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A computer hacker is somebody who accesses computers or networks without authorization. Although you can jump to conclusions and call it cybercrime, they can also hack to increase security.
To allow for this distinction, hackers are often referred to as being either black hat or white hat. If the goal of a hack is cybercrime, the actor is known as a black hat hacker. But, if the goal is improving security, they are known as a white hat hacker.
Some hackers, however, fall into another category, namely the gray hat hacker. So what is the difference?
What Is a Black Hat Hacker?
A black hat hacker is a cybercriminal who attempts to break into secure networks illegally. They often do so in the hope of stealing information that can be sold or installing ransomware for extortion.
Black hat hackers are often computer experts, but this isn't necessarily a requirement. Some black hats have limited expertise and simply steal passwords or use software programs to break into computer systems automatically.
What Is a White Hat Hacker?
A white hat hacker also attempts to break into secure networks. The difference is that they only do so with permission. They are typically hired by businesses for testing and improving security. White hat hackers are also referred to as ethical hackers.
White hat hackers are computer experts and use that knowledge to prevent attacks rather than carry them out. The idea is that a business can hire a white hat hacker to find any security weaknesses and fix them before a cyberattack occurs.
What Is a Gray Hat Hacker?
A gray hat hacker sits somewhere in between black and white hat hackers. They are defined by the fact that they don't have malicious intent but also break into networks without permission.
While a white hat hacker will only start working after a business has hired them, a gray hat hacker may target any business. This might involve accessing confidential information or demonstrating that a business's network isn't as secure as it claims.
One may perform gray hat hacking to increase security, find paying work, or simply prove a point. Some people argue that gray hat hackers are beneficial overall. They often point out vulnerabilities that a business would otherwise not have known about. In some circumstances, they are therefore capable of preventing cyberattacks.
What Motivates Gray Hat Hackers?
The motivation of a gray hat hacker isn't always obvious. Aside from the fact that they don't have malicious intent, they could be entering a network for any reason. Some gray hats want to improve security to prevent cyberattacks. They believe that the internet is a dangerous place and that they have the necessary skills to improve it.
They may also offer to fix any vulnerabilities that they discover. Gray hat hacking can therefore be used as a way to find work.
Some gray hats don't necessarily want to improve security or find work. They simply enjoy hacking and attempt to enter secure networks as a hobby. Others breach secure networks to simply prove that they can. They can use it as a way to punish businesses that don't protect their customer's information.
Do Gray Hat Hackers Break the Law?
Attempting to access a secure network without permission is always illegal. This means that even if a gray hat hacker doesn't steal anything, they are still breaking the law. This may indicate that with adequate incentive, they may make the switch to black hat activities.
It's also worth noting that if a gray hat hacker wants to increase security, they have many legal avenues available to them, including bug bounties which literally invite hacking. The fact that they choose to break the law means that one should approach them with caution.
Is It Safe to Work With Gray Hat Hackers?
Whether or not a company should hire a gray hat hacker is open to debate. By definition, a gray hat hacker is willing to break the law. If a hacker has entered a secure network without permission, many businesses are understandably unwilling to trust that person.
On the other hand, if a gray hat hacker discovers a vulnerability and contacts a business to report it, they are demonstrating a high skill set. They are also indicating that when given the choice of attacking a company or helping it, they have chosen the latter.
How to Protect Against Hackers
Black and gray hat hackers are a threat to all businesses. Gray hat hackers may not mean to harm a secure network, but that doesn't mean that they won't do so accidentally. If you run a business, here are a few ways to protect against them.
1. Use Strong and Robust Passwords
All employees should be required to use strong passwords. Passwords should also not be reused across multiple accounts.
2. Use Two-Factor Authentication
Two-factor authentication should be mandatory. This makes it impossible to log into an account without access to the 2FA device. This means that even if a hacker figures out the password to a secure network, they won't be able to log in.
3. Watch Out for Phishing Attacks
All employees should be aware of the various types of phishing attacks, especially the threats posed by phishing emails, and should be trained to recognize them.
4. Install Antivirus Software
Companies should rely on antivirus software throughout a network. It's not always possible to prevent employees from downloading malware. Antivirus can prevent such files from running before they provide an entry point for a hacker.
5. Keep Your Software Updated
Sophisticated cyberattacks often rely on the exploitation of software vulnerabilities. The only way to remove these vulnerabilities is to keep all the software updated. It's important to note that many hackers specifically search for businesses that fail to do this.
All Businesses Should Protect Themselves Against Hackers
Hackers are a threat that all businesses should be aware of. And while it's definitely better to be targeted by gray hat hackers, any unwarranted network intrusion is potentially problematic.
Hackers, both gray and black, primarily target businesses that use outdated software. Black hat hackers also send out phishing emails in large batches and target whoever falls for them. This means that a company can prevent the majority of network intrusions by adequately training all the employees and keeping all its software up to date.