White Hat Hacker vs. Black Hat Hacker: How Do They Differ?

The motivations of white hat and black hat hackers are very different. Learn more about identifying a white hat hacker vs. a black hat hacker.
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  • White hat hackers and black hat hackers have different motivations.
  • Black hat hackers are usually motivated by illegal financial gain or revenge.
  • White hat hackers operate with the goal of fixing, instead of illegally exploiting, problems.

In 2021, hackers completed a ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline. They compromised Microsoft Exchange email systems and stole data from millions of past and present T-Mobile customers. T-Mobile agreed to pay $350 million to settle lawsuits related to the data breach. Along with the data and financial loss, digital breaches also hurt customer trust.

Hackers are responsible for data breaches, ransomware, and unauthorized surveillance. Cybersecurity and IT professionals call the people behind these incidents black hat hackers. But not all hackers are bad — white hat hackers, sometimes called ethical hackers, use their skills to find and fix digital security vulnerabilities. So how do you compare a white hat hacker vs. a black hat hacker? We're here to highlight the main differences.

What Is a White Hat Hacker?

Using metaphorical hat colors to mark heroes and villains goes back to 1950s American Western movies. In those movies, the good guys wore white hats. The tech industry has kept and expanded on the hat color metaphor. It describes the range and evolution of people involved in hacking.

What exactly is a white hat hacker? A person in this role focuses on finding and fixing security vulnerabilities. They may also have the job title of penetration tester. An ethical hacker's job duties may include:

  • Researching network vulnerabilities
  • Testing computer system security
  • Identifying and recording security flaws
  • Presenting your findings and suggesting fixes to clients

To work as an ethical hacker, you'll need some technical knowledge of computer network hardware, like routers and servers. You'll also need to stay up to date with IT and cybersecurity trends. Finally, you'll need good communication skills to share your findings with stakeholders and decision makers.

Many employers seek people for these roles who have an associate or bachelor's degree in computer science or cybersecurity.

White Hat Hacker Average Salary (as of 2022)

$79,620

Source: Payscale

What is a Black Hat Hacker?

Black hat hackers usually have malicious motivations and operate on the wrong side of the law.

What is a black hat hacker? If you picture a person sending computer viruses out into the world, someone who attempts to steal and sell sensitive personal information, or someone who attempts to break into corporate computer systems, you're probably thinking of a black hat hacker.

All of those actions are illegal, and most black hat hackers do them for personal financial gain. They might also do these things to protest an issue or to punish an organization by compromising data and interrupting its operations.

Black hat hackers may make money by selling the information they steal on the dark web. Or in some cases, people or companies may pay them under the table to attack specific targets. Some black hat hackers claim to make more than $1 million a year. However, since they operate on the dark web, verifying their earnings is difficult, if not impossible.

Here are some of the methods black hat hackers may use to gain unauthorized access:

How Do White Hat vs. Black Hat Hackers Differ?

White hat and black hat hackers do similar things for different reasons. Here's a look at how they're different:

White Hat vs. Black Hat Hackers
Factor White Hat Black Hat
Intent Identify and fix security vulnerabilities Identify and exploit vulnerabilities
Motivations Protecting personal and business data Financial gain, activism, or punishing a person or company
Employment Yes, legitimate Yes, illegitimate
Annual Salary $75,000-$130,000 Unverifiable
Legality Legal, with employment rights and protections Illegal — no employment rights or protections

Frequently Asked Questions About White Hat vs. Black Hat Hackers

What is a red hat hacker?

Red hat hackers take aggressive, vigilante actions against black hat hackers. Red hats may hack into a black hat's systems or attempt to destroy their data with the intent of stopping malicious behavior. Red hats may also work to return data to rightful owners. Although red hat hackers focus on stopping black hat hackers, red hats may intentionally engage in unethical or illegal actions as they seek to punish black hat hackers and right perceived wrongs.

What is a yellow hat hacker?

Yellow hat hackers focus on social media. They often have malicious intent and attempt to hack or steal Facebook, Twitter or other social media accounts. These actions are illegal. Yellow hat hackers are usually motivated by gaining access to personal data or getting revenge on a person or organization.

Are grey hat hackers good?

As their name suggests, grey hat hackers occupy a middle ground in ethics and the law. Put simply, grey hat hackers may do good things in unethical ways. They may hack a system without the owner's knowledge or permission. If they find vulnerabilities, rather than stealing, sharing, or profiting from the information, they may ask for money to fix the problem. But if an organization refuses, they may make the vulnerability public. While attempting to hack without permission is unethical and illegal, grey hat hackers usually don't seek personal or financial gain.