Movies are probably to blame for the majority of the public not understanding what a hacker actually does. We all conjure a very specific set of tropes in our brains whenever we hear about hacking. A man in a hoodie, typing late into the night as the green glow of binary code illuminates his Doritos-dust covered fingers. A lone genius who can acquire God-like powers just by “rerouting the encryption” or “assessing the nodes”. A mischievous and powerful being that can hack into a mainframe in one night. However, perhaps the largest thing people do not understand about hacking is that there are several types of hackers. When working in the cybersecurity field, or outside of it, we commonly separate hackers into three main categories. These categories are White Hat Hacker, Black Hat Hacker, and Grey Hat Hackers.
Context and terminology
The terms White Hat and Black Hat specifically refer to the motives and practices of a hacker. These terms come from old spaghetti westerns. Often, filmmakers will assign symbolism to small details like clothing colors to further cement concepts, thus creating a specific film language that other films can reinforce or subvert. In old westerns, most popularly in The Great Train Robbery, good guys will wear a white hat, while bad guys will wear a black hat. Because of this, people apply the terms to ethical hackers versus criminal hackers.
Black Hat Hacker
A Black Hat Hacker is more specifically in line with media portrayals. They are the hackers who break into systems, steal information, manipulate data, and compromise security. As for motivations, they generally do this for either financial gain (stealing cards, identity theft), political interest (vandalizing websites, creating bots to manipulate information), or for the lulz. Their attacks can range from simple Malware spreading to complex vulnerability exploitation and data theft.
White Hat Hacker
On the other hand, a White Hat Hacker is known as an “ethical hacker”. These are hackers who are often employed by the government to protect data against Black Hat Hacker. For example, a very common job for a White Hat Hacker would be a penetration tester. A penetration tester is somebody hired to break into someones system so they can outline the system’s flaws. These test help give direction for a company looking to strengthen their system. Additionally, they help prevent cyber crime.
Grey Hat Hacker
Nested somewhere between a Black Hat Hacker and a White Hat Hacker is a Grey Hat Hacker. Grey Hat Hackers do not have malicious intentions. Like a child who starts shoveling their neighbor’s snowy side walk in hopes that they will receive payment, a Grey Hat will find vulnerabilities without the permission or knowledge of the system’s owner. A Grey Hat Hacker does what a White Hat Hacker does, but illegally.