There are three well-known types of hackers in the world of information security: black hats, white hats and grey hats. These colored hat descriptions were born as hackers tried to differentiate themselves and separate the good hackers from the bad. The roots of the black and white hat labels are drawn from Western movies, where protagonists wore white hats and antagonists wore black hats.
Today, the hacker hat rainbow is broadening. While the terms are not as well known or well used, newer hat colors describe other hacker traits. From green to red to blue, time will tell if these nicknames take hold.
Black, white and grey hats
A black hat hacker is someone who maliciously searches for and exploits vulnerabilities in computer systems or networks, often using malware and other hacking techniques to do harm. These stereotypical hackers often break laws as part of their hacking exploits, infiltrating victims' networks for monetary gain, to steal or destroy data, to disrupt systems, to conduct cyberespionage or just to have fun.
On the other end of the spectrum, a white hat hacker is a security specialist hired to find vulnerabilities in software, hardware and networks that black hats may find and target. Unlike black hats, white hats only hack networks when legally permitted to do so. Also known as ethical hackers, white hats disclose all vulnerabilities to their employer. White hats will also disclose the vulnerability to the vendor whose hardware or software is affected so it may patch other customers' systems. White hat hacking techniques include penetration testing and vulnerability assessments.
Because things are never black and white, enter the grey hat hacker. A fusion of black and white, grey hats exploit security vulnerabilities without malicious intent, like white hats, but may use illegal methods to find flaws. They may even release the vulnerabilities to the public or sell details about them for a profit like a black hat would. Grey hat hackers also often hack without the target's permission or knowledge. The grey hat description is also used to categorize hackers who may, at one stage in life, have broken the law in their hacking activities but have since made the move to become a more ethical, white hat hacker.
Green, blue and red hats?
Over the years, people have attempted to paint the hat moniker other colors to describe different types of hackers. Rounding out the rainbow are green, blue and red hats.
A green hat hacker isn't necessarily Irish -- though some may be. Rather, a green hat describes hacker wannabes who, though they lack technical hacking skills and education, are eager to learn the tricks of the trade.
In Microsoft's world, blue hats acts much like white hats: They are employed by the company to find vulnerabilities in unreleased products. Microsoft's invite-only BlueHat conference was established to facilitate communications between hackers and company engineers.
In some circles, a blue hat is defined as a hacker seeking revenge. Blue hat hackers are also wannabe hackers like green hats, but vengeance is blue hat hackers' only motivation -- they have no desire to hone their hacking skills.
A red hat hacker could refer to someone who targets Linux systems. However, red hats have been characterized as vigilantes. Like white hats, red hats seek to disarm black hats, but the two groups' methodologies are significantly different. Rather than hand a black hat over to the authorities, red hats will launch aggressive attacks against them to bring them down, often destroying the black hat's computer and resources.
Dig Deeper on Penetration testing, ethical hacking and vulnerability assessments
Related Q&A from Sharon Shea
When it comes to minimum password length, 14-character passwords are generally considered secure, but they may not be enough to keep your enterprise ... Continue Reading
While many TCP/IP security issues are in the protocol suite's implementation, there are some vulnerabilities in the underlying protocols to be aware ... Continue Reading
See which encryption method uses digital signatures, symmetric key exchanges, bulk encryption and much more in this Diffie-Hellman vs. RSA showdown. Continue Reading