White Hat hackers, named for the white cowboy hats denoting the good guys in old TV Westerns, are the heroes of the cybersecurity world. The moniker is appropriate, as cyberspace remains a largely untamed frontier. Every advancement in technology creates new doors for criminals to open, and every unknown venture risks being raided by mysterious thieves with a various motivations.
Typically, bad news makes the headlines. Daily, media outlets report on data breaches, ransomware, and state-affiliated hackers sneaking behind the scenes access to our government or economy.
However, separate from the media circus, White Hat hackers have been doing critical work daily to try to stay a step ahead of the criminals and keep us safe by using their techniques against them.
Many of them began their careers operating within the margins of legality, their curiosity leading them to dissect computer systems. Some even start as malicious “Black Hat” hackers before focusing on the public good.
Here is a brief overview of some notable White Hat hackers, their claims to fame, and their history:
White hat hackers: Kevin Mitnick
Kevin Mitnick started his career as a Black Hat hacker. Arguably the most high-profile hacker in recent history, Mitnick’s activities breaching major corporations for his amusement earned him a place on the FBI’s most-wanted list. He was arrested in 1995 and served five years in prison.
Since release, Mitnick has put his expertise to good use. Enjoying his reputation, he now runs cybersecurity firm Mitnick Security. He also does speaking engagements about cybersecurity and consults governments and enterprises around the world.
White hat hackers: Steve Wozniak
Steve Wozniak is perhaps more famous for his associations than his work, being pals with Kevin Mitnick and co-founding Apple with Steve Jobs. However, Wozniak is also an accomplished hacker in his own right.
For the sake of curiosity, he developed devices known as “blue boxes” that allowed a user to hack into a telephone network and make long-distance calls for free. Steve’s hacking work was done mainly for amusement and exploration, poking into networks to see what makes them tick and creating exploits or pranks to poke fun at friends and colleagues harmlessly.
Wozniak’s main focus today is on philanthropic work and education through “Woz U,” his higher education program for those interested in software development and cybersecurity technology.
White hat hackers: Tsutomu Shimomura
A victim of Kevin Mitnick’s, Tsutomu Shimomura did not take kindly to the intrusion. In an act of revenge, the computer security expert and physicist put his skills to the test. He assisted the FBI in their pursuit of Mitnick and eventually proved to be integral in his arrest. The dramatic nature of their rivalry inspired Shimomura to write his account of the events in his 1995 book “Take-down.” In 2000, the book was made into a feature film.
Shimomura is no longer in the cybersecurity field, but has continued to develop semiconductor innovations and advancements in LED technology. However, he still is seen as a legend among hackers, and his work with the FBI was crucial in establishing a link between White Hat hacking and law enforcement.
White hat hackers: Jeff Moss
Jeff Moss founded the Black Hat and DEF CON security conferences. While both events started as private parties amongst Moss and his hacker friends, they have since grown to full-scale public events where federal authorities and hackers of all types gather to compete in challenges and share information about hacking and cybersecurity.
Moss continues to work for cybersecurity advancement and advocacy and has held several high-profile security posts within the federal government.
What hat hackers: Mark Abene
Mark Abene spent his youth learning computer coding languages thanks to his local library. He eventually joined Legion of Doom, a group of teenage hackers who shared Abene’s enthusiasm for the dismantling and dissection of computer systems. However, after a number of the group’s members were arrested, Abene left and joined a different group known as the Masters of Deception.
Laws regarding cybersecurity were a bit of a gray area during this period. Abene’s outspoken personality and radio guest appearances put him in the crosshairs of law enforcement on multiple occasions, eventually leading to his arrest and imprisonment for his involvement in hacks with the Masters of Deception. This was ironic as his exploits were driven by curiosity and not profit or theft. Many at the time felt that Abene was being made an example to deter hackers from continuing their meddling.
Abene has since founded multiple firms and lectures frequently at events focusing on cybersecurity. He has also authored articles related to the importance of cybersecurity in publications such as Life, and The New York Times. In addition, he consults for large security companies the world over.
White Hat hackers and the future of cybersecurity
In many ways, White Hat hackers are technological pioneers. Their curiosity and interest in looking into complex systems in unorthodox methods make their insight increasingly valuable in a world that continues to see a dramatic rise in cybercrime.
The vast majority of White Hat hackers will not achieve celebrity or pop-culture status, but their work is becoming more important by the day. The misconception that hacking is an inherently criminal activity is quickly fading.
Major companies hire hackers to bug-check their programs. Some, most notably Apple, also payout “bug bounties” to those intrepid few who are able to poke holes in the security of their products. Without clever individuals willing to use their expertise to subvert computer systems for the greater good, we would be entirely at the mercy of those who wish to do so for harm or destruction.
How to protect your network
You do not have to be white hat hacker to be secure. Here are a few basic ways to stay safe online that don’t require a background in hacking telephone companies and banks.
- Create strong passwords. Hackers use a technique called “password spraying” to try to unlock accounts with easily guessed passwords. So, be sure to use strong login credentials, and change your passwords often. Don’t allow your web browser to save your passwords.
- Dump those cookies. Cookies are pieces of information that websites use to keep track of you. Hackers can sometimes access this information and use it to break into personal accounts. Clear the cookies saved in your browser at least once a month.
- Replace outdated hardware. Maintain up-to-date security by replacing old hardware with refurbished firewalls or network switches. Be sure to only purchase from a reputable dealer to ensure quality.
- Hide your activity with a VPN Virtual private networks, or VPNs, keep web usage encrypted, making your activity untraceable. Using a VPN is a great way to keep your network hidden from hackers.
- Famous White Hat Hackers, by Annie Mueller, Investopedia, 8 May 2020
- What do white hat hackers really spend their days doing? The Telegraph, 28 May 2021
- 10 times ethical hackers spotted a software vulnerability and averted a crisis, by Savia Lobo, 30 Sep 2019
- Do This and I Won’t Hack You: Top White Hackers’ Advice, by Mary Atamaniuk, 27 Mar 2020
- A Look Under the Hood: White Hat Hacker (Ethical Hacker), by Casey Crane, 2 Dec 2020