What is Hacking?

Hacking is the practice of exploiting vulnerabilities to gain access to a computer system. These could include security vulnerabilities created by flaws in software or “human vulnerabilities” such as vulnerability to social engineering attacks.

Hacking can be performed for different purposes — both malicious and benign — and can have a wide variety of potential results, including data breaches, sabotage, and espionage.

Types of Hacking

Often, hacking is used as a synonym for cybercrime. If a news outlet uses the term, it’s probably referring to criminal activity using hacking techniques for malicious purposes.

However, the term hacking actually covers a few different types of activity. The three main types of hacking include:

  • Black Hat Hacking: Black hat hacking is cybercrime. These hackers exploit systems with the intent to steal data, plant malware, or take other malicious actions.

  • White Hat Hacking: White hat hacking is legitimate security research. Penetration testers and bug bounty hunters are two examples of this. These hackers use the same techniques as black hat hackers but work with permission from the target and the goal of finding and fixing vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by cybercriminals.

  • Gray Hat Hacking: Gray hat hackers fall between these two. Often, they have benign — or at least not malicious — intentions, but they operate without the consent of the target.

How Hacking Works

Hackers can have a variety of different motivations. For example, most cybercriminals are motivated by financial gain and attempt to steal valuable data or extort ransoms. Nation-state attackers and hacktivists often have political motivations. White hat hackers are typically trying to enhance security.

Hackers can use a variety of different techniques to gain access to a target system. Some common methods include:

  • Vulnerability Exploits: Vulnerabilities in software may enable an attacker to gain access to a system or valuable data. Hackers can scan for these vulnerabilities and craft exploits to take advantage of them.

  • Social Engineering: Social engineering attacks involve tricking or coercing the target into doing what the attacker wants. For example, a hacker could send a phishing email containing malware or trick the IT help desk into handing over a user’s password.

  • Misconfigurations: In some cases, organizations misconfigure software or systems in a way that makes them vulnerable. For example, using link-based file sharing in the cloud makes the document accessible to anyone who knows or guesses the sharing link.

Once a hacker gains access to a system, they can have various goals. For example, they might collect and steal data, run malware, or start developing a report for a bug bounty program.

Protecting Against Hacking

Hacking is all about exploiting vulnerabilities. Some ways that organizations and individuals can reduce their risk of hacking include:

  • Use strong passwords

  • Enable multi-factor authentication

  • Keep software up-to-date

  • Run an antivirus on all devices

  • Choose “secure” options for settings

Conclusion

Hacking is the practice of exploiting vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to systems. Most hackers use similar tools and techniques, but they can perform these actions for benign or malicious purposes.

KZero Staff
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