I would describe myself as a hacker, but in the real sense of the word, not the “Breaking into people’s computers” sense. In the technology, and particularly, the Information security community, a hacker is someone that likes messing around with computers, networks and devices, trying to figure out how things work. HackerOne have done a good write-up on the discussion here. It seems that a lot of dictionaries use the terms “illegal” and “unauthorised” in their definitions, however historically, a hacker was someone that “hacked away” at computers and systems to find out how they worked. They weren’t illegally accessing computers and networks. When asked to describe a hacker during interviews with HackerOne, information security professionals mentioned phrases like “problem solving”, “solving puzzles in unique ways”, “helping companies become more secure”, “breaking things apart and working out how to put them back together”. They suggest a more suitable word might be “tinker”, which I think works well. Hackers tinker around with systems to find areas in need of repair. Most of them are well aware of the legal implications of unauthorised system access and do not do anything that might cross the line.
The “hackers” that the media or popular culture refer to can be lumped into a few different categories:
Hacktivists – People breaking into computer systems in support of some cause or another. Carrying out website defacements for example.
Script Kiddies – Silly kids that want to play at hacking and don’t understand the legal implications of what they’re doing. They often just download scripts written by professionals for research purposes and use them to break into systems. There isn’t much skill involved in this.
Organised criminals – Groups of people carrying out illegal activities on an industrial scale. Carrying our DDoS attacks on companies for money, infecting organisations with malware for ransom or injecting websites with malware that generates advertising revenue, or carries out bitcoin mining for example.
Government sponsored – Mentioning no names here, although to be fair, they’re probably all at it.
As well as being aware of the legal ramifications of doing something that could even remotely be considered suspect, you also need to make sure you’re operating ethically. It is wrong to go poking around in someone else’s network without their permission, no matter how badly protected it might be.