6 Hacker Hat Colours Explained

Date: 17 December 2021

Hacking and hackers are probably the number one concern for modern businesses and cybersecurity professionals today. This is because successful black hat hackers can cause widespread damage to business operations, profits and reputation. 

However, despite the fact that everyone seems to be concerned about hackers, hacking as a category is widely misunderstood. Not all hackers are bad and different hat colours denote different types of hackers which are important to understand for anyone interested in truly comprehending cyber crime and building long term cyber resilience.  

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Just as characters in old western movies wore different-coloured hats to reflect their alignment, there are different hacker hat colours that denote different categories of hackers. In this blog, we explain the six different hacker hat colours and how they impact cybersecurity. 

1. White Hat Hackers

White hat hackers actually use their skills for good. Also, called ethical hackers or penetration testers, these are cybersecurity professionals who look for vulnerabilities in businesses’ IT systems. They then recommend possible improvements to help keep businesses safe from black hat hackers or the real cyber criminals as we know them.

White hat hackers and penetration testers can reveal crucial cybersecurity flaws in business infrastructure. For example, one recent ethical hacking project found that 65% of tested organizations didn’t use multifactor authentication. Without these tests, companies may have glaring vulnerabilities they don’t know about, exposing themselves to expensive ransomware attacks and other cyber threats. 


2. Black Hat Hackers

Black hat hackers are the most familiar type of cyber criminals that we all know of. These are cybercriminals that maliciously attack users or organisations for personal gain. More often than not, their actions are financially motivated, like stealing data to resell on the dark web or using ransomware to demand payment.

While many of these hackers are skilled, simple attacks often prove effective enough to cause considerable damage. For example, one stolen password compromised more than 60 million Dropbox accounts at the hands of a black hat hacker. Even in the case of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack, it appears that a leaked password was all that was required to disrupt gas supplies in the world’s largest economy. 

To protect your business from such malicious attacks by black hat hackers, you can prepare yourself to prevent ransomware attacks by downloading our Ransomware Checklist. If you end up being hit by ransomware, you can use our Ransomware Response Workflow and our Ransomware Response Checklist to take the right steps and mitigate the impact of attack as far as possible.  

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3. Gray Hat Hackers

As one might expect, gray hat hackers don’t fall neatly into either “good” or “bad” categories. They may not have malicious intent like black hat hackers but may still engage in illegal practices, unlike white hats. Many of them simply enjoy hacking as a hobby and try to find new exploits and vulnerabilities for fun.

Some gray hat hackers act like white hats but through illegal or illicit methods. One such incident occurred in 2013 when a web developer hacked into Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page to demonstrate a bug in the platform’s infrastructure. The intent wasn’t exactly malicious but the end result can be seen as incorrect. 

4. Red Hat Hackers

Red hat hackers are similar to gray hats in that they fall somewhere between white and black hats. These actors are vigilantes, taking cybersecurity into their own hands by seeking and attacking black hats.

Instead of stopping black hat hackers and turning them in to the authorities, they launch cyberattacks against them. They may use viruses, DDoS attacks or other methods to compromise and even destroy hackers’ resources. Some people debate whether these internet vigilantes really exist or are merely a romanticized ideal since there’s little evidence of their actions.

5. Blue Hat Hackers

The term “blue hat hackers” has two different meanings, depending on the source. In some circles, these are penetration testers that work outside the company. Microsoft hosts a blue hat conference to improve cybersecurity training and encourage continuous learning on hacking techniques.

The other definition refers to hackers who act only out of revenge. These are typically less-skilled attackers who have only learned hacking methods to take out a specific target. They may attack only once but could cause significant damage since they’re not interested in monetary gains.

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6. Green Hat Hackers

Like blue hat hackers, green hats are new to the practice. Unlike the blue hats, though, they have a desire to grow and become expert hackers. These are fledgling black hats, seeking vulnerable targets to hone their skills on and eventually evolve into more dangerous threats.

While green hat hackers lack the skills of more experienced cybercriminals, they can still be concerning. As the Dropbox hack shows, it doesn’t always take high-level techniques to cause damage. These attackers may also target small businesses with less advanced security that may not be able to recover.

Why should you know the different types of hackers? 

Hacking is a wide and very diverse field, contrary to what many people may think about it.

It is important for cybersecurity professionals and security-focussed businesses to understand the different types of hackers and even hacker hat colors. This is simply because knowing your enemy, their tactics and techniques, their motivations and their skill level is critical to keeping your business safe. 

Only once you understand some basic hacking techniques and methods can you gauge the opportunities hackers may be after with respect to your specific business. 

You can prepare for a potential hacking incident in your own organisation with a Cyber Tabletop Exercise. An external, experienced facilitator can play a crucial role in helping your business executives understand the different types of hacking techniques and what a hacker may be after in your business. 

The exercise involves building a cybersecurity scenario-based simulation which can help team members understand where your business stands with respect to possible cyber attacks and hacks. Only once you’re aware of your weaknesses and the loopholes in your incident response plans and strategies can you work towards building a strong, cyber-resilient organisation over the longer term.  

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