Slang term for a technically sophisticated computer user who exploits vulnerabilities in computer or network security systems in order to gain access to and explore computer systems and programs.
Hackers are most often associated with criminals, using their ability to gain access to secure systems in order to steal data or information. This reputation has grown more prominent in recent years due to the increasing number of large organizations that have experienced data breaches, in which hackers have managed to steal millions of data records, including personal information about customers and employees, credit card numbers, and confidential company information.
Despite this reputation, there are plenty of non-criminal hackers as well. Some hackers work to secure computers and networks by intentionally trying to break into them. Others attempt to access secure system for the sport, with no interest in stealing confidential information.
Still another group of hackers, known as hacktivists, live in the gray area between do-gooder and criminal. Hacktivist use hacking for social good, disrupting the services of companies or organizations they deem to be either conducting illegal activity or undertaking morally objectable practices. The best known hacktivist group, Anonymous, has used hacking to publish usernames from illegal child pornography sites, attack the Koch Industries website in response to the company’s actions against union members, releasing information about alleged KKK members, and organizing cyberattacks against ISIS following the 2015 attacks in Paris.
Also See: Cybercrime
Frequently Asked Questions
How are hackers able to break into secure systems without getting caught?
Some hackers do get caught, but many use tools to hide their digital footprints. In many cases, once a hacker is able to exploit a security vulnerability in a software program to gain access to computer or network, he can continue accessing that system undetected for many months or even years. Security systems look for unusual activity, so hackers find ways to mask their operation as legitimate. For instance, most company workstations send and receive data from various locations on the Internet all day long. If a hacker can gain access to an employee’s machine, he can use that system to slowly transmit company information to an off-site computer, making it look like any other regular work transmission. Unless the hacker is foolish enough to send the data directly to his own home, even if his presence is detected, determining who was behind the attack can be very difficult if not impossible.
Is hacktivism legal?
Any attempt to access or disrupt another person’s computer network is illegal; however, skillful hacktivists can be very difficult to track. There are plenty of program available that allow users to surf the Web anonymously, such as those discussed in our Mining the Deep Web article. These programs are designed to encourage free speech and protect secure transmissions, but they can also be used for illegal activities. Hacktivism also raises a number of moral questions, such as whether or not illegal activity can be justified and under what circumstances. While an attack on a private company’s website will likely result in a police investigation, chances are an attack on ISIS web accounts won’t.