What Is Hacking?

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When you hear the word “hacker,” you probably think of a guy in a black hoodie, slumped over a computer, furiously writing code. And while that may be the case for some hackers, they actually come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of ethics. But before we get into that, I want to address the general question on everyone’s mind, namely—what is hacking? Then, I’ll tell you how it works, whether it’s legal, and how it can affect anyone with Internet access. Let’s get started!

What Is Hacking?

What Is Hacking?
What Is Hacking?

Hacking is the practice of using knowledge of technology to break into computer systems, exploiting their vulnerabilities. The hacker, the person who performs the hack, might block access to the system, gather data within the system, or gain access to other devices within the same network.

Related: How To Protect Your iPhone From Hackers

Types Of Hackers

different types of hackers

Like I said before, not all hackers are created equal. Typically, they are split into three categories: white hat, black hat, and grey hat.

White Hat Hackers

White hat hackers are ethical penetration hackers who are typically hired by the companies they’re hacking into. Yes, you read that right. Companies actually hire hackers to find vulnerabilities in their systems before the bad guys get to it first.

White hat hackers may be hired in a contract, full-time, or they might operate through bug bounty programs, where a company offers money to anyone who can find a vulnerability. Even cybersecurity has been impacted by the gig economy!

Black Hat Hackers

Playing off of that, black hat hackers are the “bad guys” you often see portrayed in movies. They hack into systems illegally for reasons of personal gain, typically taking financial or personal information to steal money and identities.

Gray Hat Hackers

Like anything in life, hacking has a gray area. While gray hat hackers may not have malicious intents necessarily, they aren’t super concerned with following the laws, so they might hack into a company’s system without their permission. However, the reason for the hack would be different than with a black hat hacker. Perhaps it is to help the company, believe it or not.

Types Of Hacks

Along with these types of hackers come types of hacks, which can generally be split into two categories.

Zero-Day Hacks

Zero-day hacks include vulnerabilities that the company has never seen before. In fact, the company may not even be aware that they’ve been hacked. Black hat hackers usually save zero-day hacks for companies that they can stand to gain from personally, be it a international business or a national security system. It’s organizations like these that promise huge financial returns— that is, if you don’t get caught.

Miscellaneous Types Of Hacks

Every other type of hack often uses what’s called a script kiddie, pre-existing software that doesn’t require much programming knowledge in order to attack a system. Unlike zero-day hacks, script kiddies are pretty easy for systems to protect themselves against if the software has been updated, according to an article from Echosec Systems. So be sure to do those software updates, no matter how inconveniently timed they might be!

How Hacking Works

How Hacking Works
How Hacking Works

Just how do these hackers find vulnerabilities in systems, exploit them, and gain personally? Three major routes reign supreme:

Social Engineering

The simplest way to hack an account or system? Just ask the user for their password! This may take the form of phishing or spam phone calls, so be careful who you’re giving your credentials to. Once a hacker has your password, they can easily grab your credit and debit card information, social security number, and other stuff you want to keep hidden.

Programming-Based Hacking

More advanced than social engineering, programming-based hacking actually requires the hacker to find vulnerabilities in a system and take over all administrative privileges.

Physical Access

Of course, possibly the easiest way to hack into a computer or system is to have physical access to it for a long time. May I implore you to be careful with your possessions?

Related: The Best Laptop Locks of 2019

Why Hacking Is Bad (And Good)

Just like any power, hacking can be used for good and evil. Let’s start with the bad.

Non-Ethical Hacking

According to an article from cybersecurity software company Norton, non-ethical hackers have the ability to:

  • Steal credit card information, personal information, login credentials, and more
  • Attack national security of other countries
  • Inject malware into computers
  • Modify or destroy data.

Ethical Hacking

Ethical hackers, on the other hand, can use hacking for:

  • Hacktivism, meaning political or social causes
  • Improving security of website or app.

Is Hacking Illegal?

Is Hacking Illegal?
Is Hacking Illegal?

The short answer is yes, hacking is illegal if it’s not authorized by the company or website you’re hacking into. Hackers can also run into some other legal ramifications if they violate privacy, communications and trade laws by taking control of a computer system.

Federal Hacking Laws

Unauthorized hacking is illegal under federal law, and there are other federal laws that may apply to hackers.

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986)

This act amended the first computer fraud law to address hacking, prohibiting people from accessing a computer without authorization (although the exact meaning of authorization isn’t defined). The penalty for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act? One to five years in prison, according to an article from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Electronics Communications Privacy Act (1986)

If you’re hacking into a system without authorization, you could be violating privacy laws as well as anti-hacking laws. The Electronics Communications Privacy Act, for example, updated the Federal Wiretap Act of 1968 to extend the protection of communication over “hard” telephone lines to include computers and other digital or electronic communications. Whether you’re emailing, on the phone, or storing data electronically, your privacy is protected under this law, according to the United States Department of Justice website.

CAN-SPAM Act

Oftentimes, hackers will infiltrate a computer system and begin sending out mass emails to clients, customers, or subscribers. But even hackers must comply with the CAN-SPAM Act, which gives consumers the right to unsubscribe from electronic messages. Moreover, the electronic messages can’t have deceptive subject lines, and ads must be identified as such. If violated, businesses could be penalized for up to $42,530, which, if the communications were done by the hacker, could transfer on over, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

State Hacking Laws

Of course, hacking, privacy and communications laws are also going to differ by state. However, the majority of states have laws addressing:

  • Unauthorized access
  • Computer trespass
  • Viruses
  • Malware
  • Hacking
  • Denial of service attacks.

Only California, Michigan, Texas and Wyoming have specific laws addressing ransomware and computer extortion. However, that doesn’t mean that other states can’t prosecute ransomware crimes, as they may still fall under malware or computer trespass, says the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Recap

And that’s everything you ever wanted to know about hacking and probably a little bit more! Check out the FAQs below if you still have questions, or, if I didn’t answer them, leave a comment below.

FAQs

What is hacking and how is it done?

Hacking is the practice of using knowledge of technology to break into computer systems, exploiting their vulnerabilities. It’s done through either social engineering (typically in the form of phishing), programming-based hacking or physical access to a device.

What are the three types of hackers?

The three types of hackers are:

  • White hat hackers: White hat hackers are ethical penetration hackers who are typically hired by the companies they’re hacking into.
  • Black hat hackers: They hack into systems illegally for reasons of personal gain, typically taking financial or personal information to steal money and identities.
  • Gray hat hackers: While gray hat hackers may not have malicious intents necessarily, they aren’t super concerned with following the laws, so they might hack into a company’s system without their permission.

What is meant by hacking?

Hacking is the practice of using knowledge of technology to break into computer systems, exploiting their vulnerabilities. The hacker, the person who performs the hack, might block access to the system, gather data within the system, or gain access to other devices within the same network.

Gabe Turner

Gabe Turner

Gabe Turner is an attorney and journalist with a passion for home tech and secure, efficient living. Since graduating from NYU Law, he has maintained a paradoxical existence of trying to live life adventurously while remaining staunchly risk-averse. He is torn by the dual desires of wanting to only be in Brooklyn writing about housing policy and smart home tech and aspiring to visit his friends scattered across the globe. Gabe believes that stable, safe communities are the cornerstone to a vibrant and healthy society, and it is this passion that brought him to contribute to Security Baron.