Who Breaks into Computer Systems

By Kevin Beaver

Computer hackers have been around for decades. Since the Internet became widely used in the 1990s, the mainstream public has started to hear more and more about hacking. Only a few hackers, such as John Draper (also known as Captain Crunch) and Kevin Mitnick, are really well known. Many more unknown hackers are looking to make a name for themselves. They’re the ones you have to look out for.

In a world of black and white, describing the typical hacker is easy. The historical stereotype of a hacker is an antisocial, pimply faced, teenage boy. But the world has many shades of gray and many types of people doing the hacking. Hackers are unique individuals, so an exact profile is hard to outline. The best broad description of hackers is that all hackers arent equal. Each hacker has his or her own unique motives, methods, and skills. Hacker skill levels fall into three general categories:

  • Script kiddies: These are computer novices who take advantage of the exploit tools, vulnerability scanners, and documentation available free on the Internet but who don’t have any real knowledge of what’s really going on behind the scenes. They know just enough to cause you headaches but typically are very sloppy in their actions, leaving all sorts of digital fingerprints behind. Even though these guys are often the stereotypical hackers that you hear about in the news media, they need only minimal skills to carry out their attacks.

  • Criminal hackers: Often referred to as “crackers,” these are skilled criminal experts who write some of the hacking tools, including the scripts and other programs that the script kiddies and security professionals use. These folks also write malware to carry out their exploits from the other side of the world. They can break into networks and computers and cover their tracks. They can even make it look like someone else hacked their victims’ systems. Sometimes, people with ill intent may not be doing what’s considered “hacking,” but nevertheless, they’re abusing their privileges or somehow gaining unauthorized access — such as the 2015 incident involving Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros. Thus, the media glorifies it all as “hacking.”

    Advanced hackers are often members of collectives that prefer to remain nameless. These hackers are very secretive and share information with their subordinates (lower-ranked hackers in the collectives) only when they are deemed worthy. Typically, for lower-ranked hackers to be considered worthy, they must possess some unique information or take the gang-like approach and prove themselves through a high-profile hack. These hackers are arguably some of your worst enemies in IT.

  • Security researchers: These people are highly technical and publicly known security experts who not only monitor and track computer, network, and application vulnerabilities but also write the tools and other code to exploit them. If these guys didn’t exist, security professionals wouldn’t have much in the way of open source and even certain commercial security testing tools.

There are good-guy (white hat) and bad-guy (black hat) hackers. Gray hat hackers are a little bit of both. There are also blue-hat hackers who are invited by software developers to find security flaws in their systems.

Regardless of age and complexion, hackers possess curiosity, bravado, and often very sharp minds.

Perhaps more important than a hacker’s skill level is his or her motivation:

  • Hacktivists try to disseminate political or social messages through their work. A hacktivist wants to raise public awareness of an issue yet they want to remain anonymous. In many situations, these hackers will try to take you down if you express a view that’s contrary to theirs. Examples of hacktivism are the websites that were defaced with the Free Kevin messages that promoted freeing Kevin Mitnick from prison for his famous hacking escapades. Others cases of hacktivism include messages about legalizing drugs, protests against the war, protests centered around wealth envy and big corporations, and just about any other social and political issue you can think of.

  • Cyberterrorists (both organized and unorganized, often backed by government agencies) attack corporate or government computers and public utility infrastructures, such as power grids and air-traffic control towers. They crash critical systems, steal classified data, or expose the personal information of government employees. Countries take the threats these cyberterrorists pose so seriously that many mandate information security controls in crucial industries, such as the power industry, to protect essential systems against these attacks.

  • Hackers for hire are part of organized crime on the Internet. Many of these hackers hire out themselves or their DoS-creating botnets for money — and lots of it!

Criminal hackers are in the minority, so don’t think that you’re up against millions of these villains. Like the e-mail spam kings of the world, many of the nefarious acts from members of collectives that prefer to remain nameless are carried out by a small number of criminals. Many other hackers just love to tinker and only seek knowledge of how computer systems work. One of your greatest threats works inside your building and has an access badge to the building and a valid network account, so don’t discount the insider threat.