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Hacking is the act of gaining unauthorized access to systems, data, or networks. Cybercriminals use this technique to steal valuable information, disrupt operations, or extort money and services from victims. Ethical hackers use hacking techniques to proactively identify and fix vulnerabilities before cybercriminals exploit them.

The term “hacker” first emerged from MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club after the end of World War II, when curious club members leveraged their technical skills and knowledge to create innovative solutions for a variety of challenges. The phrase grew in popularity as computers became more accessible to the general public and exploded into a multibillion-dollar industry in the 1980s.

There are four key reasons bad actors hack websites and systems: criminal financial gain (such as stealing credit card details or defrauding financial services), corporate espionage to obtain a competitive advantage, state-sponsored hacking to steal business or national intelligence, and politically motivated hacktivists seeking to raise awareness of issues and causes. The 414s, a group of young hackers who breached the systems of high-profile targets like Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the early 1980s, inspired Congress to pass laws that officially made malicious hacking a crime.

Today, the majority of hackers are cybercriminals who hack for profit or malicious purposes. However, there are ethical hackers who voluntarily use their hacking skills for the good of their employer or organization. This type of hacking is often referred to as penetration testing or vulnerability assessment and is a vital component of many cybersecurity programs.