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Finance glossary

What is a hacker? Hacker vs hacktivist explained

Bristol James
7 Min

The broad term “hacker” describes any individual who is skilled at computer system manipulation. Note that a hacker does not necessarily have malicious intentions, and not all hacking is illegal.

Conversely, a hacktivist is a type of hacker motivated by political, social or religious issues. Hacktivists may be individuals or groups of individuals who share similar ideologies.

While the two terms are used interchangeably, it is clear that each refers to an entity with different methods, motivations and objectives.

Understanding hackers

Hackers are individuals who access computer systems, devices and networks and exploit them for personal gain.

Most are motivated by financial rewards, but others may do so:

  • To challenge themselves.
  • To satisfy their curiosity, or
  • To boost their status within a hacker community.

Hacking as a practice predates the internet itself, with the first recorded instance at Bell Telephone in 1878. Several phone operators employed by the company to run the switchboards were known to prank callers by disconnecting or misdirecting their calls.

Hacker types

Hackers may be classed as either black hat, white hat or grey hat.

Black hat hackers

Black hat hackers are cybercriminals that illegally hack into systems with malicious intent. Once a vulnerability has been identified, they attempt to exploit it with a virus or malware.

Other hackers may encrypt or lock important files on a device or system. This can be seen in a ransomware attack, where black hat hackers block access and then demand a ransom payment for restoring it.

White hat hackers

White hat hackers are similar to black hat hackers in that each individual searches for system vulnerabilities. However, these individuals work with businesses to identify and fix vulnerabilities before those with malicious intent can exploit them.

One example is a penetration test, where hackers perform a simulated cyber-attack on the company’s systems. This is an important way for the company to assess the security of its systems as well as its level of preparedness.

Grey hat hackers

Grey hat hackers occupy a middle ground between black and white hat hackers.

They may not possess the criminal intent of the former, but they also lack the consent of the entity whose systems they’re hacking into.

Whether or not the intentions of a grey hat hacker are noble is up for interpretation. Some may identify security vulnerabilities without exploiting them, for example, but only make that information available to the organisation for a price.

Other hackers under this type may also help individuals or firms retrieve data or help them remove malware.

Understanding hacktivists

Hacker vs hacktivist explained
Source: wallstreemojo.com

The term “hacktivism” is a portmanteau of the words hacking and activism.

To that end, hacktivists misuse technology to further social and political causes or express their discontent with those causes. They may act alone or in a group of people with similar views and objectives.

The prevalence of hacktivism increased in the 1990s in line with an increase in personal computer adoption. No longer confined to protests, boycotts or strikes, activists could harness the power of the digital age to spread their message.

Is hacktivism ethical?

Whether hacktivism could be considered ethical is both complex and contentious. Purists assert that hacktivism is a way to draw attention to important issues and expose corporate misconduct as well as increase transparency, accountability and freedom of information.

From a legal perspective, however, hacktivism is a crime – irrespective of whether its intentions are noble. Some hacktivist attacks cause substantial harm and disruption to a company and the effects may be no different to those inflicted by a hacker.

Critics of the practice also believe that hacktivism is simply a foil for malicious intent. Hacktivists have disclosed information that has later been exploited, and, like the hacker community, lack of individual accountability is also a problem.

Hacktivist objectives

Unlike hackers, hacktivists are less interested in financial reward.

Instead, their intention is to disrupt the continuity or stability of countries, organisations, events or society. In the process, hacktivists seek to advance a particular cause or create awareness around an issue they feel is overlooked.

In most cases, hacktivism centres around these common themes:

  • Anti-capitalism.
  • Anti-globalisation.
  • Pro-democracy and freedom of expression.
  • Discrediting the authority of government.
  • Social media as a platform for the voiceless.
  • Subversion of a country’s censorship laws, and
  • Disruption of the financing of terrorist organisations.

The objectives of some hacktivists are harder to understand. One individual may take a website offline to prove a point, while another may target an organisation that holds conflicting values.

In either case, the motivation behind the attack isn’t immediately obvious to the wider populace.

Types of hacktivism

Since hacktivists are not motivated by money, their approach to vulnerability exploitation differs somewhat from that of a hacker. Ultimately, hacktivists want the target organisation (or society in general) to understand their displeasure.

So how is this achieved? Let’s take a look.

Information leaks

Online content is published by anonymous whistleblowers to reveal information about powerful entities. When particularly sensitive information is made public, the attack may be classed as doxxing.

Leaked information exposes the entity, raises public awareness and attracts the attention of the media. Yet more awareness is generated when the media credits the hacktivist and the cause they are advocating.

In 2015, a hacktivist leaked 400 GB of data collected by an Italian company that provided surveillance services to governments and law enforcement. Among other things, the data leak exposed the company’s various controversial clients.

Website vandalism

Hacktivists will also hack into popular websites with the intention of defacing them with content promoting their own message.

This is known as a website defacement attack, where the intent is to embarrass or discredit an organisation and do damage to its brand and reputation.

In 2011, the website of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was defaced by hacktivists who used the platform to condemn corruption and inequality.

Website cloning

In a practice similar to phishing, hacktivists take a legitimate website and then copy its content on a mirror site with a slightly different URL.

Website cloning is typically performed in response to censorship. It aims to ensure that content remains accessible and encourages freedom of information.

Geobombing

Geobombing is a popular technique for drawing attention to human rights issues.

Hacktivists add geotags to YouTube videos and link them to specific locations on platforms such as Google Maps.

The geotag tells the audience where the video was filmed and in some cases, serves as a form of documentary evidence. Other videos may publicise the location of a political captive or human rights advocate.

DDoS attacks

Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks are another approach favoured by hacktivists. According to cybersecurity service provider StormWall, geopolitical motivations were the primary driver of hacktivist DDoS attacks in Q4 2023.

In a DDoS attack, the hacktivist floods a network server with traffic to prohibit legitimate users from accessing websites and online services.

Hacktivists were behind an attack on open-source platform GitHub in 2015. The attack, which originated in China, targeted two GitHub projects associated with the circumvention of that country’s censorship laws.

How businesses can protect themselves from hackers and hacktivists

Though their objectives may differ, hackers and hacktivists use similar approaches in their attacks. This makes it easier for organisations to defend their software, infrastructure and sensitive customer details.

Here are a few tools and strategies a business can use to thwart these actors.

Enable multi-factor authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is an access control that adds another layer of protection to user accounts.

Should a bad actor phish or socially engineer a user’s password, MFA prevents them from accessing the account with a secondary authentication requirement.

In general, there are four types of MFA:

  1. Knowledge-based (something the user knows) – such as the answer to a security question.
  2. Possession-based (something the user has) – this could be their smartphone or a building access card.
  3. Inherence-based (something the user is) – such as biometrics data, and
  4. Location-based (somewhere the user is) – some apps will also require the user to be in a specific location before access is granted.
Types of multifactor authentication
The four types of multifactor authentication (Source: NordPass)

Conduct frequent tests

Where possible, organisations should also utilise the services of white hat hackers to test for system vulnerabilities.

Top companies such as IBM, Google, Dell, Tesla and Bank of America hire so-called “ethical hackers” who are required to hold Bachelor’s degrees as well as professional hacker certification.

Develop a cybersecurity incident response plan (CSIRP)

The majority of organisations – especially larger firms or those in the public eye – benefit when they have a plan in place to deal with cyberattacks.

CSIRPs are complex documents that set out how the organisation will respond to a range of threat scenarios.

These plans also clarify individual roles and organisational policies, but perhaps most importantly, they minimise or contain the damage inflicted by the hacker or hacktivist.

In summary:

  • Hackers and hacktivists are both responsible for cyber-attacks on a company’s network, systems and data. The main differences between the two approaches lie in the motivation for carrying out an attack and their ultimate objectives.
  • There is also nuance to each term. Not all hackers are criminals, with white hat hackers employed by companies to orchestrate attacks and test systems for vulnerabilities. There are also ethical and philosophical questions around the actions of hacktivists who are often motivated by societal good.
  • Hacktivists want the target entity to be aware of their displeasure toward a certain cause. Most attacks tend to revolve around social and political issues related to capitalism, terrorism, human rights and freedom of information.
  • Since hackers and hacktivists use similar tools and methodologies, organisations can defend themselves from both at the same time. The development of a cyber security incident plan is a good place to start.

References

 

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