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Hackers are computer criminals that exploit cybersecurity defenses to gain unauthorized access to computers, networks, computing devices, mobile systems or Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets. Hacking can be a profession or an illegal hobby, and the results can be detrimental to businesses. This article explains how hackers operate and how businesses can better defend against them.

Hacking first gained popularity in the 1960s when members of an MIT model railroad club began hacking into their own computers to modify programs and create new ones. These early hackers focused on improving computers, but the ethos of hacking quickly changed when personal computers became widely available in the 1980s and black hat hacking took off. Suddenly, hackers were in it for the money — pirating software, creating viruses and stealing information.

There are four primary reasons hackers break into systems: financial gain, intellectual property theft, political activism or revenge against someone who wronged them. For example, a disgruntled employee might hack into their employer’s system to steal confidential information or get back at them for firing them. Governments and corporations may hire hackers for corporate espionage to obtain competitive intelligence or to access classified data or intellectual property. Activists, such as those in Anonymous, use hacking techniques for social change by breaking into organizations they oppose and spreading their message via defacing websites, DDoS attacks, publishing personal or sensitive information online and other methods.

There are also ethical hackers, or white hats, who hack into systems to identify weaknesses in security defenses. These hackers are often employed as security consultants or work in the IT departments of companies that they hack into.