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Hacking emerged with the invention of computers. The term "hacker" has a variety of definitions. Among computer professionals, it is applied to someone who is proficient at software programming, debugging systems, or identifying vulnerabilities in a given computer, software application, or computer network. These are valuable skills for computer programmers and technicians. However "hacker" has taken on a negative meaning among the public and in the media. Outside the computer industry, the term is now generally used to describe a person with these skills who decides to apply them toward a damaging or illegal purpose.

The United States has two definitions of illegal hacking. First of all, it is illegal to have in one's possession the password to a computer or network without permission to possess that password. Secondly, it is a felony to "enter" a computer or network system without permission. If damage is caused in that system, the hacker is liable for additional legal charges.

The people who hack and the hacker organizations to which they may belong are as varied as their goals. Some hackers break into computer systems for bragging rights, causing no intentional damage. Others hack for political gain or protest. Still others release devastating codes called viruses, worms, or Trojan horses . Many of these codes self-replicate and "infect" other computers, sometimes causing billions of dollars in damage worldwide. Hackers also have a variety of terms to describe themselves and classify what they do.

Types of Hackers

"Phreakers" are hackers who specialize in telephone networks. This was the first kind of hacker, as telephones used one of the first automated systems. Early phreakers developed a device called a Blue Box to use when placing free telephone calls, sometimes using several telephone lines and telephone numbers around the world. With the emergence of analog cellular phones, phreakers could hack literally from thin air. When a victim used his or her cell phone, phreakers intercepted the message along with the caller's identification code. The phreakers then supplied additional cell phones with the stolen identification code. The subsequent telephone bills went to the surprised victim. Digital cell phones make this practice impossible for phreakers.

Those who lack skills for hacking but attempt to access technology or information belonging to others are called "Wannabes" or "Script Kiddies." Some experts say most of the world's hackers fall into this category. "Elite" hackers have proven their hacking abilities. "Black Hat" hackers reserve their skills for their own illegal profit.

"White Hat" hackers work legally. "Ethical" hackers are hired to break into computer networks to help improve security. In the past, many considered hiring ethical hackers to be a high-risk technique for companies, calling for strict supervision and solid insurance policies. By 2002, however, it was often considered a vital part of computer security.

Another category of hackers, "Warez Dudez," target software. They copy, or "pirate," existing software, removing copy-preventing safeguards if necessary. An estimated 50 percent of software worldwide is illegally manufactured. Many times, hackers install their own viruses on pirated software before distribution.

Finally, criminal hackers, called "Crackers," use hacking to complement their other illegal activities.

Consequences of Hacking

As computer technology becomes more complex and intricate, hackers need more specialized knowledge, experience, equipment, and money. The computers that hackers target do too.

With the growing dependence upon computer information systems and automation, many in the hacking world are increasingly drawn to corporate networks to engage in corporate espionage. In one study, 85 percent of businesses surveyed admitted that hackers had penetrated their computer security systems during the previous year, causing damage measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. Many times these businesses bear the cost quietly without prosecuting the hacker for fear of causing customer loss of confidence. However, they have the option of suing for damages in civil court without the publicity inherent in taking action in the criminal court system. Many do.

Successful hacking depends upon experience and knowledge. Because of this, experts warn that devastating damage is increasingly likely to be caused by disgruntled and former employees. In many high-tech firms, dismissed employees are immediately escorted from the building upon termination and their computer system access codes are promptly changed. Companies that spend few, if any, resources to strengthen computer security, such as small businesses, and those lax about keeping discharged employees away from their business computer systems are vulnerable.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), at least 122 countries employ hackers to engage in international espionage. Experts speculate that the United States also uses hackers to advance its knowledge of other countries. Various branches of the U.S. government devote increasing portions of their budgets to defend against hackers; national security concerns include terrorist hackers.

Any networked or online computer can be the target of hackers. Without adequate security measures, any computerized networkincluding those that power Wall Street, banks and credit institutions, health institutions, educational institutions, air traffic control networks, power supply grids, traffic light systems, or municipal water supply systemscan become a prime target for domestic or international hackers.

see also Guru; Hacking; Privacy; Security; World Wide Web.

Mary McIver Puthawala


Freedman, David H., and Charles C. Mann. At Large: The Strange Case of the World's Biggest Internet Invasion. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Schwartau, Winn. CyberShock: Surviving Hackers, Phreakers, Identity Thieves, Internet Terrorist and Weapons of Mass Disruption. New York: Thunder Mouth Press, 2000.