Individuals and companies spend a lot of time and money on trying to prevent their computers from hackers. Why do hackers bother to work so hard trying to break through computer security? Hacking is a laborious task, involving long hours tapping away at a keyboard, normally alone. A ‘hacker profile’ drawn up following a survey of internet users does not paint a particularly favourable profile of hackers and their lives. Why be a hacker?

Hackers and their Motivations

To combat hacking, it is important that we understand the reasons for it. While some hackers may fit the popular image of a bored teenager causing havoc for fun, there are many other reasons for hacking, and some very sophisticated and motivated hackers out there.

  • The white hat hacker. These hackers work for security firms to find holes in computer systems. Sometimes they work freelance, finding problems that they then offer to fix for a fee (these are sometimes called ‘grey hat hackers’. They are ‘good’ hackers, although some might once have been ‘bad’. They find a problem, and offer a solution to it. This kind of hacking can be big business: even Facebook uses hackers to help it find potential weak spots in its systems.
  • The black hat hacker: These hackers are the criminal, malicious hackers who hack to make money. There is evidence that international criminal gangs are turning to hackers to try and make money, where in the past they might have been involved in the drugs trade. Criminal hackers look to hack business systems and steal personal data or gain access to sensitive corporate information that they can use to make money. It is these hackers that can affect home computers. While they target businesses, they often do so in order to get to individuals’ personal information or to extort money, as this scam affecting adverts on high-profile websites including the London Stock Exchange did.
  • Corporate hackers. Corporate hackers are employed by some businesses to try and steal trade secrets and pass them on to their employers.
  • Hackers with a cause. Not all hackers do it for the money. Some are on a political or religious mission to target governments or corporations that they have a grudge against in some way. They might sometimes just look to embarrass those they target, altering a website to ridicule a particular person, for example. With increased political and religious tension across the world, we may find that hackers have increasingly strong political motivations, and that hacking is used as a form of cyber-terrorism. The more serious among them might look to shut down vital systems and cause considerable damage to particular groups or countries. The hacking group Anonymous have recently targeted the Home Office website in a denial of service attack, which shuts the system down by flooding it with requests.
  • Government hackers. Governments sometimes employ hackers to spy on the systems of other nations, or even to attack them. Last year, the Pentagon declared that it considered attempts to hack its systems as an ‘act of war’. In theory, hackers could cause considerable destruction and even death if they broke into a government’s systems. The difficulty for governments trying to combat hacking is that there is no real way of proving where the hackers came from. It’s possible to trace hackers to a particular country, but not so easy to prove that they were in the employ of that country’s government.

What Can Be Done?

Hacking is so pervasive that it seems as if it is impossible to stop it. We spend time and money on combating it, but just as a shopkeeper cannot stop their shop being burgled by buying shop insurance, so internet security measures cannot stop hackers. The internet is by its nature vulnerable to attack. It has millions of users and no central control. The more the internet is used, the more vulnerable it becomes to attack. Part of the problem is that no-one envisaged that the internet would become quite as large and important as it has. The need for both companies and individuals to make money means that internet users of all kinds tend to cut corners. Will stopping cutting corners stop hacking? No, but it could certainly help.

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