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Hacking is an activity that involves exploring methods for breaching cybersecurity defenses. It may be performed for fun, as a hobby, or as a professional job (pen tester). Hackers use their technical skills to exploit vulnerabilities that malicious actors can take advantage of in order to steal login credentials, financial information and more. Hackers often find these weaknesses in computer systems, networks, mobile devices and internet of things (IoT) systems.

Hackers can be categorized as white hat hackers and black hat hackers. The former are ethical hackers who perform penetration testing for companies and follow a code of conduct when performing hacking. The latter are criminal hackers who perform cyberattacks for their own gain or ill will. Some examples of hacking include phishing attacks, ransomware and malware.

Historically, hackers explored ways to improve computers and expand their functionality. For example, members of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club would “hack” their high-tech train sets to change their functionality and create programs that were better than existing ones. The term grew to mean more than just improving computer systems, and eventually came to be used as a pejorative description for someone who breaks into computers or other electronic devices for unauthorized purposes.

Hackers typically exploit both technical and social weaknesses to breach security defenses. For example, they may install dangerous malware or break into a company’s system to obtain confidential information. They also exploit social weaknesses by impersonating people to gain passwords or financial information or to disrupt the operation of a business.