Black, White, and Grey Hats in Cybersecurity

What’s the Difference, and Why Does it Matter?

Think of a hacker in your head. Picture what they look like, what they’re wearing, and what their day-to-day life is like. The truth is—especially if you aren’t a security practitioner in the industry—your hacker stereotype is probably wrong.

No, hackers are not shady individuals who consistently hang out in the dark with a hoodie on. No, hackers aren’t criminals who are always digging around on the dark web for new ways to trick their victims. And no, the stereotypical hacker you saw in that movie one time is not indicative of all of us.

Hackers, much like many of the most common occupations in the world, are misunderstood. Hackers can wear many different types of “hats.” The presence of the term hat to describe individuals in the industry helps all of us differentiate who’s good and who’s bad. Sometimes individuals wear multiple hats, and sometimes a hat describes an individual’s behaviors instead of someone’s official role. These hats, while stereotypical in their own right, are a much better indicator of who that hacker is and what their job title really means.

Today on we’re going to be talking about the similarities and differences of these different hats in cybersecurity, and why these roles even matter at all.

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Black Hat Hackers

In information security, hackers are typically split into three different groups: black hat, grey hat, and white hat hackers. The first one we’ll touch on are black hat hackers. Black hat hackers are the closest thing you’ll get to nefarious hackers from movies. They represent the “dark side of the Force” in information security, with individuals like Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine as their mascots.

Black hat hackers are hackers who break into systems, steal precious data, and break through security programs. These black hat hackers are typically doing this for financial gain (payment information and securing data for ransoms), for personal gain (promoting political beliefs, sabotaging companies they dislike, etc.), or for collective gain (think hacker groups like Anonymous). 

While black hat hackers are often the most stereotypical of the hacker types, they come in all shapes and sizes. Some black hats are amateurs looking to gain experience or just wreck havoc. However, many of them are also experienced security professionals who use their powers to make money, gain notoriety, or assist a larger power (like a hacker group, a nation-state, or terrorist group).

Grey Hat Hackers

If we’re continuing the Star Wars theme, grey hats are the bounty hunters of the information security landscape. Think of grey hat hackers as the Mandalorian, a man making his way through life while walking the line between ethical and illegal hacking. While the behavior of the Mandalorian may be good or bad depending on the situation (mainly, who’s trying to hurt Baby Yoda), he doesn’t fit into either of the main two teams.

Grey hat hackers are typically security researchers, corporations, hobbyists, or bug bounty experts who make a living by identifying vulnerabilities in a system without the express permission of the system owner. However, this information isn’t used to compromise the system or extract data, but is instead passed on to the system’s owner. Once reported, grey hats often request a fee for the discoveries. If the fee is not paid, grey hats sometimes publish their findings online.

While many the activities grey hats perform end up being illegal or unethical in nature, more and more corporations are opening up to the idea of paying outside personnel for the discoveries they make.

White Hat Hackers

White hat hackers are those who choose to use their hacking powers purely for good instead of evil. To make it simple, white hat hackers are noble Jedi like Luke Skywalker. Also known as “ethical hackers,” these white hat hackers make a living as employees and contractors who work to uncover vulnerabilities for the sole purpose of protecting that corporation’s system.

White hat “Jedi” use many of the same tactics and techniques as black hat hackers. The key differentiator between the two is that they have permission from the owner of the system first, which makes all of their actions legal. Many of these white hat hackers do penetration testing, perform in-place security assessments, and complete vulnerability assessments for one or several companies. Additionally, many of those company-sponsored bug bounty programs now fit into the white hat umbrella (see Playstation’s bug bounty program).

Many of the vulnerabilities and gaps in security discovered by white hat hackers are passed off to other cybersecurity practitioners to be remediated, boosting the company’s overall security posture.

Why Do These Roles Matter?

While the word “hacker” often brings forth a negative connotation, it is important to remember that all hackers are different and not all hackers are bad. Some hackers use their powers for good, some for evil, and some… well, for their own personal definition of “good,” whether that’s good for themselves or the world as a whole. The big takeaway here is that there ARE good hackers out there, and those good hackers make up the vast majority of the formal cybersecurity industry.

Nevertheless, each of these roles do exist in our ecosystem. Without black hat hackers, there would be less need for white hat hackers. And without white hat hackers, there would undoubtedly be more cybercrime activity and data breaches from black hat hackers.

If you are wearing your white hat and looking for a way to make your job easier, click here to book a demo of PlexTrac.

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