Black or White? Into the Mind of the Hacker
Hackers of all kinds dominate both our headlines and our movie screens. That can be attributed to the increasing importance of cybersecurity, an uptick in cybercrime and espionage, or simply the fact that hackers are cool.
But have you ever considered what it takes to be a hacker, beyond the programming and information technology skills? There are, in fact, some distinct personality traits that correlate with hacking skills.
Here are some mental attributes of both malicious black hat hackers and the ethical white hat hackers who try to stop them.
The Mind of a Black Hat Hacker
Hackers require a good degree of technical expertise, including broad skills in programming, networking, and information technology. A bit of knowledge in social engineering, or "hacking people," is also a plus.
Beyond those skills, however, people who excel at hacking often share some other common traits or mental attributes.
Although working with code and systems may not seem like a creative pursuit, a healthy sense of creativity is imperative for any type of hacker. Hackers, whether black or white hat, are widely known to be “neophiles” who enjoy intellectual novelty.
It takes a creative and infinitely curious mind to figure out new ways to break into a system, bypass security mechanisms, or use known vulnerabilities in novel ways. That's particularly true since the obvious ways into a system are undoubtedly blocked first.
A hacker's appreciation for novelty will often put them at odds with society at large. For many black hat hackers, that can lead to a disregard for authority and a willingness to break the law for personal gain.
But that nonconformity is typically a sign of another personality trait: openness to experience. A 2016 study published in Psychology and Behavioral Sciences found that black hat hackers are often predisposed to new ideas and things, creativity, adventurousness, and challenge. Like creativity, nonconformity is an important attribute for a free-thinking hacker.
As many people could attest, being somewhere you're not necessarily supposed to be can be a rush. Some black hat hackers even forego monetary gain and attack systems simply for the thrill of it.
A 2020 study from the University at Buffalo School of Management found that thrill-seeking was a dominant personality trait that leads technical individuals to black hat hacking. In other words, the thrill of accessing a database or breaching a security mechanism is itself the end goal.
Creativity is a necessity in hacking, but it isn't the only mental attribute that can guarantee success. In fact, there's one particular trait that really does separate the skilled hackers from the unskilled.
That attribute is systemizing, or the ability to build systems and understand them. According to a study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, there was a positive association between systemizing and general hacking skills or expertise. Often, this results in a thorough understanding of systems beyond computer-based ones. But, for hackers, it’s a critical trait.
Attributes of a White Hat Hacker
A white hat hacker often shares some of the above traits with black hat hackers -- except a willingness to break the law, of course. That simple difference is why many black hats "go legit" and become ethical hackers.
There are, of course, some distinct personality traits that do separate black hat hackers from white hats. Here are some of them.
A Strong Sense of Right and Wrong
While black hat hackers have no qualms about breaking the law for personal or financial gain, white hat hackers are on the opposite side of the spectrum. They have a strong moral compass and an acute sense of right and wrong.
That is undoubtedly what spurs them to be "good" hackers who help protect systems and people. But it can also manifest in the passionate defense of digital civil rights and user privacy, and even gray hat "hacktivism." When digital civil liberties are at risk, white hats are among the first to sound the alarm.
A certain level of competitiveness can go a long way in a white hat hacker's career. Beyond the technical expertise and programming skills, white hat hackers are well-served by a desire to "outdo" the bad guys.
Black hat hackers, often equally skilled, are constantly thinking of new ways to bypass security measures. Because of that, white hats need to be constantly striving to outwit and outsmart the attackers. That’s true for both penetration testers who simulate black hat hackers, and “blue team” officials who monitor systems and deal with breaches.
Agreeableness and Empathy
The image of a black hat hacker is typically of a person alone in a room, often wearing a black hoodie. Hacker groups do exist, and complicated attacks often require extra manpower. This depiction of the lone wolf aesthetic of black hat hackers rings true in many cases.
Being a white hat hacker, or someone gainfully employed in cybersecurity, is a bit different. Not only are white hat hackers more often expected to work in teams, but they will undoubtedly also coordinate with general IT personnel, management, and other offices. Being able to be a team player and having a degree of empathy for other people is critical in these scenarios.
Becoming a Hacker
There's an ever-increasing need for white hat and ethical hackers, especially with the rise in cybercrime and hacking for espionage and other nefarious activities.
So, if any of the above traits sound like you, then it may be a good time to consider an ethical hacking course or certification. If you’re unsure where to start, our Cyber Defense Professional Certificate Program can turn inexperienced students into qualified professionals in less than one year. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can go toe to toe with black hat hackers.