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What is Hacking and How To Protect Yourself From Cyber Attacks

June 17, 2021 11 min read

what is hacking

As the adage goes, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” But, are we witnessing a future where both will yield to the power of a computer’s code?

While news headlines have recently seen an uptick in reporting the number of significant companies facing ransomware attacks by anonymous groups of criminal hackers, this is not an uncommon occurrence.

In fact, in May 2021, there were 128 publicly disclosed incidents of companies facing cyber attacks and ransomware.

However, while these events are not uncommon, what is worrisome is how the security for these giant corporate entities essential to supply and distribution is becoming the focus of ransomware attacks.

And, they are failing to prevent their systems from being corrupted by criminal hackers.

So with that in mind, we’re breaking down what is hacking, and what you need to know about cyber attacks, and how you can protect yourself from any future attacks.

Understanding the Basics of Hacking

What is Hacking?

what is hacking

Let’s begin with some basics before diving into detailed specifics and a plethora of technical talk. Hacking in itself is a broad term.

There are many forms of computer hacking which we will get into but to start the general definition of hacking is:

Hacking can be briefly defined as the act of exploiting a computer’s system or private network. Typically, gaining access by corrupting or manipulating the computer’s security system to gain sensitive or systematic information illicitly.

Where Does The Term “Hacker” Come From?

Next are the people who commit the act of hacking, aptly named “Hackers.”

But, this is an umbrella term, just as the title of “driver” would be for anyone who operates a motorized vehicle.

The term “hacker” originated in the 1950s after people were recruited to test the technical limitations and capabilities of the emerging new forms of technology at the time.

Within a few decades, the term was a sense of endearment for those who wanted to test the technical limitations of programs and security systems legally restricted from being accessed by the public.

If you could hack into an untouchable system, you earned respect amongst the underground cyber community.

And, the more unhackable the program was, the more notoriety you gained if you were able to crack it and get away scot-free.

Different Motives for Different Hackers

Not all hackers want to override security systems and threaten companies for personal gain.

The Five Most Popular Motives for Hackers:

  1. Money
  2. Revenge
  3. Espionage
  4. Sport
  5. Infamy

Monetary gain is only one of five popular motives that drives people to become hackers. There is an egotistical allure to gain the reputation of a skilled and notable hacker in the subculture.

They often choose to forfeit complete anonymity in favor of leaving a calling card for recognition and clout.

The more entrepreneurial-minded hackers find themselves working with organizations as corporate spies.

where does the term hacking come from

Sabotaging services or hijacking a competitor’s confidential information to be used as leverage within a marketplace.

Lastly, some hackers manipulate code for patriotic reasons. These hackers feel the call to action during moments of political or global unrest.

No matter the motive, not all hackers fall into the same category because of their end goal.

The people who tap away at their keys and split binary are diverse in their characteristics and methods of operations.

You can take two different hackers attempting to break into the same computer system for entirely different reasons.

Due to impending legal ramifications and the subculture’s standards of practices, the hacker who breaks into a database for socially beneficial reasons would not appreciate being lumped into the same circle as the hacker taking the information and selling it on the black market.

The Magnificent Six of Hacking

Hackers can almost be easily summarized by good guys, bad guys, and everyone else.

The community likes to identify themselves with cognomen, metaphorically represented by wearing colored hats to signify their level of ethical actions.

Those in the community who are primarily identified as “Black Hat” hackers are the bad guys.

1. Black Hat Hackers

Black Hats are hackers who purposely create and design programs that cause damage to any system they interact with.

These hackers are primarily associated with hacking into computer systems and installing forms of viruses known as malware or ransomware.

Their methods of operation are highly illegal and often unchecked.

black hat hackers

They aim to cause disorder within an infrastructure by corrupting or destroying “trusted” programs and systematic processes for their gain, be it by shutting down in the form of monetary, informational, or collateral reward.

If Black Hats were the villains of a movie, you’d expect the White hats to be the Good Guys responsible for stopping them, right?

Not exactly.

We’ll explain the role White Hats play. But, the hackers who actively seek out and thwart the evil plans of the Black Hats are known as the Red Hats.

2. Red Hat Hackers

The Red Hat hackers are revered in the cyber community as the arch-rivals to the Black Hats. They are known and respected for standing on the digital front line.

They seek out, intercept, and destroy codes that were designed with malicious intent. They are the unsung heroes of cybersecurity.

Red Hats are typically found to be independent contractors acting as a cybersecurity guard for a subject or system, they voluntarily act as defenders of sects they align themselves with, or they simply decide to be a good person who stops black hats from terrorizing innocent people just feels darn good.

Some hackers do it for sport, with no further reward in mind than the thrill of the experience and a brand new story to brag about with friends.

These general users are known as “Green Hat” Hackers. The truly inexperienced among them are known as “Blue Hat” Hackers.

3. Green Hat Hackers

Green Hat hackers do not want to cause havoc or anarchy on the internet, nor do they wish to harm or steal anyone’s information or programs.

They simply enjoy the art of hacking.

Green Hats admire the skill and hard work that goes into scripting a security program and will usually enjoy the process of figuring out ways to exploit its flaws.

different types of hackers

But after finding the door that lets them into the program, they simply leave a note saying they found the key and lock the door behind them without any disruptions.

Hacking is more an appreciation of the craft and a learning experience for Green Hats.

4. Blue Hat Hackers

Blue Hat hackers are simply amateurs.

They are brand new to the digital underground.

They have limited to zero experience under their belt and make easy candidates for other hats who want to take them under their wing or teach them a lesson about life.

They typically pose no threat and are just experienced enough not to break the computer.

There is a middle ground between the bad guys causing havoc for their gain and the good guys protecting the innocent from ever experiencing a single virus.

They are the balance between “Black Hats” and “White Hats,” the natural “Grey Hat” Hackers.

5. Grey Hat Hackers

Grey Hats are not ethically ill-willed as Black Hats, nor are they as noble as White or Red Hats.

Because they are known for hacking encrypted databases and exploiting internet systems, their reputations rely on their level of integrity.

These hackers will breach security systems to use the acquired information in a manner that benefits everyone.

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You can consider them to be the metaphorical Robin Hoods of hacking. And lastly, there are the White Hat hackers.

These hackers are highly intelligible and employed to fortify defenses against Black Hats.

They build, destroy, and rebuild the walls which protect our infrastructures.

If the best offense is a good defense, these hackers are responsible for programs to make us untouchable.

6. White Hat Hackers

White Hats scrutinize a security system’s strength by hacking it in every way they possibly know-how.

They assault a program's security codes with damaging algorithms in the hopes of discovering flaws within the system fortification.

After a fault is found, they write constructive new software to improve its defenses against future hacking attacks.

Nothing should get in. Nothing should get out.

White Hats are, technically, the only legally permitted hackers on the internet allowed by contractual employment.

They work as full-time technicians for companies, agencies, and governments.

The Thin Green Line of Cyber Law

I've briefly summarized the characteristics of six hackers for you here.

Thirteen significant hacker identities occupy the digital underground and all to varying degrees of legality.

The white hats typically face no ramifications for their abilities in the eyes of the law.

Despite some hackers breaking into systems with harmless intent or morally conceivable motives, hacking is still a criminal offense.

In 1990, government officials attempted to crack down on the growing trend of computer hacking that had been gaining speed throughout the ’80s and passed a bill known as the “Computer Misuse Act.” This legislative act defined the activity as a highly boilerplate-based standard: unauthorized access to computer material.

cyber security from hackers

Some exceptions are “generally” allowed under this act, along with the revisions stated in 2018’s Data Protection Act, briefly include:

  • Non-invasive/non-impactive research on computer systems, websites, script reading, etc.
    • Popular passive activity amongst Green and Blue Hats.
  • Operating under the guidelines of “bug bounties” offered by companies, organizations, etc., to find bugs and vulnerabilities in their systems in exchange for work-time payment or equivalent reward.
    • Independently populated with Red, Grey, and White Hats
  • Being employed to conduct forms of Penetration Testing to brutally test an extensive system’s infrastructure to detect inconsistencies or weak points that would be susceptible targets to malware or ransomware attacks. These tests occur in professional, mobile/web, and government settings.
    • Offered to White Hats, or reputable Grey Hats.

There is an extensive list of details that allow legal forms of hacking under a slew of different articles and subsets provided in each legislative document, along with variances between state and federal laws, but this is just a summary of three of the more popular forms of legal hacking condensed into a non-legally specific example.

You might have noticed there were no Black Hats mentioned on the list of general legal exceptions.

That’s because Black Hats don’t bother with legal forms of hacking.

They typically get their thrills out of operating in the dark part of the web.

They peruse the shops of the rainbow road (previously the internet’s black market) looking to buy or sell stolen information or the latest destructive virus.

They are entertained by causing mass hysteria by forcefully shutting down popular operational services and holding industries hostage by installing denial-of-service blockers and seizing control of their systems.

The Black Hats aim high with their goals of digital disruption and anarchy, and they are dangerously skilled in the methods they use.

If you had to guess which hat has been responsible for the rising acts of cyber terrorism in the news as of late, these would be the hackers you’d put on the wanted posters.

Their recent accomplishments are unsettling the future of global cybersecurity.

Understanding Recent Cyber Attacks

The recent cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline garnered so much attention due to the sheer size and infrastructure of the corporation itself.

An anonymous gang of criminal hackers breached the domestic pipeline’s cybersecurity and uploaded a series of viruses, known as ransomware, into the company’s operational mainframe.

pipeline hack

The pipeline is responsible for supplying around 45% of fuel for America’s east coast, and once the ransomware was installed, it scrambled the programming of the company’s infrastructure.

The threat of impending fuel shortages and price spikes sent people into a state of panicked mass buying as the news estimated the high probability of those events taking place.

You wouldn’t think such a sizable company that supplies nearly half of the east coast with fuel would be so susceptible to security breaches. Well, neither did they.

That’s what is exceptionally alarming about this particular ransomware attack. Unfortunately for everyone, this major supplier wasn’t the only one to be targeted either.

In the first week of May, we saw Colonial experience a ransomware attack that threatened their systems.

On May 31st, we saw another, and the damage is still unfolding. The largest global meat producer and food supplier, JBL, has been the target of another large-scale ransomware attack.

The company plans to be fully operational soon to avoid beef and pork shortages, but their entire infrastructure needs inspection and updating.

To clean their corrupted systems, JBL has been forced to temporarily shut down all U.S. beef plants along with slaughter operations in Australia and Canada.

Once again, another major corporation that’s critically vital in supply and distribution has fallen victim to ransomware attacks.

Meaning, when the company falls victim, a domino effect begins and eventually ends with the average consumer.

These events have proven the need for more robust cybersecurity protection from hackers. We have been given a glimpse into the future of cyber terrorism.

We must familiarize ourselves with the players to understand how to prevent hacking and become victims ourselves.

How to Prevent Hacking from Happening to You

You might be thinking, “Hold on now! If a billion-dollar industry can’t stop cyber hackers from installing ransomware onto their computers and wrecking their systems, how am I going to stop them from hacking my computer?”

Good question, you can’t.

But, don’t fret.

Mainly because you are not a global conglomerate that will provide a multimillion-dollar payout when faced with ransomware, but because you are one of many small fish in the sea.

The hackers who have the specialized experience and binary savvy to take on the mainframes of oil company pipelines aren’t going to waste their time or their expertise to hack an average small-time computer user.

However, other small-time hackers can’t hold a candle to what the big league players can pull off.

So, they are the ones who will probably want to hack into your computer devices and steal whatever private information you have left.

These small-time hackers want your information, and if you find yourself asking, “how am I going to stop them?”

how to protect yourself from hacking

I have good news. You can stop them! And I’m going to provide you a little guidance on how to prevent hacking.

The best way to protect yourself from hacking is never to use a computer, smartphone, or any smart device that can retain digital information.

But, not everyone can separate themselves from technology. So let’s take a look at some less extreme but effective methods.

One common and easy opportunity to give yourself a little more protection when using the internet is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

They encrypt your personal information so it can’t be used or stolen by third parties.

It protects your browser history from being sold off or held against you, and there are plenty of VPN options to choose from.

Another lesson in how to prevent hacking comes in the form of diligently withholding your personal information from untrusted sources online and offline.

Your parents told you never to talk to strangers, didn’t they?

Some hackers are prolific social engineers.

They use psychological manipulation and smooth words to coax people into revealing confidential or critical information about themselves.

This can come disguised in the form of pleasant conversations, questionnaires, and even personality quizzes.

They take this information and apply it to verify themselves as you on secured sites that will give them further access to more secure information channels.

This is more of a simple practice of protecting yourself all-around but effective nonetheless.

One last tip is to make sure your systems are all up to date.

avoiding cyber attacks

You change the oil in your car to keep it running. You should update your software when the opportunity is available.

It makes sure your computer is running efficiently, and all of your security systems protect you against the latest forms of malware and viruses.

With more devices on hand, the more protection you need.

Until the robot uprising comes to enslave us all, stay safe online, protect your devices from hackers by taking preventive measures, and it never hurts to prepare a little for the future.

With fuel lines and food supplies being targeted by cybercriminals, it might not be a bad idea to stock up on some food reserves in the meantime.

I’m set for whatever catastrophe may come for the next 25 years with my survival food and supplies.

I may not ever need to touch them, but I’ll be happy I have them when I do.

Because technology is constantly evolving, and if the threats are too, it’s better to be prepared for anything in the long run.

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