Who is a Black Hat Hacker?
A black hat hacker is a person who attempts to find computer security vulnerabilities and exploit them for personal financial gain or other malicious reasons. Their sole intention is to monetize your IT systems using ransomware, cryptojacking, rootkits, and trojans.
Black hat hackers can inflict major damage on both individual computer users and large organizations by stealing personal financial information, compromising the security of major systems, or shutting down or altering the function of websites and networks.
Why Black Hat?
The symbology of the good guy wearing a white hat and the bad guy wearing a black hat goes back to the early Westerns. In fact, it goes all the way back to 1903 and a twelve-minute short, The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter.
The video stars Justus D. Barnes, who played one of the outlaws. In a famous sequence from the end of the film, he empties his pistol straight at the camera, effectively taking potshots at the audience.
The black hat hacker is a digital outlaw taking potshots at your cybersecurity defenses.
How Black Hat Hackers Operate
Black hat hackers have extensive knowledge about breaking into servers and computer networks. They can discover – and share amongst themselves – vulnerabilities in software and operating systems that can be exploited to allow them to gain access to the network or to plant malware in the system.
Some black hat hackers are the authors of malware, Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) software, and other tools that assist hackers.
Their motivation is almost always financial, although hacking groups like Anonymous see themselves as social justice vigilantes. They attack organizations as a form of activism. Industrial espionage is another reason hackers attack systems.
A small portion of hacking is conducted by newcomers who want to break into any system they can. They want to prove they have the skills to be taken seriously in the hacking fraternity. But by far, the majority of black hat activity is motivated by financial gain.
Black hat hackers will try to find hitherto unnoticed vulnerabilities in operating systems, protocols, and software packages. If they can then devise an exploit that capitalizes on this weakness and allows them to perform a cybercrime, all the servers and networks that use that operating system, software package, or protocol are effectively defenseless against that new attack.
A black hat hacker may use the exploit themselves, or they may sell it on the Dark Web. Zero-day exploits can change hands for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It is possible to classify and sub-classify threat actors and cybercriminal factions ad infinitum, but it is at least worth pointing out that not all cybercriminals are hackers.
Many cybercriminals use readily available malware kits, attack software, Cybercrime-as-a-Service, and proof of concept code that demonstrates how to exploit new vulnerabilities. They don’t have the knowledge or expertise to detect and weaponize vulnerabilities or to write malware themselves.
A Comparison Between the Different Hat Colors
There are other hats – and hackers – of different colors and capabilities.
White hat hackers, also known as ethical hackers, use their skills legally to secure systems and find vulnerabilities before malicious hackers exploit them. They perform authorized security measures like penetration testing to strengthen cybersecurity.
Gray hat hackers, in contrast, operate in a legal gray area, often probing systems without permission but not typically for malicious reasons, sometimes seeking bounties for their findings.
Other hacker types include blue hat hackers, often motivated by personal vendettas, and green hat hackers, who are beginners in hacking, mostly experimenting and learning. Red hat hackers target black hat hackers, using aggressive methods to thwart their activities.
Each type represents different motivations and approaches within the complex spectrum of hacking.
Malicious, financial gain
Conducting penetration tests
Ambiguous, often self-serving
Reporting vulnerabilities for bounties
Aggressive against black hats
Attacking black hat systems
Launching attacks against specific targets for revenge
Attempting to breach networks to gain experience
Team Colors: Red vs. Blue
Hat colors shouldn’t be confused with team colors. You may have heard the terms red team and blue team. Below we explain what they mean.
What is a Red Team?
A red team is made up of white hat hackers who act as black hats in authorized attacks against an organization. The outcome is a real-world, objective assessment of the efficacy of the digital security of the organization.
They may utilize any technique from the threat actor’s portfolio of methods to try to gain access to the building, access to the network, exfiltrate data, install harmless pseudo-malware, and conduct USB-drop, phishing, and spear-phishing campaigns.
A large part of the red team’s effort is spent in reconnaissance before the actual attacks begin. They will painstakingly create a digital footprint of the target organization. It can include:
- The operating systems in use in servers and computers.
- The make and model of network-connected equipment such as servers, computers, laptops, Internet of Things devices, tablets, smartphones, firewalls, switches, routers, wireless access points, printers, etc.
- The number of and details of physical access controls such as digital door locks, fob-operated doors, etc.
- The details of open firewall ports that are exposed to the internet.
With this knowledge, the red team will identify weak spots and vulnerabilities. A plan can then be assembled to exploit them.
What is a Blue Team?
The blue team is the opposite of the red team. Like the red team, the blue team is made up of white hat hackers, but their role is to defend the network and organization from hacking and cyberthreats. They are defending the same IT assets that the red team is threatening.
The blue team draws up a cyberthreat risk assessment. They implement protective and defensive countermeasures such as intrusion detection systems, regular internal vulnerability scans, and external penetration testing. In addition, log monitoring and analysis tools, DNS audits, and analysis of samples of network traffic are performed. Automation of these tasks is used where possible.
IT governance policies and controls are put in place. These will define and regulate the use of the IT systems by employees. Staff education is conducted periodically, covering cybersecurity and best practices. A specific set of inductions and training will be implemented for new starters.
The configuration of all networking equipment is under blue team control, as is ensuring the firmware and embedded software of networking devices are patched and maintained up to date, along with the operating systems and software on servers and computers.
Red Teams and Blue Teams Work Together
The actions of the red team and the blue team are complementary.
Having these two teams in place benefits an organization by having two very different mindsets approach the topic of cybersecurity. Inevitably, there will be competitiveness and pride at stake in both teams, which fosters maximum effort and high attainment on both sides.
Much of this can be outsourced, of course.
Laws and Penalties Concerning Black Hat Hacking
Black hat hacking is unequivocally illegal worldwide. Different countries have established specific laws to combat this digital menace.
The European Union has also stepped up efforts with its Directive on Attacks against Information Systems, urging member states to implement stringent anti-hacking laws.
Countries like Japan and Australia have joined this global front with their own cybercrime legislations, showcasing a universal commitment to curbing this unlawful activity.
Penalties for black hat hacking are severe and varied, depending on the jurisdiction and the severity of the crime. In the U.S., hackers can face lengthy prison sentences and substantial fines, especially in cases involving significant financial loss or threats to national security.
Other countries impose similar punishments, ranging from monetary penalties to imprisonment. High-profile cases, such as the conviction of one of the individuals behind the WannaCry ransomware, demonstrate the global legal system’s resolve in prosecuting these cyber offenders.
However, enforcing these laws isn’t easy. The inherent anonymity of the internet and the borderless nature of cybercrimes complicate the process of tracking and apprehending hackers. Cybercriminals often employ advanced techniques to conceal their identities and locations, making it difficult for authorities to bring them to justice.
International cooperation is necessary to effectively combat black hat hacking. Collaborative efforts like the European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) at Europol highlight the global commitment to this cause.
Profiles of Notable Black Hat Hackers
Black hat hackers have made headlines over the years for their notorious activities.
Here are profiles of several well-known figures in this realm:
- Kevin Mitnick: Once known as the most wanted computer criminal in the U.S., Mitnick’s hacking career started in the 1980s. He gained unauthorized access to dozens of computer networks, including those of major corporations like IBM and Nokia. After being caught, he served five years in prison. Post-incarceration, Mitnick turned over a new leaf, becoming a consultant and speaker on computer security.
- Gary McKinnon: A British hacker, McKinnon was accused of being responsible for the “biggest military computer hack of all time” in 2002. As mentioned earlier hacked into 97 United States military and NASA computers, allegedly causing a shutdown of the Army’s Washington network. McKinnon claimed he was searching for information about UFOs. He faced extradition to the U.S. but ultimately remained in the UK due to health reasons.
- Albert Gonzalez: Responsible for one of the largest credit card thefts in history, Gonzalez masterminded a group that stole and sold more than 170 million card and ATM numbers from 2005 to 2007. He hacked into the databases of companies like TJX Companies, Heartland Payment Systems, and others. Gonzalez was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison in 2010.
- Anonymous Group: While not an individual, the Anonymous group is a decentralized collective known for its various cyber-attacks against the government, religious, and corporate websites, and is often the most popular group that comes to mind when hearing the word “hacker.” Motivated by activism, they’ve targeted organizations like the Church of Scientology, PayPal, and various government agencies. Their actions range from simple website defacement to more serious data breaches.
- Adrian Lamo: Dubbed the “homeless hacker,” Lamo gained notoriety for breaking into high-profile networks like those of Microsoft and The New York Times. He was later known for reporting U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning to the authorities for leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. Lamo’s motivations seemed to be a mix of curiosity and the challenge of breaching secure networks.
These profiles highlight the diverse motivations and significant impacts of black hat hackers. Their stories serve as a reminder of the constant need for robust cybersecurity measures and vigilance in the digital age.
The Future of Black Hat Hacking
The future of black hat hacking is influenced heavily by emerging trends and technologies. As digital innovation accelerates, so too do the tools and methods at hackers’ disposal.
The rise of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) offers new avenues for sophisticated cyberattacks, potentially enabling hackers to automate their strategies and target systems more effectively.
Also, the interconnectivity of devices through the Internet of Things expands the potential targets for hackers, including critical infrastructure and personal devices.
Cybersecurity experts predict that these developments will lead to more complex and potentially more damaging cyber-attacks in the future.
In response, cybersecurity is advancing with better encryption methods and AI-driven security solutions. This ongoing dynamic suggests a future where both hackers and defenders continually adapt.
A Note About Terminology
In light of growing sensitivity towards language that may perpetuate racial insensitivity, it is recommended that the industry move away from using terms such as black hats and white hats.
The phrases threat actors and ethical hackers are suggested as appropriate and neutral alternatives.