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The short answer to what is a hacker is anyone who gains unauthorized access to computers, networks, computing systems or other hardware. Many hackers use their technical skills to test for cybersecurity vulnerabilities as part of their jobs, whereas others do it as a hobby or a crime. Regardless of motivation, hackers are able to penetrate and breach seemingly impenetrable computer systems in order to steal passwords and other valuable information.

The term hacker was originally coined by members of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club, who would modify and customize their high-tech train sets to expand their functionality. The club’s members then applied this same approach to their computers, coding and modifying existing programs to create new and innovative applications.

While the traditional view of a hacker is that of a lone rogue programmer bent on looking at other people’s private data, it has become an industry of well-paid professionals with advanced skills and techniques. Ethical hackers, known as penetration testers (pen testers), use their skills to identify weaknesses in security systems and advise companies of areas where they need to boost defenses.

Malicious hackers, referred to as black hats, hack into systems for profit and malicious purposes. They are typically rewarded in the form of cash, illegal drugs or stolen credit card details. A hacker who does this for fun or for attention is known as a grey hat, while a non-skilled hacker that uses pre-made scripts in their efforts is referred to as a script kiddie.