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Hacking is the ability to exploit computer systems, networks and other technology for unauthorized access or control. While the media typically portrays hackers as cybercriminals who enjoy stealing data or wrecking havoc online, thousands of self-described hackers use their technical skills to improve cybersecurity defenses. These ethical hackers are known as white hats, while malicious hackers are referred to as black hats. The security frontier retains a Wild West feel with good guys (white hats) and bad guys (black hats), along with a third in-between category known as hacktivists. Notable hacktivist groups include Anonymous, WikiLeaks and LulzSec.

Ethical hackers often use their skills to test for cybersecurity vulnerabilities and advise companies on how to fix them. This type of hacking, known as penetration testing, is important for preventing data breaches that could result in major monetary losses, damage to the company’s reputation and consumer loss.

The most important tool for hacking is computer code, which hackers program and download from the internet to break into systems. Then, they can design programs that manipulate network data and execute a variety of attacks. There are countless software programs hackers can use to explore computers and networks, and the ones with the most ingenuity and creativity can build their own custom tools.

While the main motivation for criminal hackers is financial gain, they may also be motivated by political or social causes. They may aim to focus public attention on an issue by making sensitive information public, which is sometimes referred to as whistleblowing.