Hacker Hierarchy

Psychologist Marc Rogers says there are several subgroups of hackers -- newbies, cyberpunks, coders and cyber terrorists. Newbies are hackers who have access to hacking tools but aren't really aware of how computers and programs work. Cyberpunks are savvier and are less likely to get caught than a newbie while hacking a system, but they have a tendency to boast about their accomplishments. Coders write the programs other hackers use to infiltrate and navigate computer systems. A cyber terrorist is a professional hacker who infiltrates systems for profit -- he might sabotage a company or raid a corporation's databases for proprietary information [source: Knittel and Soto].

The Hacker Toolbox

The main resource hackers rely upon, apart from their own ingenuity, is computer code. While there is a large community of hackers on the Internet, only a relatively small number of hackers actually program code. Many hackers seek out and download code written by other people. There are thousands of different programs hackers use to explore computers and networks. These programs give hackers a lot of power over innocent users and organizations -- once a skilled hacker knows how a system works, he can design programs that exploit it.

Malicious hackers use programs to:

  • Log keystrokes: Some programs allow hackers to review every keystroke a computer user makes. Once installed on a victim's computer, the programs record each keystroke, giving the hacker everything he needs to infiltrate a system or even steal someone's identity.
  • Hack passwords: There are many ways to hack someone's password, from educated guesses to simple algorithms that generate combinations of letters, numbers and symbols. The trial and error method of hacking passwords is called a brute force attack, meaning the hacker tries to generate every possible combination to gain access. Another way to hack passwords is to use a dictionary attack, a program that inserts common words into password fields.
  • Infect a computer or system with a virus: Computer viruses are programs designed to duplicate themselves and cause problems ranging from crashing a computer to wiping out everything on a system's hard drive. A hacker might install a virus by infiltrating a system, but it's much more common for hackers to create simple viruses and send them out to potential victims via email, instant messages, Web sites with downloadable content or peer-to-peer networks.
  • Gain backdoor access: Similar to hacking passwords, some hackers create programs that search for unprotected pathways into network systems and computers. In the early days of the Internet, many computer systems had limited security, making it possible for a hacker to find a pathway into the system without a username or password. Another way a hacker might gain backdoor access is to infect a computer or system with a Trojan horse.
  • Create zombie computers: A zombie computer, or bot, is a computer that a hacker can use to send spam or commit Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. After a victim executes seemingly innocent code, a connection opens between his computer and the hacker's system. The hacker can secretly control the victim's computer, using it to commit crimes or spread spam.
  • Spy on e-mail: Hackers have created code that lets them intercept and read e-mail messages -- the Internet's equivalent to wiretapping. Today, most e-mail programs use encryption formulas so complex that even if a hacker intercepts the message, he won't be able to read it.

In the next section, we'll get a glimpse into hacker culture.