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What is the Difference Between a White Hat, Black Hat and Gray Hat Hacker?

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in SecurityMay 20, 2021

When we hear the term "hacker," we often picture a nefarious criminal sitting in front of a computer in a dark room with a hooded sweatshirt on. That is often very far from the truth. Anyone can be a hacker, including a soccer mom, a young kid, and even a retired general. The thing is a hacker is not always a bad person looking to commit fraud or identity theft. There is a big difference between white, black, and gray hat hackers.

Essentially, they all perform the same functions, but it's how they do it and the reasons why that differentiate them from one another. Whether or not they have malicious intent is a huge factor in how we classify them. 

white hat hacker

What are White Hat Hackers?

White hat hackers typically use their skills to help companies and government agencies identify vulnerabilities within systems. They break into networks and devices to help secure them. They may also be hired for a specific purpose to infiltrate a hacker gang and learn more or perform threat research about the gang's operations.

White hat hackers sometimes work on malware research to dissect the program to determine what it does and how it can be stopped. White hat hackers may have a team working for them or brand themselves as a company. They may be called security professionals, threat researchers, security analysts, security researchers, and threat assessors. They sometimes use sophisticated penetration tools designed to break into secure systems. They work off a strict set of guidelines and stick to protocols outlined in their agreement with the client. 

White hat hackers are typically highly skilled, and some switch sides after being caught and rehabilitated for their work as black hat hackers. A white-hat hacker may or may not specialize in one type of cybersecurity

What are Black Hat Hackers?

Black hat hackers are usually the ones we associate with the scene described in the introduction. They use their expert computer skills to break into secure systems to steal data, spy on users, or install malware. They may even design new strains of malware or ransomware and target victims. Sometimes they purchase malware or ransomware on the dark web to use against their victims. 

Often these hackers use email campaigns to ensnare victims using phishing tactics. They may also engage in social engineering tactics to gain the trust of their victim. Once they have identified a weak link in the system, they can then install software and take over doing a lot of damage. Black hat hackers are often looking for financial gain through fraud, deception, or theft. Some use their skills to steal information (for identity theft and fraud) and sell it on the dark web to other hackers. Sometimes black hat hackers destroy data or disrupt operations. When they steal or encrypt corporate data and demand a ransom, they often post samples of the data online to expose the company or motivate them to pay up.

Black hat hackers may be individuals, groups (various infamous hacker groups are running wild right now), and some are even employed by foreign governments to hack into other countries' infrastructure and cause havoc. Their intent is always malicious to cause harm, damage, and steal money. Sometimes their motives include retaliation for some wrongdoing, either perceived or real. 

black hat hacker

What are Gray Hat Hackers?

Gray hat hackers are a little bit of each. Perhaps they are hacktivists trying to right a wrong. Some of these hackers break into systems to illustrate the weaknesses and then inform the owner of the vulnerabilities so they can secure them. They may ask for a fee in return or not.

Although their intentions are not malicious, their actions are still deemed illegal because they did not have permission and were not hired by the owner to break into the system or identify any weak areas. 

If their efforts are thwarted or rejected, or the owner refuses to pay, these types of hackers could get angry and retaliate by posting stolen data on the dark web or exposing other sensitive business information

The Bottom Line

Many hackers, regardless of the type, operate in private, but they may communicate online and form alliances in forums and other like-minded communities. Here is where they may brag about their latest score and talk about how they embarrassed a company or individual. It is very important for many hackers to be recognized for their work. 

In a world where information has become the most valuable commodity, hackers are the brokers, buyers, and salespeople. The next time you consider hackers, remember, there they come in many flavors, and each has his or her own motivation and goals. Not all hackers are evil and want to hurt you. Some are actually working towards keeping the rest of us safe.

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