Vulnerabilities / Threats

2/27/2007
07:45 AM
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A Hacker by Any Other Name

Black hat? Gray hat? Carder? Cracker? Putting a name on today's hacker is no simple task

5:45 PM -- Okay, confession time. I've been the site editor for a security news portal for almost a year now, and I still don't know the politically correct way to refer to a hacker.

It's not for lack of trying. In fact, I've been working on this stuff for more than 20 years. I remember when I wrote about the Milwaukee 414 gang back in 1984, several people got mad at me for calling them "hackers" and not "crackers." I've read books. I've talked to people, including some of those who started the whole phenomenon. I just finished a survey of 116 people who break into computer systems on a regular basis. (See Five Myths About Black Hats.)

I still can't figure it out.

So let me ask you, the most intelligent readership in the land, if you can help me. I'll describe each of these terms as I understand them, and you tell me where I'm wrong. One warning, though: if I get lots of disagreement from you, we're going to change our style and just call everybody "Bruce."

A hacker, as I understand it, is anyone who tries to break into computer systems to see if they can do it. The "hacker's code" says that if you're successful in breaking in, you should do no harm. So, technically, anyone that penetrates computer systems and makes changes or steals data is not a hacker.

A black hat is someone who breaks into computer systems for malicious purposes, including theft, destruction of data, or denial of service. If a hacker uses his knowledge of systems penetration to do something bad to a computer system, then he is said to be "wearing his black hat." Black hats are sometimes called attackers.

A white hat is someone who breaks into computer systems to show how it can be done, revealing security vulnerabilities in order to help eliminate them. Most white hats swear they will never do anything to hurt the data they access, but occasionally some of them do malicious things, just to prove they can. These are called gray hats.

A carder is someone who penetrates computer systems with the express purpose of collecting credit card data, which can be used to buy things or sold to criminals who want to use the data to steal from stores or individuals.

A cracker is someone who breaks a code, such as a user password or an encryption scheme.

A security researcher is anyone who seeks out vulnerabilities in computer systems, for good or evil purposes.

There are probably several terms I'm forgetting here, but these are the main ones I run across every day. As near as I can figure, only two of these terms always apply to ethical people: "hacker," a word whose true meaning (and ethical code) is frequently overlooked by the general public; and "white hat." Only one of these terms always applies to a bad person: "carder," who is virtually always dealing with stolen data.

Black hats, attackers, crackers, gray hats, and security researchers can swing either way. They could be good people performing research, exploits or attacks to expose vulnerabilities and prove flaws; or they could be criminals looking to expose and exploit vulnerabilities for their own purposes.

In my research for our black hat survey, I was puzzled by some of the results, because while most of the respondents said they attempt to break into computer systems for fun or profit, almost half of them agreed with the statement that "unauthorized access to computer information is never okay." While almost all of those we interviewed had some knowledge of systems penetration, many of them were inconsistent as to whether they should be called "hackers," "black hats," or "white hats."

As an editor who's sensitive to labels and political correctness, I'd like to use the right name when I talk about people who try to break into corporate computer systems. Often, though, I'm not sure whether to call them "attackers," "hackers," or "hey you."

Who can give me some guidance on this? If you've got a thought, please post it to the message board attached to this story. If you haven't used our boards before, you'll have to register, but I promise it's easy and quick. And when you get on there, you can call me "Tim" or "Enchanter" or "Bozo."

Just don't call me late for dinner.

— Tim "Bruce" Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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