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The Blurry Line Between Ethical and Criminal Hacking

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There are three types of hackers, white, gray, and black hat hackers. And while white hat hackers fall strictly under the cybersecurity category, the line isn’t as clear-cut when it comes to gray and black hat hackers.

Understanding the Difference

Initially, it’s easy to categorize hacking into neat categories; legal and illegal. White hat hacking is a cybersecurity practice that aims to uncover the flaw and weaknesses in a company’s security system. Other types of hackers only focus on the personal benefit of the hacker, disregarding the effects their actions have on the company’s reputation and financial state.

But the categories can get fuzzy around the edges when intentions and morality come into play, especially in gray hat and black hat hacking. While both types are illegal, the hackers’ intentions and ethics are different. Black hat hackers often have financial motivations behind their attacks. And when it’s not directly financial, their goal is either data or crushing the competition by ruining a company’s reputation and infrastructure.

Gray hat hackers tend to fall into the in-between area of the other two types. What they’re doing is in no way legal as they don’t have the consent of the company or individuals they’re hacking. But determining whether they’re good or bad is more subjective. Their goals vary from exposing data that they believe should be public knowledge and sabotaging a business’s operations if they believe their methodology is unethical by their standards to proving themselves as hackers and uncovering vulnerabilities in their targets’ security systems.

But while most gray hat hackers start off in the gray area of hacking, they often end up in one of the two main categories.

The Always-Criminal Gray Hat Hacker

The notion with cybersecurity and hackers has, for the most part, been about protecting digital assets from hackers who may come after it for financial gain. Clear and simple. Focus the majority of your preventative and reactive security measures around valuable data that hackers may target for financial gain, and you’re good to go.

But having a segment of experienced hackers who aren’t after profitable operations makes security more complicated. Any type of data or trace you leave online could be a good enough reason for a gray hat hacker to launch an attack. When the risk is measured by ethics and morality, the lines get blurry as to what the hacker considers unethical practices even if they were perfectly legal.

In some cases, getting attacked by a gray hat hacker can be worse for business than getting attacked by a black hat hacker. For one, financially motivated cybersecurity incidents are more or less the norm. Not to mention, there are insurance policies made with cyber attacks and data breaches in mind. Clients and customers only expect a proper response from the company, like notifying users of leaked data, helping them create a secure replacement, as well as, patching up the vulnerability to prevent future incidents of the same nature. You might still be hit financially, but your reputation may remain intact after the incident depending on your response.

Ethically motivated attacks, on the other hand, have the capability of financially hurting their targets, but their main objective is often damaging the company’s reputation by exposing what they believe to be unethical practices. Depending on the exposed information, the company’s reputation could sometimes be damaged beyond saving. And there’s little a company can do to save a ruined reputation but some degree of rebranding and promising more transparency, all whilst being under constant monitoring and suspicion by users and consumers.

For most companies, there are no gray hat hackers. A person they didn’t hire breaching their network can rarely bring anything but damage.

The Hacker’s Redemption

The line between ethical and criminal hacking is not only blurry with businesses and their well-being and reputations, but also with hackers, both professional and amateur. Over the past two decades, there have been multiple companies who ended up hiring the same people who hacked them, showing great interest in their skills. This isn’t a niche decision made by small companies trying to stay afloat. Companies like Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple all ended up hiring the services of individuals who hacked them without their permission.

While this can be a strong incentive for young hackers to pursue ethical hacking instead of criminal hacking, it still glamorizes illegal hacking to some extent. It can lead some to take the indirect route of becoming an ethical hacker instead of starting a career in tech and getting off on the right foot.

The difference between gray and black hat hackers who end up becoming ethical hackers and others who pose a serious threat to the company depends on multiple elements ranging from the hacker’s intentions and the hacked company’s decisions, which further blurs the line between ethical and criminal hacking.

Fighting Fire with Fire

The fading lines between ethics-based and criminal hackers can be a sign that strict categories among illegal hackers are not a sustainable model. Since the required set of skills is the same between all types of hackers, many may end up wearing multiple hats and switching between labels as it suits them.

And with the value of user and company data rising, along with increased interest in the details of business operations, unauthorized hacking incidents are only going to increase in number and severity. The best way to fight the worrying rise of hackers is doubling down on security and employing the help of someone who understands how hackers work, a white hat, ethical hacker. Regularly performing penetration testing and patching up the vulnerabilities that arise during the procedure can be the only security measure standing between you and malicious hackers targeting you for their own benefit or for a ‘greater good.’

Anina Ot Anina Ot
Anina is a freelance technology content writer who has been writing about security, privacy, cloud computing, and infosec for the last 3 years. She started writing with the goal of making technology and privacy more accessible before switching to writing for B2B and personal security, software development, and SaaS companies. Read Full Bio »

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