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What is White Hat?

Mary Elizabeth
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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In some cultures, but by no means all, white has long been associated with purity and goodness and black with evil. The term white hatoriginated from the Western genre of movies and television in which this white/black dichotomy is sometimes played out in the costuming. In movies and shows of this type, for example The Lone Ranger, the hero would wear a white hat, while the villain would be seen with a black hat. This cultural emblem has given rise to several different expressions and meanings for “white hat.”

First, the phrase “guys in [the] white hats” or “good guys in [the] white hats” is often used to mean that the people referred to are each like a “white knight” or a “knight in shining armor,” that is, a good person, a rescuer, a savior, or simply someone who upholds the law and does the right thing. The image was popularized outside of Westerns in advertisements for Dodge automobiles in the 1960s. In these ads, the Dodge sales people, “the Dodge Boys,” were referred to as “good guys in white hats” and portrayed as friendly, helpful, and customer-oriented, as well as able to “beat the competition to the draw.”

More recently, white hat has developed two meanings in the realm of computer security and search engine optimization (SEO) practices, respectively. White hat SEO follows guidelines proposed by search engines and doesn’t try to beat the system to improve listings and/or make money. White hat hackers, also referred to as “ethical hackers," perform many of the same hacking techniques as other hackers or crackers: they identify security weaknesses in computer systems and networks. Instead of taking advantage of the weakness in a malicious way, however, white hat hackers expose the weakness in order to help the system’s owners repair it before there is a destructive security breach.

Different means are taken to report the weakness. In some cases a phone call or email may convey the finding, while in others, the cracker may leave an “electronic calling card” that signals to the webmaster that security has been breached. This partly depends on whether the white hat hacker is hacking for a hobby or as a paid service, whether as a company employee or as a security consultant. Many former black hat hackers who hacked out of malice or for gain have turned “white hat” and become computer security experts who specialize in testing system security. Some even hold a National Security Agency certification.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for EasyTechJunkie, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

Discussion Comments

By irontoenail — On Nov 08, 2011

@pleonasm - I think that hackers who work for the "good guys" are very interesting as well. I've heard that several times someone has hacked into some systems because they felt like it, been caught and then been offered a job.

It seems like the kind of thing that would only happen in a story.

What really annoys me is that they are even necessary. Why do people have to be such jerks? I mean, I can see (although still hate) viruses that put spam on your computer, or steal money, or whatever, but some of them are just petty nonsense, and that drives me crazy.

By pleonasm — On Nov 07, 2011

I find the whole idea of white hat hackers really fascinating. I read this article a while ago about a particular kind of virus that managed to find its way into almost every computer system in the world. Something like 75% of computer systems, and it's still sitting on there, doing nothing.

The article followed a group of white hat hackers who voluntarily kept an eye on all the different viruses that were circulating in the world. They were supposed to be a group of the best of the best, and they couldn't seem to figure out this virus.

They kept trying to figure out a way to get it off all the computers, but every time they thought they had it cracked, it would be updated, and they would be left behind again.

It was really interesting, but a bit scary considering this very virus is probably on my own computer - and yours - right now.

By lluviaporos — On Nov 07, 2011

It really does pay to try and hang a white hat on your SEO content. Google in particular changes its algorythms so often and with such sophistocation, that trying to fool them seems like it would take more effort than actually producing decent content in the first place.

And, you know if you do produce a good quality content in the first place, you'll start getting visitors to it from more places than just search engines.

Word of mouth and social networking are the most powerful tools on the internet in terms of getting people to your site. Just look at those viral videos that rack up hundreds of thousands of hits in a couple of hours. That's not magic, it's just providing people with something they want to see.

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth

Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for EasyTechJunkie, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
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