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Hacking is the practice of gaining unauthorized access to computers, networks or systems. It can be carried out for malicious reasons (to steal financial or login information, or to cause damage), or it may be performed as part of a larger cyber-attack by nation states and terrorist organizations. Hackers often gain access through technical weaknesses in software, while others seek to breach defenses through social manipulation and other means.

Although hackers have a bad reputation, they aren’t all criminals. Some hackers are employed by companies or governmental organizations to test cybersecurity defenses and find vulnerabilities. These professionals are called white hat hackers. Others take up hacking as a hobby or to show off their skills, and are known as black hat hackers.

Early computer hacking focused on improving and testing programs, but this changed as personal computers became more widely available in the 1980s. This led to a new breed of hackers motivated by personal gain, including pirating software and creating viruses. One of the most famous examples of a computer hack was when a teenager broke into NASA and Department of Defense networks and downloaded software valued at $1.7 million.

Some hackers specialize in particular types of attacks or systems, such as the Internet of Things (IoT). Other hackers delve into more advanced techniques, such as enumeration, which involves scanning servers and ports for open connections, usernames and passwords. Hackers also use advanced Google search tricks to access what’s known as the deep web, which includes private documents and pictures, exposed personal information, unprotected directories and more.