Hackers as Heroes: How Ethical Hacking is Changing the Industry

Hackers all around the world have long been portrayed in media and pop culture as the bad guys. Society is taught to see them as cyber-criminals and outliers who seek to destroy systems, steal data, and take down anything that gets in their way.

To help drive this message, there’s no shortage of news stories, movies, and television shows that outright villainize the hacker. From the 1995 movie Hackers, to the more recent Blackhat, hackers are often portrayed in movies as outsiders who use their computer skills to inflict harm and commit crime. 

While there have been real-world, damaging events created by cyber-criminals that serve as the inspiration for this negative messaging, it is important to understand that this is only one side of the story. 

The truth is that while there are plenty of criminals with top-notch hacking and coding skills, there is also a growing and largely overlooked community of ethical (commonly known as white-hat) hackers who work endlessly to help make the online world a better and safer place. To put it lightly, these folks use their cyber superpowers for good, not evil. 

Good hackers not only help expose flaws in systems, but they assist in repairing them before criminals even have a shot at exploitation. They are an essential part of the cybersecurity ecosystem and can often unearth serious unknown vulnerabilities in systems better than any security solution ever could.

As a result of the success hackers have shown at discovering critical vulnerabilities, in the last year there has been a 26% increase in organizations in Europe running bug bounty programs, where they bolster their security defenses with hackers.
What Makes a ‘Good’ Hacker?

The common thread among ethical hackers is a simple one: they enjoy the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming limitations. Hackers are people who embody a specialized set of knowledge, skills, and ethos. They all share a strong curiosity to learn and explore the internet, and in many cases have the skills to identify possible flaws and vulnerabilities within systems. These hackers share information and, despite popular belief, they often work together to help each other. 

This is far from the outdated, negative image we often see in the media and pop culture. According to a recent study, many in the security industry today believe this negative image the media often portrays of the hacking community needs to change. The study of cybersecurity professionals in the UK revealed that 70% believe the Cambridge Dictionary needs to update its definition of a hacker, so the word ‘illegally’ is removed. 

How Hackers Learn
Hackers clearly need coding skills to understand how technology works, but this knowledge alone is not enough. Without a genuine curiosity to constantly learn and tinker, a hacker will not get far.

When this knowledge and inquisitiveness is combined, hackers quickly become a force to be reckoned with. Today only five percent of hackers reported learning how to hack in the classroom.

Ethical hackers prove over and over again that there is always more than one way of doing something, and that initial attempts at creating rock-solid systems often fail.

Hacking has become so vital in our modern world that some colleges and universities now offer courses that specialize in teaching it. However, according to the 2018 Hacker Report, most hackers (58%) are still self-taught, despite 50% of them having studied computer science at an undergraduate or graduate level, with 26.4% having studied computer science in high school or earlier.

The current community is also a young one; over 90% of hackers are under the age of 35, with over 50% under 25. However, these curious and youthful hackers want more education. They want to learn from each other and find creative solutions to fixing complicated problems.
The Good, The Bad, and the Hacking
Hacking benefits our digital landscape. Every noteworthy cybersecurity incident is accompanied by a huge wave of awareness. More people begin paying attention, flaws in systems get repaired, security teams strengthen both teams and policies; good things happen. This is also true for the hacking community, as they discover more vulnerabilities and learn more about security systems, they use this knowledge to fix weaknesses and flaws in the web, before they are exploited maliciously.

While it would be amazing if every cyber-criminal would suddenly retreat from the dark side, an entire community already exists that is working around the clock--and the globe--to help make the internet a safer place for us all.

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