At one time, the term hacker was used to describe someone who was held in respect by other programmers and software developers because of their original and ingenious approaches to solving computer problems.
However, today the popular meaning of the term hacker is a person who breaks into systems, deletes and steals data and carries out many other illegal and destructive acts against networks and computers. People who did this were originally called crackers, but nowadays the term is seldom used.
A hacker makes use of specialised software tools to break into computer systems that they have no authorisation for. Some of the tools used are:
- Vulnerability Scanner: this tool is used to check for weaknesses in a system that can be exploited by the hacker.
- Port Scanner: this tool is used to find which ports on a computer are open or available to get access to the computer. (The key job of a firewall is to defend these ports).
- Packet Sniffer – This tool is used to capture TCP/IP data packets, ie: the packages that are sent over the Internet, with the intention of opening the package to see what is inside, eg: passwords, etc.
Some hackers have become famous in the computer security world and in some cases have been offered jobs to help improve Internet security. There is even a company which offers courses and certificates in Ethical Hacking (sometimes known as White Hat Hacking) for people who want to work in this area.
The penalties for hacking can be severe. Scottish computer hacker Gary McKinnon, whose extradition to the US was blocked, will not face charges in the UK, bringing to an end a 10-year legal battle. BBC reported that US authorities tried to extradite Mr McKinnon to face charges of causing $800,000 (£487,000) worth of damage to military computer systems and he would have faced up to 60 years in prison if convicted.