What are black hat hackers?

Black hats are criminal hackers who use security gaps within systems for their own gain and often cause a lot of damage. Their motives and methods are, however, very different.

What is a black hat hacker?

At first glance, old western movies and modern computer systems don’t have a lot in common. However, there is one overlap and it’s in the choice of headwear you would typically see in the wild west. Back when everything was filmed in black and white, it was important to distinguish characters from one another. The dashing hero would be wearing a white cowboy hat, while the bad guy would appear wearing a black hat. These antagonists are how black hats got their name. You can assume then, that black hat hackers are up to no good. This is true as their actions are normally illegal.


Although the words “black” and “white” in this use aren’t normally considered racist, they do imply a color binary that could be misunderstood as racist.

Black hat hackers gain access to computer systems to cause damage. They use their access to either find personal information or take down the system they’re attacking. In most cases, the processes used by black hat hackers are illegal and can be prosecuted by the authorities. Black hats look for weak points in networks or computers and exploit them for their own gain. The victims are often not aware of the attack until the damage has been done. That’s why it’s important to choose the right anti-virus programs. Additional measures for protecting information in the event of an attack include updating your system regularly, requiring two-factor authentication for accounts and using strong passwords for sensitive data.

What type of black hats are there?

There are different types of black hat hackers, but many of them have a lot in common. To differentiate them, it’s best to look at intentions and processes.

In many cases, black hat hackers are looking to make money. Using malware they take over systems, access passwords and bank data, or blackmail the owners of affected computers or networks. Black hats often work in groups, have developed structures, and operate like gangs of outlaws, albeit primarily in the online world. These hackers also take on contracts and propositions.

Other black hats are less concerned with direct (financial) benefits, preferring instead to focus on causing damage. This could be grounded in ideological beliefs, for example, when the infrastructure of organizations, authorities or other companies are attacked and then damaged or destroyed. Revenge or showing off are additional reasons for black hat hackers to operate. However, we can only really speculate about the exact motives that hackers have.

The third group of black hats use cyberattacks to gain information. This could be the address of citizens, industry secrets from competing companies or even state secrets. Governments are also getting involved since for most black hat hackers it’s considered taboo to work together with the authorities. Bots are also sometimes used to carry out cyberattacks, to cause confusion and overload systems.

How are black hats different to other hackers?

Black hat hackers are the ones most closely associated with the commonly held view of hackers: a shady computer expert using the weaknesses in a system to cause damage. The name black hat, however, serves to distinguish this type of hacker from other types of hackers. They are different from white hat hackers and gray hat hackers.

Black hats vs. white hats

White hat hackers are the polar opposite of black hats since their name comes from the heroes of the old western movies. White hat hackers operate in a very similar way to black hat hackers and exploit the weak points in a system. However, unlike their criminal counterparts, they don’t use their knowledge for their own benefit or to damage a system. Instead, they use their expertise to inform the affected organization or company. They do this on their own initiative or because they’ve been hired by a network operator. Ethical hacking saves firms a lot of money and protects them from attacks.

The difference between black hats and gray hats

Gray hats are, as you can imagine, a mix between white hats and black hats. Gray hat hackers often operate outside of the legal framework since they also attack and exploit weak points without the permission or knowledge of the operator. While black hats use these attacks for (financial) gain, gray hats inform the operators about what has happened so that they have the opportunity to close any holes in their system. Their motivation is again varied: They want to be recognized, test their own skills, or receive financial compensation. Some, however, simply want to make the internet a safer place.

However, gray hats as well as black hats are looked at negatively by many companies. Since they access external systems without permission, they are operating outside of the law and still cause damage. Especially if the (unwanted) discovery of a weak point or its fix is followed by a request for a reward, since this blurs the lines with the blackmail methods used by black hats. The difference between good and bad is, therefore, not so crystal clear. This is, for example, how the hacker collective Anonymous operates. Even though they use the methods of black hat hackers, they are still seen by many people as hackers that are fighting for important things.

Famous black hat hackers

Over time there have been many incidents and attacks carried out by black hat hackers. Those responsible weren’t always caught or the incidents didn’t become public knowledge. There are some well-known black hats though:

Kevin Mitnick

Possibly the most well-known hacker of all time is the American Kevin Mitnick, aka Condor. Together with his Roscoe gang, they hacked the US Department of Defense, among other systems. He was arrested and sentenced to prison in the 1980s and again in 1995. Following his release in 2000, he became an author and security advisor.

Albert Gonzalez

Albert Gonzalez was charged with three counts of data theft and credit card scams for millions of hacks that took place between 2008 and 2009. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail. In the meantime, he became an informant, however, still carried on with his criminal activities. Together with his accomplices, he is said to have stolen 250 million US dollars from the TJX retail group.

Jonathan James

The 15-year-old black hat hacker Jonathan James also found security gaps in the US Department of Defense. He intercepted countless classified documents and attracted the attention of federal authorities. The US citizen also infiltrated NASA, the BellSouth holding company and a school administration district. He was arrested in 2000 and was sentenced to six months in prison for breaking probation. After the authorities questioned him about the black hat attack on TJX in 2008, he committed suicide on May 18.

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