The Mind of a Hacker: Putting on the White Hat

Tali Sachs

Hackers on TV and in the movies are played by actors like Hugh Jackman, Keanu Reeves, and Rami Malek because Hackers—in real life and in movies—are kind of cool. Even Black Hat Hackers causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage to organizations and throwing the internet into disarray are portrayed as intriguing shadowy figures machinating below the radar of society, typing as fast as they can scheme.


All Hackers require a strong interest in and talent for many aspects of information technology including programming, scripting, networking, virtualization, etc. White Hat Hackers have many, if not all or even more, of the same technical skills and aptitudes Black Hat Hackers have. In fact, many of the top White Hat Hackers are reformed Black Hatters.


This does not mean Black Hat and White Hat Hackers are interchangeable but for the side of the law they land on. In addition to the technical skills and personality traits they share with Black Hat Hackers, White Hat Hackers have a few extra quirks that makes them what they are.


A glimpse into the mind of a Hacker is fascinating. Here is what it takes to be a Black Hat Hacker—and what it takes to go legit as a certified White Hat Hacker.


Black Hat Attributes

Black Hat Hackers need a few specific personality traits that allow them to succeed in their chosen illegal field.



Black Hat Hackers get a rush from weaseling their way into an important database. They are always looking for their next target, getting high on a successful crack. One former Black Hat Hacker even says that selling credit card numbers—in other words, making a profit—is actually the tiring, laborious part of being a Hacker.



Generally speaking, Black Hat Hackers will not be able to penetrate vulnerabilities that have already thought of and dealt with by an organization’s Cyber Security team or software and hardware developers. So, Black Hat Hackers need to find another way that no one else has ever imagined, a feat that requires quit a bit of creativity. They are neophiles, always in search of novel ways to defeat Cyber Security defenses and get into places they absolutely do not belong.



A study published in Frontiers of Neuroscience looked into hackers’ personality traits. The leading trait specifically correlated with code-breaking ability is systemizing—the drive to understand, control, build and/or break systems.


Willingness to Break the Law

Many of the activities associated with Black Hat Hackers and their results are firmly classified as crimes: accessing a computer, network, or system without authorization, misusing computer system data, identity theft, and larceny. These charges can carry prison sentences of up to 20 years. Black Hat Hackers know this, and on some level, they have to be okay with it.


White Hat Attributes

White Hat Hackers like chasing the high of a new intrusion and cracking systems as much as Black Hat Hackers, but there are obvious fundamental differences.


Unwillingness to Break the Law

White Hat Hackers want to profit by helping to protect organizations instead of potentially destroying them.



While Black Hat Hackers are tunnel-focused lone wolves who tend to care only about their own hacking-related goals, White Hat Hackers need a competitive streak that makes them want to beat Black Hat Hackers at their own game. White hat hacking is an industry where an unhealthy fixation on being faster, smarter, and better can pay off handsomely.



In order to do what they do at a high level, White Hat Hackers need to understand not only how developers and Cyber Security professionals think, but also how Black Hat Hackers think. This translates to a significant need for empathy. Ultimately, programming skills or a knowledge of scripting languages are not what best equips a White Hat Hacker. Rather, it is perhaps the ability to take a holistic view of Cyber Security measures from the perspective of a Black Hat Hacker and a security operations team.


Getting in the Game

All Hackers require a strong interest in and talent for many aspects of information technology including programming, scripting, networking, virtualization, etc.


No one is advocating for Black Hat Hacking in this space, of course. The Cyber landscape always needs more heroes who are willing to don a White Hat and go to work cracking, hacking, smashing, and finessing their way into an organization’s most sensitive databases in the name of Cyber Security and Defense.



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