What is a hacker?

Hackers seem almost omnipresent these days. There seems to be a news story almost every week about some computer wiz taking control of previously thought impenetrable computer systems. One man recently claimed that he hacked into an United Airline’s flight system and took control of the plane in mid-flight. Though computer aviation experts have disputed his claims as false and impossible, the threat does seem very real and present to the average PC user. Other hackers have been more successful. We all remember the huge scandal that resulted when Russian hackers found their way into Barack Obama’s email correspondance and a different group of hackers stole $5 million from the Irish airline, Ryanair. It is beginning to seem like this hacking business is more than an empty threat and we must ask ourselves who are these hackers and how are they doing it?

What is a hacker?

Brian Harvey, a professor at Berkeley University, discussed the origin of the term and the trend in a 1985 essay.  He suggested that “hacker” was first used to describe students at MIT who shirked their school work in favour of other hobbies. The advent of the personal computer led many students into the world of computer programming. Here’s how Harvey described early computer hackers:

someone who lives and breathes computers, who knows all about computers, who can get a computer to do anything. Equally important, though, is the hacker’s attitude. Computer programming must be a hobby, something done for fun, not out of a sense of duty or for the money. (It’s okay to make money, but that can’t be the reason for hacking.)”

The definition and the ethics of hacking have certainly shifted since 1985!

Today we use the term hacker almost exclusively to refer to internet criminals. But they aren’t all bad! We differentiate between white hat hackers and black hat hackers. While black hat hackers mostly use their powers for personal financial gain there are many computer experts who rely on hackers to strengthen security systems and internet privacy. These white hat hackers are like internet double agents: breaking into security systems only to help those companies fortify their firewalls and better protect your information.

The idea of “hactivism” has also become a popular topic in security news. Instead of personal financial gains these people are fighting for political agendas. They hack into government computers and large organizations and use these systems to promote their views. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 saw some of this hacktivism: hackers worked to provide internet connections to the people of Egypt after the government issued an internet black-out.

If only all hackers were so morally upright! Unfortunately most hackers don’t work for the greater good, black hat hackers use their skills for financial gain.

What do hackers do?hacker2

Hackers look for what is called “zero-day” security vulnerability: this is a flaw in an online program’s security and a means of accessing a database of information. They make money by selling this information to organized crime groups. It can be a very lucrative business because of the skill required to break into these databases.

Hackers can also work on a smaller scale: gaining access to individual computers and logging personal information. They do this by sending out emails with the virus attachments. Once opened, these programs can install malicious program on your PC: things like keylogging software that track passwords and credit card information. They can also install the virus on your computer by creating fake web pages or fake online chat rooms. If they are successful in installing this virus onto your computer, they have created what is called a “backdoor program.” This creates an point of access, or a backdoor, to your computer, bypassing normal security authentication and thereby gives the hackers access to your information.
With all of this in mind, here are some helpful tips for preventing and removing But don’t worry too much! There are always ways to prevent or remove a hacker!

  • Never open attachments from senders you do not trust

    If you do not recognize the sender or if the content of the email seems suspicious, do not open an attachment! It’s better to delete emails from unknown or suspicious senders straight away, even before opening the email. Opening an attachment in your email account could permit a black hat hacker from gaining access to your email and using it to send more malicious programs to all of your contacts, thereby infecting hundreds more people.

  • Never download programs from websites you do not know or trust

    Similarly to downloading attachments from strange senders you do not want to download strange programs onto your PC. These programs can allow the creation of the “backdoor” that the hackers use to access your computer and information. Similarly, refrain from clicking on advertisements that seem suspect or less than reputable. To see if a specific program, website or advertisement is reliable and good, just do a quick Google search and see what the Internet community thinks of that specific program. This will help you decide if it is safe or not as many seemingly okay programs come bundled with these viruses.

  • Always keep your software updated

    Software engineers will always make sure to fix any issues or vulnerabilities when they find them, whether this is before the black hat hackers or not. Updating your software will send the latest versions of the programs to your computer and makes them stronger and safer.

  • Keep a two-way firewall up

    A traditional firewall protects your computer against outside threats. It tries to prevent anything malicious from entering the computer. However, a two-way firewall not only does that but also protects your information when it is accessing something outside of your computer. For example: if you have a program that access a server, or information, outside of your computer, the two-way firewall makes sure you are aware of this and tries to protect you further. This is important as if any outgoing data from your computer was compromised, so could your privacy.

  • Run regular scans of your computer

    Regular virus scans of your computer can remove the malicious files that may have slipped through the cracks and still made it onto your computer. Using an anti-virus is a good first step protection, but of course, for a deeper and more thorough clean, a FixMeStick is the most effective way of removing malicious files and hackers’ points of access from your PC.

It can seem like you’re always under attack online, but if you just follow these simple and easy steps online you can surf the web with complete peace of mind.