Grey Hat Hackers’ = Conflicted, Uncertain Which Side of the Law They Stand

Grey hat hackers: a mix of good and evil
Grey hat hackers: a mix of good and evil. Peoplemages / Getty

Grey hat hackers are often hobbyists with intermediate technical skills. These hobbyists enjoy disassembling and modifying their own computers for hobby pleasure, and they will sometimes dabble in minor white collar crimes like file sharing and cracking software. Indeed, if you are a P2P downloader, you are a type of gray hat hacker.  These are undisciplined members of the profession. Often users with access to tools, and ‘kits’ that enable their ability to accomplish their goals.  In most cases Grey hats are people who never gained the formal understanding of what they are doing.

Gray hat hackers rarely escalate into becoming serious black hat hackers. Often times, Grey hats end up getting caught, or warned into stopping their activities.

Subcategories of Hackers: Script Kiddies and Hacktivists

  • Script Kiddies: this is a stylish name for novice hackers who are unskilled. Script kiddies can be white hat, black hat, or grey hat. These are people who feel empowered enough to cause others and themselves damages.
  • Hacktivists: this is the hacker who is also a social activist fighting for a cause. Some people would argue that famous hackers like Lulzsec and Anonymous are hacktivists fighting government corruption and corporate misdeeds. Hacktivists can be white hat, black hat, or grey hat. Only a specified team they support at the time being.

More About Computer Hackers

Computer hacking is often exaggerated by the media, and very few public narratives give hackers the fair shake that they deserve. While most movies and TV shows of hackers are absurd, you might consider watching Mr. Robot if you want to see what hacktivists do. Every savvy web user should know about the unsavory people on the Web. Understanding common hacker attacks and scams will help you navigate online intelligently and confidently.