Before we begin defining a grey hat hacker, let us begin with a minor introduction to hacking.
Hacking – the act of breaking into digital systems to extract data and information illegally.
The obvious intention behind hacking is negative, but there are a couple of different types of hackers. From those who guard network infrastructures, to those who rob people, hacking has developed into a sophisticated industry, with extensive research and depth.
Modern universities even offer majors in hacking as a branch of computer science. A gray hat hacker is a part of all this.
What Are Grey Hacks?
Different colors are used to identify hackers and their hacking styles.
The spectrum begins with white hat hackers, people who break into systems only with the intention of strengthening them. They identify loopholes and cracks and help infrastructure experts correct them.
The other end of the spectrum is occupied by black hat hackers. These are the bad guys of the industry, people who break into digital systems solely with negative intention, meaning to cause financial or infrastructural harm.
From breaking into bank accounts, to hacking public information, a black hat hacker would break into any system for his own benefit.
Just like how the color grey is a lighter tone of the black, a grey hack is a lighter version of a black hack.
Grey hat hackers are known for breaking into systems, but they do so without the intention of benefitting their own selves. This implies that a grey hack is a malicious attack into a digital system, that causes no real benefit to the hacker, but exploits data, or causes losses.
Motives Behind Grey Hat Hackers
If there are no personal gains from grey hat hacking, why do grey hat hackers do it? Simple: gray hat hackers are often activists, or hacking enthusiasts, geared at hacking large digital systems, but aren’t as bad as black hat hackers.
For instance, a grey hat hacker might hack into a banking system and unveil databases of money laundering for the whole world to see. Even though this grey hack clearly broke many laws in the book, this did not cause any personal benefit to the hacker, and hence the incident was classified as an attack from a grey hat hacker and not a black hat.
Similarly, a large database of confidential information was broken into, under the coined name of “Wikileaks”. This was one of the largest grey hacks in history, where records pertaining to prominent world leaders was brought to limelight highlighting frauds and malpractices.
This brought no real benefit to the grey hat hacker but proved to be immensely impactful in all of global politics.
Grey Hat Hacking and Information Security
Hacking and information security go hand in hand. Data in digital systems is strongly guarded just so it cannot be intercepted via hacking. White hat hackers are often asked by corporations to test their information security and fix it. Grey hat hackers are often involved in a similar activity.
The only difference is that a gray hat hacker would break into a system without the consent of the owner, exploit a loophole, and obtain confidential information. The hacker would then inform the owner directly, and even ask to fix the loophole for a price.
Even though this scenario clearly indicates personal benefit in grey hat hacking, it can still not be classified under black hat hacking. The primary reason is the nature of the grey hack, and how the result was used to earn money and not the hack itself.
Famous Grey Hat Hackers
L0pht and Grey Hat Hacking
The term grey hat hacking came into limelight in 1996, when a hacking group under the name of L0pht broke into the systems of Microsoft and highlighted numerous loopholes and cracks.
The Apache Server Break-In
In the early 2000, Apache was broken into, wreaking havoc on the security and information of countless webpages across the world. The hackers, however, chose not to exploit the break-in but informed the developers of Apache of the hack. This has eventually strengthened information security for a ton of online domains.
Routers and the Russian Hacker
Last year, Russian Hacking blogs described a grey hack activity in detail. A Russian speaking grey hat hacker reportedly broke into 100,000 routers and strengthened them with firewalls to safeguard them from possible cyber-attacks. This grey hat hacking was confirmed by the router manufacturer.
Even though the term “hacking” brings a lot of negative attention, grey hat hackers do not deserve all of it. Even though they use the same illegal hacking techniques as black hat hackers, their good intentions ensure they do not exploit the break-ins, but rather end up doing good in the bigger picture.