When we hear about hackers, the first thing comes to mind is deception and that is because the media has given the word "hacker" a bad reputation. The word summons up thoughts of malicious computer users finding new ways to harass people, defraud corporations, steal information and maybe even destroy the economy or start a war by infiltrating military computer systems. While there's no denying that there are hackers out there with bad intentions, they make up only a small percentage of the hacker community.
The term computer hacker first showed up in the mid-1960s. A hacker was a programmer -- someone who hacked out computer code. Hackers were visionaries who could see new ways to use computers, creating programs that no one else could conceive. They were the pioneers of the computer industry, building everything from small applications to operating systems. In this sense, people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were all hackers they saw the potential of what computers could do and created ways to achieve that potential.
A unifying trait among these hackers was a strong sense of curiosity, sometimes bordering on obsession. These hackers prided themselves on not only their ability to create new programs, but also to learn how other programs and systems worked. When a program had a bug a section of bad code that prevented the program from working properly -- hackers would often create and distribute small sections of code called patches to fix the problem. Some managed to land a job that leveraged their skills, getting paid for what they'd happily do for free.
As computers evolved, computer engineers began to network individual machines together into a system. Soon, the term hacker had a new meaning -- a person using computers to explore a network to which he or she didn't belong. Usually hackers didn't have any malicious intent. They just wanted to know how computer networks worked and saw any barrier between them and that knowledge as a challenge.
In fact, that's still the case today. While there are plenty of stories about malicious hackers sabotaging computer systems, infiltrating networks and spreading computer viruses, most hackers are just curious -- they want to know all the intricacies of the computer world. Some use their knowledge to help corporations and governments construct better security measures. Others might use their skills for more unethical endeavors. The main resource hackers rely upon, apart from their own ingenuity, is computer code. While there is a large community of hackers on the Internet, only a relatively small number of hackers actually program code. Many hackers seek out and download code written by other people. There are thousands of different programs hackers use to explore computers and networks. These programs give hackers a lot of power over innocent users and organizations -- once a skilled hacker knows how a system works, he can design programs that exploit it.
Malicious hackers use programs to:
- Log keystrokes: Some programs allow hackers to review every keystroke a computer user makes. Once installed on a victim's computer, the programs record each keystroke, giving the hacker everything he needs to infiltrate a system or even steal someone's identity.
- Hack passwords: There are many ways to hack someone's password, from educated guesses to simple algorithms that generate combinations of letters, numbers and symbols. The trial and error method of hacking passwords is called a brute force attack, meaning the hacker tries to generate every possible combination to gain access. Another way to hack passwords is to use a dictionary attack, a program that inserts common words into password fields.
- Infect a computer or system with a virus: Computer viruses are programs designed to duplicate themselves and cause problems ranging from crashing a computer to wiping out everything on a system's hard drive. A hacker might install a virus by infiltrating a system, but it's much more common for hackers to create simple viruses and send them out to potential victims via email, instant messages, Web sites with downloadable content or peer-to-peer networks.
- Gain backdoor access: Similar to hacking passwords, some hackers create programs that search for unprotected pathways into network systems and computers. In the early days of the Internet, many computer systems had limited security, making it possible for a hacker to find a pathway into the system without a username or password. Another way a hacker might gain backdoor access is to infect a computer or system with a Trojan horse.
- Create zombie computers: A zombie computer, or bot, is a computer that a hacker can use to send spam or commit Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. After a victim executes seemingly innocent code, a connection opens between his computer and the hacker's system. The hacker can secretly control the victim's computer, using it to commit crimes or spread spam.
- Spy on e-mail: Hackers have created code that lets them intercept and read e-mail messages -- the Internet's equivalent to wiretapping. Today, most e-mail programs use encryption formulas so complex that even if a hacker intercepts the message, he won't be able to read it.