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Making A Hacker: What motivates a cyber criminal?

4 August 2017 13:44

When picturing a hacker, many of us seem to envisage the same old 'Mr. Robot' type image -- a reclusive, computer-obsessed, mysterious looking person, either hiding behind a hood or an Anonymous/ Guy Fawks mask. But what are hackers really like behind the mask?

A hacker wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.

Google the images of 'hackers' or 'cyber criminals', and you're overwhelmed with identical images of what these people supposedly look like. But what if we remove this mystery cloak and really delve inside a hacker's mind? What can we find beyond the image of these devious looking villains, and what makes them choose this path?

What exactly is a 'hacker'?

To give a single definition from the almighty Wikipedia, a hacker is "any skilled computer expert that uses their technical knowledge to overcome a problem". But a hacker is so much more than that.

They can possess complex problem-solving skills and exceptional cognitive abilities. In many cases, intellectual curiosity is what encourages many hackers to start experimenting with the limitations and problems of systems. But they can also have a compulsion to analyse, to explore and to be curious to the brink of an obsession. In these cases, hackers have described their abilities as "both a gift and a burden".

Their desire to command and control systems and cause them do things for which they were not intended certainly makes them a tad unique. But this can have positive and negative effects, which ultimately depends on the intent of the person who has such abilities.

What motivates them?

So, how does curiosity lead to a crippling attack on huge organisations and institutes such as Sony, Google and the NHS?

Well, the short answer is, it depends. According to studies, these are the main motives:

  • Notoriety (1%)
  • Financial gain (19%)
  • Moral compass (29%)
  • Fun/ thrill (51%)

If these are anything to go by, then most hackers are simply doing it for the fun. But hacking just for fun means that there are limitations (and if there's one thing that a hacker loathes, it's... well you get the idea).

Take into account that 86% of hackers aren't even worried about being caught, then it starts to become clear that many are a little out of touch with the damage they can actually cause.

To get their kicks, hackers mainly target IT admins, contractors, exec admins, execs and non-exec employees.

An interview with a hacker

Throughout most of the interviews with 'black hat hackers' (unethical hackers) that you find online, one of the common causes for going beyond just the fun or thrills, is the opportunity to make money -- serious money.

In one interview with a black hat, he was asked what attracted him to this way of life:

"Money. I found it funny how watching tv and typing on my laptop would earn me a hard worker’s monthly wage in a few hours. [It was] too easy in fact".

What effects do they have on your business?

No matter what size organisation you may work for, you are a hacker's target. The reasons behind attacking an organisation may differ depending on their size, but the hacker's end goal remains the same. Smaller companies are often targeted for their ease of penetration, whereas larger businesses are targeted because of their mountains of valuable data and healthy finances (although the prize here can be much harder to reach). 

Simply put, most hacker's who target your business are looking for easy access to data and big payouts, and they're having plenty of fun while doing so. Sure, other factors of notoriety and moral compass and even revenge can come into play somewhere, but financial loss and sensitive data remain the main threat in the business world.

Of course, not all hackers have negative intentions. 'White hat hackers' (ethical hackers) have provided many businesses with added protection through stress testing and penetration testing, highlighting vulnerabilities waiting to be pounced on by cyber criminals.

But whereas these hackers are motivated by positive results, there are plenty of cyber criminals aiming for the complete opposite.

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