3aIT Blog

Our Jargon Busting blog this month takes a look at the question "What is Hacking?"

You will almost certainly have noticed various cases of systems being "hacked" on the news in recent times (Talk Talk being the latest victim of this). A lot of people probably imagine hacking to be what they see on films and TV - often fancy graphical interfaces representing "the mainframe" and lots of frantic typing to try and grab the data before they are detected by the "people running the firewall". However, this representation is fairly wide of the mark, and has more to do with the fact that real hacking would be very boring to watch.

When you hear about something being hacked on the news, this can be one of many things. At its most basic (and probably most prevalent), "hacking" can just mean guessing the password of an account or system and accessing it. This could be because it's a very simple password to guess or they have inside knowledge that helps them guess something a little more obscure like children's names.

These days, in many cases, the password will have been grabbed from some other website compromise in which the same password has been used elsewhere, a device being compromised with malware that allows an attacker to see the keypresses made (and therefore any passwords you type), brute force (having a computer try millions of letter combinations and dictionary words), or social engineering (being convinced to give passwords to an unscrupulous 3rd party).

In a lot of cases, hacking really is as simple as that. Just knowing the login details for a system is often the easiest way in. Always best to try the front door first!

Another common attack is to look for known exploits in the systems that the attacker wants to access. This will often involve using attacks that have been made public after they have been fixed (in an effort to explain what has been fixed, a company will often have to either very explicitly explain the problem, or at least provide enough clues for an unscrupulous person to start digging).

Take a website, for example. A website will often be running a CMS like Wordpress or Joomla. These will have been programmed in a language (like PHP) and be using a database (like MySQL) to store all the content. All of this will be sitting on a web server that dishes out the website when people on the internet request it. There is the potential for an attacker to find a weakness at any point in that chain (CMS, PHP, Database + Web Server) and use that to gain access to the whole system.

This is why it's so important to keep all of your systems / devices up to date. Leaving these things unpatched provides an open target for attackers to breach a system.

Hacking can get more advanced than this, but in the vast majority of cases, when you hear that a something has been hacked, one of the methods above will have been used.