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Hacking is the ability to exploit computer systems to gain unauthorized access to private information, steal confidential data, or otherwise cause damage. Although hacking is typically portrayed in the media as cybercriminals who break into computer networks and systems to wreak digital havoc, that type of hacking is properly termed cracking. It is illegal to hack into a system with malicious intent and can result in severe fines or prison time.

Early hackers, like those in MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club who would “hack” their high-tech train sets to expand their functionality, were interested in improving computers and exploring the limits of what they could do. They took this curiosity to new technology, including the emerging personal computer. As the availability of computers grew through the 1980s, so did hacking. Hackers became increasingly motivated by the desire to take advantage of computer systems for their own financial or criminal gain – pirating software, creating viruses and breaching computer security systems to steal information. This shift in motivation prompted Congress to pass the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, making hacking an official crime.

Other hackers, known as grey hats, don’t fit neatly into either category. These hackers probe computer systems without permission to identify and publicly disclose vulnerabilities in exchange for a fee or employment offer. Unfortunately, these hackers sometimes unintentionally tip off malicious hacker to new attack methods. Ethical hackers are a growing sector of the hacking world, whose skills and knowledge help companies and individuals protect their systems from potential threats.