Your guide to the seven types of malicious hackers

Knowing the difference between a spammer, a corporate spy, and a cyber warrior can better help you defend your systems

When I learned over the weekend that hackers had planted malware on a Nasdaq Web server, I wasn't exactly surprised. It's the rare company that isn't owned by hackers. Even the most well-defended organization will likely find itself under attack by outsiders.

Whether you're attacked today or tomorrow, it's important to understand the motivation and objective of your intruders -- doing so can help you devise an appropriate defense. Malicious hackers can, in fact, be broken out under some broad classifications.

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Malicious hacker No. 1: Cyber criminals

Professional criminals comprise the biggest group of malicious hackers, using malware and exploits to steal money. It doesn't matter how they do it, whether they're manipulating your bank account, using your credit card numbers, faking antivirus programs, or stealing your identity or passwords. Their motivation is fast, big financial gain.

Malicious hacker No. 2: Spammers and adware spreaders

Purveyors of spam and adware make their money through illegal advertising, either getting paid by a legitimate company for pushing business their way or by selling their own products. Cheap Viagra, anyone? Members of this group believe they are just "aggressive marketers." It helps them sleep at night.

Malicious hacker No. 3: Advanced persistent threat (APT) agents

Intruders engaging in APT-style attacks represent well-organized, well-funded groups -- often located in a "safe harbor" country -- and they're out to steal a company's intellectual property. They aren't out for quick financial gain like cyber criminals; they're in it for the long haul. Their dream assignment is to essentially duplicate their victim's best ideas and products in their own homeland, or to sell the information they've purloined to the highest bidder.

Malicious hacker No. 4: Corporate spies

Corporate spying is not new; it's just significantly easier to do, thanks to today's pervasive Internet connectivity. Corporate spies are usually interested in a particular piece of intellectual property or competitive information. They differ from APT agents in that they don't have to be located in a safe-harbor country. Corporate espionage groups aren't usually as organized as APT groups, and they are more focused on short- to midterm financial gains.

Malicious hacker No. 5: Hacktivists

Lots of hackers are motivated by political, religious, environmental, or other personal beliefs. They are usually content with embarrassing their opponents or defacing their websites, although they can slip into corporate-espionage mode if it means they can weaken the opponent. Think WikiLeaks.

Malicious hacker No. 6: Cyber warriors

Cyber warfare is a city-state against city-state exploitation with an endgame objective of disabling an opponent's military capability. Participants may operate as APT or corporate spies at times, but everything they learn is geared toward a specific military objective. The Stuxnet worm is a great example of this attack method.

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