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Black Hat, White Hat, and Gray Hat Hackers: Definitions and Clarifications
hackers ethical hacking

Table of Contents

If you stay informed about current events and technological advancements, you’re likely familiar with the term “hacker.” However, what might not be immediately apparent is that hackers can be classified into distinct categories known as black hat, white hat, and gray hat. These classifications draw inspiration from the imagery of old Western movies in American popular culture, where the heroes typically wore white or light-colored hats, while the villains were portrayed with black hats.

Fundamentally, the key factor in categorizing hackers lies in their motivation and whether their actions involve breaking the law. Let’s delve into the three main types

Black Hat Hackers definition

  • Motivation: Black Hat hackers are driven by malicious intent. They engage in hacking activities to exploit vulnerabilities in computer systems, networks, or software for personal gain, unauthorized access, or to cause harm.
  • Legality: Their actions typically involve illegal activities, as they operate outside ethical and legal boundaries.

What is a black hat hackers

Black hat hackers often embark on their hacking journey as novice individuals known as “script kiddies.” These beginners utilize pre-packaged hacker tools that they purchase to exploit security vulnerabilities without a deep understanding of the underlying techniques. Some are introduced to hacking through mentors or bosses who are driven by a desire for quick financial gains. The more experienced black hat hackers are often associated with sophisticated criminal organizations, functioning similarly to legitimate businesses.

These seasoned black hat hackers may work for criminal organizations that provide collaboration tools and even offer service agreements to customers, resembling the structure of lawful enterprises. In a surprising parallel to legitimate business practices, black hat malware kits, tools used for malicious purposes, are occasionally available for purchase on the dark web with warranties and customer service.

Specialization is common among black hat hackers, with some focusing on specific areas such as phishing attacks or managing remote access tools. The recruitment of these individuals often occurs through forums and connections on the dark web, creating a clandestine network for illegal activities. While some black hat hackers independently develop and sell malicious software, others prefer engaging in franchise-like arrangements or leasing their hacking services—a model that mirrors legitimate businesses.

Though hacking has become a tool for governments in intelligence gathering, the majority of black hat hackers operate independently or align themselves with organized crime for the allure of quick financial gains. The evolution of hacking practices reflects a convergence of criminal tactics with elements of the legitimate business world, highlighting the dynamic and complex nature of cybersecurity threats.

How black hat hackers work

Hacking operations often mimic large-scale businesses, and their expansive nature facilitates the widespread dissemination of malicious software. These cyber entities function with structures comparable to legitimate enterprises, showcasing partners, resellers, vendors, and associates. Licenses for malware are actively bought and sold among criminal organizations, enabling the expansion of their illicit activities into new regions or markets.

Certain black hat organizations take their operations to a sophisticated level by establishing call centers. In these centers, operatives pose as representatives of well-known technology organizations, such as Microsoft. Operating under the guise of legitimacy, hackers engage in outbound calls, attempting to deceive potential victims. The scam involves convincing individuals to grant remote access to their computers or download seemingly innocuous software. Unfortunately, these actions inadvertently empower criminals to extract sensitive information like passwords and banking details or discreetly seize control of the victim’s computer, using it as a launching pad for further attacks. Adding insult to injury, victims are often subjected to exorbitant fees for the purported “assistance.”

In contrast, some hacking incidents are swift and automated, devoid of direct human interaction. Attack bots traverse the internet, seeking out unprotected computers for infiltration through methods such as phishing, malware-laden attachments, or links to compromised websites.

The pervasive nature of black hat hacking transcends borders, making it a formidable global challenge. Law enforcement faces considerable hurdles as hackers tend to leave minimal evidence, exploit the computers of unsuspecting victims, and operate across multiple jurisdictions. Even when authorities manage to shut down a hacking site in one country, the same operation may seamlessly relocate elsewhere, allowing the group to persist in their activities. The transient and adaptable characteristics of these cyber threats underscore the considerable difficulties in effectively combating them on a global scale.

Black hat hackers examples

One of the most notable black hat hackers in history is Kevin Mitnick, who, at a certain point, held the infamous distinction of being the most wanted cybercriminal globally. During his time as a black hat hacker, Mitnick infiltrated the systems of over 40 major corporations, including prominent names like IBM and Motorola, and even accessed the US National Defense warning system. Eventually apprehended, he served time in jail. However, upon his release, Mitnick transformed into a cybersecurity consultant, redirecting his hacking expertise toward white hat hacking endeavors.

Another prominent figure in the realm of cybersecurity is Tsutomu Shimomura, renowned for his role in tracking down Kevin Mitnick. Shimomura, a computational physics research scientist, also contributed his expertise to the US National Security Agency. Notably, he was among the pioneering researchers who highlighted the security and privacy vulnerabilities of cell phones. Transitioning from a focus on potential threats, Shimomura utilized his security skills for ethical purposes. He played a pivotal role in bringing Kevin Mitnick to justice, and his experiences were later chronicled in the book “Takedown,” which was adapted into a film titled “Track Down.” Shimomura’s journey reflects a transition from addressing security concerns to actively contributing to the ethical side of cybersecurity, demonstrating the complex evolution that some individuals in this field undergo.

White Hat Hackers definition

  • Motivation: White Hat hackers, also known as ethical hackers or security experts, are motivated by a desire to protect systems and networks. They use their skills to identify and rectify security weaknesses, enhancing digital defenses and preventing unauthorized access.
  • Legality: White Hat hackers operate within legal and ethical frameworks, as their activities are sanctioned and aimed at improving security.

What is a white hat hackers

White hat hackers leverage their skills to identify and expose security vulnerabilities with the aim of safeguarding organizations from malicious cyber threats. Often employed as paid staff or contractors, they serve as security specialists tasked with identifying gaps in a system’s security infrastructure.

These ethical hackers play a crucial role in the overall cybersecurity posture of large organizations. Their proactive efforts contribute to minimizing downtime and reducing the frequency of issues with organizational websites. The rationale behind this effectiveness lies in the recognition that hacking into systems managed by major corporations is generally more challenging than breaching those operated by smaller businesses. Large companies typically allocate substantial resources to thoroughly examine and fortify their security measures, making it harder for malicious hackers to exploit vulnerabilities.

A specific subset of white hat hackers includes penetration testers or “pentesters.” These professionals specialize in systematically evaluating systems to discover vulnerabilities and assess the associated risks. Their work involves simulating real-world cyberattacks to identify weaknesses that could potentially be exploited by malicious actors. The insights provided by penetration testers aid organizations in shoring up their defenses and fortifying their systems against potential security breaches.

In essence, white hat hackers, including penetration testers, play a vital role in the ongoing battle against cyber threats by proactively identifying and addressing security weaknesses, thereby contributing to the resilience and protection of digital infrastructures.

How white hat hackers work

White hat hackers and black hat hackers both employ similar hacking methods, but a fundamental distinction lies in the legality and ethical considerations surrounding their actions. The key difference is that white hat hackers have explicit permission from the system owner to conduct their activities, making their actions legal. In contrast, black hat hackers operate without authorization, engaging in malicious activities that are illegal.

Here’s a breakdown of the characteristics and practices associated with each type of hacker:

White Hat Hackers:

  1. Permission: White hat hackers have explicit authorization from the system owner to test and identify vulnerabilities.
  2. Objective: Their goal is to improve security by discovering and fixing weaknesses before malicious actors exploit them.
  3. Tactics and Skills:
    • Social Engineering: White hat hackers may use social engineering to expose weaknesses in an organization’s human defenses, focusing on manipulating individuals to reveal sensitive information or perform actions they shouldn’t.
    • Penetration Testing: This involves systematically identifying and rectifying vulnerabilities in an organization’s defenses and endpoints.
    • Reconnaissance and Research: White hat hackers research organizations to discover vulnerabilities within physical and IT infrastructures legally.
    • Programming: They create decoys like honeypots to distract or gather information about potential cybercriminals.
    • Use of Tools: White hat hackers utilize various digital and physical tools, including hardware and devices, to install bots and malware for testing purposes.
  4. Gamification: Some white hat hackers participate in bug bounty programs, competitions that reward them for reporting vulnerabilities. Training courses, events, and certifications are also dedicated to ethical hacking.

Black hat hackers vs white hat hackers

The main difference between the two is motivation. Unlike black hat hackers, who access systems illegally, with malicious intent, and often for personal gain, white hat hackers work with companies to help identify weaknesses in their systems and make corresponding updates. They do this to ensure that black hat hackers cannot access the system’s data illegally.

Black hat hacker vs white hat hacker
Black hat hacker vs white hat hacker

White hat hackers example

These are examples of white hat hackers, individuals who use their hacking skills and expertise for ethical purposes, often contributing to the improvement of cybersecurity and the protection of digital environments. Here’s a closer look at each of the mentioned white hat hackers:

  1. Tim Berners-Lee:
    • Contribution: Inventor of the World Wide Web.
    • Role: Serves as the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), overseeing web development standards.
  2. Greg Hoglund:
    • Expertise: Computer forensics expert.
    • Contributions: Known for work and research in malware detection, rootkits, and online game hacking.
    • Experience: Previously worked for the US government and the intelligence community.
  3. Richard M. Stallman:
    • Role: Founder of the GNU project, promoting free software.
    • Movement: Founded the free software movement in the mid-1980s, advocating for freedom in computer use.
  4. Charlie Miller:
    • Expertise: Noted for finding Apple vulnerabilities.
    • Achievement: Won the Pwn2Own computer hacking contest in 2008.
    • Experience: Worked as an ethical hacker for the US National Security Agency.
  5. Dan Kaminsky:
    • Role: Chief scientist of White Ops, a firm detecting malware activity via JavaScript.
    • Discovery: Known for discovering a fundamental flaw in the Domain Name System (DNS) protocol, addressing potential cache poisoning attacks.
  6. Jeff Moss:
    • Role: Served on the US Homeland Security Advisory Council during the Obama administration.
    • Contributions: Co-chaired the council’s Task Force on CyberSkills. Founded hacker conferences Black Hat and DEFCON.
    • Global Engagement: Commissioner at the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace.

These individuals showcase the diverse expertise and contributions of white hat hackers. They use their skills to enhance digital security, discover vulnerabilities, and advance the responsible and ethical use of technology. Many of them have also been involved in shaping policies, founding conferences, and contributing to the global dialogue on cybersecurity.

Gray Hat Hackers definition

  • Motivation: Gray Hat hackers fall in between the black and white categories. While they may engage in hacking activities without explicit authorization, their intent may not be purely malicious. They might breach systems to expose vulnerabilities, raise awareness, or prompt organizations to address security issues.
  • Legality: The legality of Gray Hat hacking is ambiguous, as their actions may not always align with established ethical or legal standards.

In essence, the type of hacker is determined by their underlying motivation and whether their activities adhere to or violate legal and ethical principles. Understanding these distinctions is crucial in navigating discussions surrounding hacking and cybersecurity.

What is a gray hat hackers?

Gray hat hackers occupy a middle ground between the ethical and malicious hacking realms, as they may occasionally violate laws or ethical standards without harboring the outright malicious intent typical of black hat hackers.

When compared to white hat hackers, who operate within legal and ethical boundaries, and black hat hackers, who engage in malicious activities, gray hat hackers exhibit a distinctive approach. When a white hat hacker discovers a vulnerability, they exploit it only with explicit permission and refrain from disclosing it until it has been rectified. In contrast, a black hat hacker may exploit the vulnerability illegally or share the information with others for unauthorized use. Gray hat hackers, however, neither illegally exploit the vulnerability nor disclose it to others.

Gray hat hackers often believe that the internet lacks sufficient security for businesses, and they perceive it as their mission to enhance the safety of online spaces for individuals and organizations. They may demonstrate their concerns by hacking into websites and networks, causing disruption to showcase vulnerabilities. Gray hats typically claim that their intentions are not malicious, and they may engage in such activities out of curiosity, especially when dealing with high-profile systems, sometimes disregarding privacy and legal boundaries.

While gray hats may provide valuable information to companies about vulnerabilities in their systems, their methods are generally not considered ethical by the wider community of white hat hackers and the cybersecurity world. Gray hat hacking is considered illegal because the hacker has not obtained explicit permission from an organization to attempt to infiltrate their systems. The ambiguity and controversy surrounding gray hat hacking highlight the complex ethical landscape within the cybersecurity domain.

How gray hat hackers work

Gray hat hackers employ a distinctive approach that falls between legal and illegal activities. Here’s an explanation of how gray hat hackers typically operate:

  1. Illegal Access:
    • Gray hat hackers gain unauthorized access to a system or network, exploiting vulnerabilities they discover.
  2. Offering Services:
    • Once inside, the gray hat hacker may contact the system administrator or organization, suggesting that they or one of their associates be hired to fix the security issues—for a fee. This is a method to monetize their hacking skills.
  3. Changing Landscape:
    • The practice of offering services has been on the decline due to increased business willingness to prosecute such activities.
  4. Bug Bounty Programs:
    • Some organizations employ bug bounty programs to encourage gray hat hackers to report vulnerabilities. In these cases, companies offer a financial reward to gray hat hackers for responsibly disclosing the discovered vulnerabilities, aiming to avoid the risks associated with the hacker exploiting the flaws for personal gain.
  5. Getting Permission:
    • Although bug bounty programs exist, getting explicit permission from the organization is the only way to ensure that the gray hat hacker operates within legal boundaries.
  6. Turning to the Dark Side:
    • If organizations do not respond promptly or do not comply with the gray hat hacker’s requests, there is a risk that the hacker may take a more malicious turn. They may resort to becoming black hat hackers, sharing the details of the exploited vulnerabilities on the internet, or exploiting the vulnerabilities themselves.

Gray Hat Hackers vs White Hat Hackers:

  • The critical difference between gray hat hackers and white hat hackers lies in the consequences of their actions. If an organization chooses to ignore a white hat hacker, the ethical hacker is bound by rules and often operates under an employment contract, ensuring they adhere to legal and ethical standards. In contrast, a gray hat hacker, not being bound by such agreements, may choose to exploit the identified flaws or share the knowledge online if their suggestions are disregarded.

In summary, gray hat hackers navigate a morally ambiguous space, sometimes offering services for a fee, participating in bug bounty programs, or taking more malicious actions if their efforts are dismissed by organizations. The decision to operate within or outside legal and ethical boundaries often depends on the response and cooperation of the targeted organization.

Gray hat hackers example

The incident involving Khalil Shreateh serves as a notable example of gray hat hacking and the ethical complexities associated with such actions.


  • Date: August 2013.
  • Target: Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page.

Incident Overview:

  1. Hacking Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Page:
    • Khalil Shreateh, an unemployed computer security researcher, identified a bug on Facebook that allowed him to post on any user’s page without their consent. In an attempt to bring attention to the issue, Shreateh exploited this vulnerability on Mark Zuckerberg’s own Facebook page.
  2. Motivation:
    • Shreateh’s motivation was to highlight the bug and prompt Facebook to take corrective action. He had previously informed Facebook about the vulnerability but was reportedly told that it was not a bug. In an effort to prove the severity of the issue, he took a more direct approach by demonstrating the exploit on Zuckerberg’s page.
  3. Bug Report Rejection:
    • Facebook’s initial response to Shreateh’s bug report was dismissive, stating that the reported issue was not a bug. This reaction likely fueled Shreateh’s decision to demonstrate the exploit publicly.
  4. Impact:
    • Shreateh’s actions led to the public exposure of a significant security flaw that could potentially be exploited by malicious actors, particularly professional spammers.
  5. Facebook’s Response:
    • Following the incident, Facebook acknowledged the vulnerability and promptly corrected the bug, preventing the potential misuse of the exploit.
  6. Compensation Denial:
    • Despite the valuable contribution in uncovering and addressing a critical security flaw, Shreateh was not compensated by Facebook through their white hat program. This was because he violated the program’s policies by conducting the demonstration without explicit permission.

This case exemplifies the ethical gray area in hacking. Shreateh, acting with the intention of exposing a serious security flaw, resorted to unconventional methods due to perceived negligence in Facebook’s response. While his actions led to the resolution of a significant vulnerability, the violation of Facebook’s policies resulted in his exclusion from the compensation typically offered to white hat hackers through bug bounty programs. The incident underscores the complex dynamics surrounding responsible disclosure and the challenges faced by those who resort to unconventional means to draw attention to security issues.

How to protect yourself from hackers

Certainly! Here’s an explanation of the ten ways to protect yourself from hackers, as outlined in the provided information:

  1. Use Unique, Complex Passwords:
    • Employ strong and unique passwords, combining upper- and lower-case letters, special characters, and numbers. Regularly update passwords, and consider using a password manager for secure management.
  2. Avoid Clicking on Unsolicited Email Links:
    • Refrain from clicking on links in unsolicited emails, as they may be part of phishing scams attempting to obtain sensitive information or download malware onto your device.
  3. Utilize Secure Websites:
    • Shop on websites with Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption, identified by URLs starting with “HTTPS://” and a lock icon. Avoid saving payment information on websites to prevent unauthorized access in case of a security breach.
  4. Enable Two-Factor Authentication:
    • Add an extra layer of security to logins by requiring a second authentication factor, often a PIN sent to your mobile phone. This enhances security by necessitating knowledge of login details and possession of the mobile device.
  5. Exercise Caution with Public Wi-Fi:
    • Be mindful of using unsecured public Wi-Fi networks, as they may expose personal information to potential hackers. Consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for added security.
  6. Deactivate Autofill:
    • While convenient, autofill features can pose security risks. Disabling this option prevents hackers from easily accessing a cache of personal information stored in your browser profile.
  7. Choose Apps Wisely:
    • Download apps only from reputable sources such as the Apple App Store or Google Play. Regularly update apps and uninstall unused ones to minimize potential vulnerabilities.
  8. Trace or Erase Lost Devices:
    • Install software that enables remote wiping of lost or stolen devices. Additionally, set up devices to lock themselves after a specified number of failed login attempts.
  9. Disable and Manage Third-Party Permissions:
    • Review and manage permissions granted to third-party applications on mobile devices. Adjust settings, especially those related to location services and data backup, to enhance data security.
  10. Install Trusted Cybersecurity:
  • Use reliable cybersecurity solutions like Kaspersky Internet Security to block viruses and malware in real-time, preventing remote takeover by hackers. Regularly update the software for optimal protection.

Following these practices enhances overall cybersecurity, reducing the risk of falling victim to hacking attempts and ensuring the safety of personal and sensitive information.

By mansoor

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