Hackers aren’t the most popular of people. They are seen by many as breaking and entering enthusiasts of the computer world. This is true to an extent. While acquiring the skills to hack into another computer system and steal sensitive information isn’t easy it does invite comparisons to throwing a brick through the window of a house, climbing in and taking what’s inside.

Private individuals are rarely the target of hackers, it’s mostly big businesses and governments who are at risk, so it’s not surprising there are laws to attempt to impede hackers.

Types of hacker

There are basically two kinds of hacker, the good guys and the bad guys.

The good guys are people who just try and circumvent security and access classified websites and databases because they can. They see it as a kind of badge of honour if they can break into some of the world’s most highly secured computer systems. They don’t do any damage and just do it for kudos.

The bad guys on the other hand are out to cause serious damage. They might wish to steal secrets or information. They might want to infect a system with a virus and shut it down. Or they might want to take control of a system and hold it to ransom.

Governments rarely differentiate between the two and see all hackers as the bad guys. In fact they might even go as far as to dub all hackers ‘spies’ due to the fact that they gain access to systems where there is highly sensitive and classified information available to view. It makes no difference if the hackers don’t do anything with this information or even look at it. The potential was there when they hacked in and that is reasonable grounds for governments to throw the full weight of the law at them.

Laws to stop hackers

Most hackers worth their salt won’t care in the slightest that they are breaking the law – that’s part of the fun – but when they’re caught the consequences can be dire for them.

In America for instance it’s illegal to hack as it is in most other countries. The difference there is it’s also forbidden to create and distribute computer code which may be used for hacking. It has to be proven that this or a number of devices a hacker may be in possession of were for the express intention of hacking, something which a hacker would obviously deny, but may not get away with.

It is illegal to gain access to a government computer without permission even if someone just does it to prove they can and doesn’t even look at any sensitive information. Large fines and serious prison sentences are on offer for anyone found guilty of hacking. Terms ranging from 6 months to 20 years have been handed out to American hackers in recent years and it’s a crime they take very seriously.

Germany has a similar heavy handed approach to hackers.

Proving intent can be tricky, but with some of the greatest lawyers behind them it is possible to prosecute more times than not in hacking cases.

A hacker does not need to be in the country where the crime is committed thanks to it all being done online. This does make it difficult but not impossible to prosecute in a lot of cases. Often the hacker would need to be extradited in order to face charges and it’s often a long and drawn out process while two countries come to agreement over how it should be handled.

One such case in America involved a British hacker named Gary McKinnon who in 2002 successfully hacked into the US Department of Defense and NASA systems just for fun. McKinnon always pleaded innocence and said there was no malice in his actions and that he’s only performed the hacks in an effort to expose the poor security systems. The US government were less than impressed and after a long and drawn out battle McKinnon was extradited to the States in 2007 to answer the charges.

Lucrative jobs for hackers

Many former hackers or people who possess the knowledge to be able to hack but never actually have can land themselves quite well paid legitimate jobs. Who knows more about computer security than hackers? Probably nobody. They know how to get around various security systems which means they know what should be in place to keep other hackers out. As a result many hacking experts go on to work for big companies providing security to systems and updating code to keep other hackers out. Many might hack a company to prove they can do it as a kind of unofficial interview. It’s a cheeky approach, but it has actually worked for some people.

And there are some hackers who have made rather substantial fortunes using their knowledge to create apps and programmes. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were two students at Stanford University who managed this. You might not have heard of either of them, but they collaborated together some years ago to create a search engine. That search engine is known today as Google and the pair are now in joint 26th place on the Forbes rich list.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who you probably have heard of founded Apple, of course. Both of these men had previous as hackers.

It’s said that crime doesn’t pay, but clearly it can for some. At least having the knowledge to be able to commit such crimes if you wish does. Several of the world’s most used computer programmes and applications only exist today because of the involvement in their creation by people with a hacking background.

It must be remembered that it is highly illegal though, so all you budding Jobs’ and Wozniaks should learn how it’s done, but not practice it if you want to land that big developer job rather than spending up to two decades inside a very confined cell.