The Hacker Effect Decoded for the Rest of Us

Hacking is a widely accepted phenomenon in today’s society – it may be bad, it may be good, but it is rarely surprising to anyone. Wherever there is a security weakness, from an easy-to-guess password with low cryptography to a backdoor that can be exploited by malware, hackers are there. And sometimes simple gullibility is their best tool.

Hackers also serve as a powerful catalyst in the tech world. They spur the evolution of security software, technological awareness, and digital legislation across the world. Hacking can even have a beneficial effect on society through the spread of information and ethical hacking that tests out new security features. Read on to find out more about hacking’s place in the modern world.

Hacking Today

Today hacking is vastly diversified into broad categories. Some types of pro-active hacking are glorified online or in Hollywood screenplays. Other types of destructive hacking are demonized by identity theft news and widespread data loss. Most hacking falls somewhere in between, but in most cases, they continue to cost organizations and individuals vast amounts of time and money.

As personal information has flooded the Internet, the goal of most hacking is to retrieve certain types of information, such as private documents, passwords, user names, or financial data. Sometimes extensive knowledge of computer coding is not needed. In 2012, Wired writer Mat Honan’s digital files were infamously compromised when hackers exploited a basic weakness in his Apple and Amazon account information. Facebook and bank websites are also frequent targets from hackers hoping to access financial accounts and steal money. Military and government websites are also common victims, where the result is often destruction or defamation rather than personal gain.

Where it All Began: Origins of Computer Crime

Hacking originated right along with computers in the 1960s, when some of the first major computer projects were underway in major universities – notably MIT. The term “hacker” was used to describe the people most versed in the first computer languages, and, believe it or not, hacker was originally a positive label.

By the late 1970s and 1980s hacking had become a general term for breaking into a computerized system. One of the most infamous examples was the long distance phone call hack, where a whistle code in the right frequency could access authorization systems. This phone hacking grew into a popular trend and soon led to increased legislation against hacking.

As computer languages evolved, hacking evolved at an equal pace. The more information that was stored as digital data, the broader the opportunities for hacking grew – especially when it became rampant on networks of computers and ultimately, the Internet. In the early 2000s, Gary McKinnon became known for the largest military-based hack attempt, in which he broke into key U.S. military systems and caused $800,000 in damages (supposedly trying to find evidence of UFOs). But these random hackers swiftly became replaced by skilled criminals that exclusively sought to hack into databases and recover sensitive data that could be used for personal gain…or simple destruction. The average power plant, for example, endures up to thousands of hack attempts each year. Hacking is now so proliferated that some of it is the result of hostile government projects.

From Fringe to Spotlight: Hacktivists and Legal Hacking

Hacking has developed a more complex role in society since the 21st century began. Even as identity theft became a growing concern, hackers sought out other, less criminal identities. This led directly to the creation of subgroups in hacker circles which worked for ideals rather than money; some of these hackers supported computer security and new privacy laws. These groups had less to fear from publicity, so before long they became something like the new face of hacking. The new subcultures can be broadly divided into two categories.

On one side is hacktivism, the mentality of hackers that support a general cause or purpose rather than a particular company or industry. Hacktivism has its roots in the 2000s, but rose quickly to prominence thanks to groups like Anonymous, loose-knit societies around the world made up of hackers who support equality, honesty, and free-data guidelines…even at the expense of domestic laws or international regulations.

While hacktivists attacked tech leaders like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and organizations like Visa and the federal government, it remained difficult for them to gain any sort of legitimacy. But in 2011 and 2012 the hacktivist groups grew more notably cause-oriented. They supported Arab spring and Indian protests over illegal government actions, leaked the names of suspected white supremacists across the Western world, and supported the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement. The future remains uncertain for hacktivist groups; their natural anonymity makes cohesion difficult and their activities are legally suspect, but their increased focus and self-policing tendency will mean hacktivism is sure to stay at the top of the global press.

On the other side is legal or ethical hacking, in which hackers work for consultants or companies exploring ways to improve their security systems. Sometimes they just write extensive reports and profiles of weak security points, and sometimes they actively break into security systems to test how well they function. Legal hacking is a very strong job market as governments and countries try to protect themselves from a far more criminal element, but it takes select expertise in the enterprise IT field.

Protection is More Important Than Ever

With digital skills on the rise, all types of hacking are growing more frequently, including criminal activities. Protect yourself from hacking attempts by following these simple rules: