Although the concept of hacking brings to mind seedy characters working to steal from unsuspecting computer users, that is not always an accurate portrayal of hacking. As with other segments of society, there are hackers working in the background to protect governments, businesses and individuals. In fact, without hackers, many past improvements in software may not have occurred. In the U.S., unlike some other parts of the world, the term hacker is synonymous with dishonesty. It’s important to recognize the good, as well as the bad, results of hacking.
First, computer users need to understand exactly what hacking is. In a nutshell, hacking is nothing more than looking for vulnerabilities in software and determining how those vulnerabilities can be exploited. In other words, hackers are software programmers using their skills to explore existing software to find holes in the software’s security. Determining if those skills are used to benefit software users or exploit them defines whether hackers are good or bad.
Even the worst hackers, however, force improvements in software to minimize future issues. In the computer industry, hackers seeking personal gain from hacking are referred to as black hat hackers. Just like the old cowboy movies, the good guys fighting for justice are known as white hat hackers. The distinction is important, as white hat hackers, like their nefarious counterparts, are highly skilled at finding weaknesses in software, but white hat hacking is generally done at the behest of businesses or governments to safeguard data and funds.
In the past, both businesses and governmental agencies tended to be reactive rather than proactive. However, with the recent attacks on major corporations and the U.S. government, that may change. In fact, industry insiders routinely suggest reacting to unauthorized intrusions is no longer sufficient. White hat hackers, for years, have told industries and governments their security was, at best, weak. Only when the losses from failing to initiate security protocols become greater than the costs of designing better security measures are industries likely to turn to hackers, as experts, for help.
Today, computer users ask, are hackers good or bad? That question is too complex to answer with a one-word response, but the simple fact is that hackers, good and bad, have the ability to push software solutions to new levels not even dreamed of by average users. Industry experts must, soon, grasp the importance of the role hackers play in software security.