The term hacker is full of negative connotations: cyber attacks, malware, ransomeware, destructive software which annihilates personal and business lives. But there are good hackers out there too. Ok, perhaps calling them hackers isn’t quite the right term but fundamentally that is what they’re doing. These IT security experts or ethical hackers leverage off their ‘hacking’ skills to improve our IT security rather than undermine it. Instead of embedding evil software into the devices of unsuspecting people, they’re donning white hats and using their specialist computer skills ethically to test and remedy IT security breaches. So what exactly does a white hat hacker do?
Well, most of the time they are practising and honing their ‘hacking’ skills by testing the IT security of systems and networks and trying to break through. The theory is that if a white hat hacker can infiltrate, so too can a black hat hacker, otherwise known as … well, hackers. Fundamentally, the people orchestrating cyber attacks have the exact same skills as white hat hackers; what they’re lacking is a moral compass. Once a weakness has been identified within a system, the developers can work to patch and strengthen their IT security and pass on these improvements to their users.
The pop-up notification on computers and hand held devices which advice you to update the operating system or an app are not to be ignored because they are often vital improvements and patches to your IT security. Thanks to the diligence and skill of white hat hackers, many vulnerabilities can be identified and corrected before cyber attacks take place. Of course, it doesn’t always work like this and there are times when malicious hackers combat IT security first and wreck havoc upon our machines. But at least we have people working to try and stop this.
Why exactly do white hat hackers use their skills in this way? Well, most large software development companies and IT security systems offer rewards for hackers who manage to find any weaknesses, either in new or existing software. Netgear, for example, will pay up to $15,000 in a new bug bounty program launched at the end of 2016. The payments range according to the level at which the weakness is found, from $150 for open redirection up to the maximum reward for white hat hackers who gain access to the cloud system or live video feeds. Of course, you only get paid if you hack in and then inform Netgear or the equivalent company about the weakness. If you don’t inform them then, well, you’re just a hacker.
The word hacker has negative connotations, as it should because of the potential damage these skills can do to unsuspecting victims. But thankfully, despite the image news channels portray, most people in the world are good. White hat hackers are working in their thousands to defend each and every one of us against their morally devoid cousins, strengthening our IT security one patch at a time. Cyber attacks may still be occurring but rest assured there are people out there fighting back, determined not to let the bad guys win.