The color of the hat, a point of view

When you are interested in computer security, you are quickly confronted with the color of hats. White and black supposed to indicate, among the hackers, which ones are the goods and the bads. It's actually a lot more complex than it sounds and also a lot less serious than it's claimed.

For a neophyte, all hackers look alike. Beyond the hoodie in a dark room, they are mostly seen as computer wizard capable of anything. Their competence and the more or less legal side of their activities make them mysterious and can generate admiration and attraction or fear...

Like genres of metal music (see the french desencyclopedia), and as required by narcissism of small differences, the hackers needed to distinguish themselves from each other. Opposed for some of them, forming a whole color chart for others, we would have on one side the white hat and on the other the black hat, the good against the bad.

Chapeaux blancs et noirs. paulbr75 @ pixabay
Chapeaux blancs et noirs. paulbr75 @ pixabay

For our french speaking readers. These terms are entered into jargon and are used as is; in English. Using them translated into French (chapeaux blancs and chapeaux noirs) is not recommended unless you want to sound particularly ridiculous. Mainly because using them seriously is already a bit ridiculous in itself.

Its false consensual air could make one think of absolute criteria - established by ethnologists following a scientific approach - but it is a subjective point of view: each group has its own definition and, as required by ethnocentrism, these groups consider themselves better than the others...

Each group, regardless of the color of their hat, therefore considers themselves to be the good ones, the others being the bad ones.

White hat, the nice guys

Let's start with the tip of the iceberg: the white hats who, living publicly in the light of day, have been able to spread their Manichean Point of View everywhere, right down to wikipedia. For them, the world is the scene of a war between Good and Evil:

Once Upon a Time in the West.
Once Upon a Time in the West.

These terms (white and black hats) and definitions are rooted in cowboy movies where, for ease of reading by viewers, the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. It's very ingenious and I wonder why we didn't do this in real life...

In fact, these definitions are written by IT security professionals. Those who make a living by selling services and products,... with high values. This dichotomy of good versus evil through which they define themselves has always served them to deploy a two-step commercial strategy:

  1. Scare you, by communicating regularly about the bad deeds of black hat and the consequences for the victims: The world is dangerous and you will not survive it.
  2. Reassure you, by posing in white hat and offering services or products to counter these threats: Don't worry, we're managing the threat.

We find this communication strategy in the way they share cyber news on social networks. Like all news items, these articles are originally published to satisfy our morbid curiosity but by promoting them, these white hat professionals only consolidate their Manichean Vision (the outside is full of bad guys) and in fine sell their products.

Black hat, the initiated

In the Manichean world described by the white hats, it is difficult to pretend to be black hat. Yet many hackers I know prefer to think of themselves as such and would take it as an insult to be treated as w8h8 (read aloud: "weight height"). Because for them, what sets each other apart is above all the nobility of their quest.

JillWellington @ pixabay
JillWellington @ pixabay

"Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for."

Source : The Mentor, The Conscience of a Hacker, January 8th 1986.

The adherence to the same terms on both sides is in fact no accident and stems from the historical context. The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of many anti-conformist, anti-authoritarian and libertarian groups (e.g. May 68 in France) and whose hacker movement would be one of the echoes. Since the white hat are on the side of authority, incompatible with the values of freedom and curiosity of the hackers, the latter will then adopt the term black hat.

In their view, bypassing security measures and breaking into systems does not constitute an act of vandalism because nothing will be broken and no one will be harmed (ideally of course). It is, for them, an exploit; an achievement in their initiatory journey, an extraordinary fact to add to their record.

Basically, this exploit will prove the superiority of the hacker over his opponent of the day who could not firbid him access; and by generalization, its superiority over all its potential adversaries, including the hated white hat. Too weak to defend themselves, they are no longer worthy of consideration and somehow deserve the consequences of their incompetence, thus justifying the hacker's actions: "I am right because I am the strongest".

Gray Hat, the seducers

Much more recently, a shade of color has appeared, often enough to deserve to be mentioned, and consensual enough to say something about it: the grey hat who seek their place in the shade between the whites and blacks. Most often, they are defined as follows:

lumpi @ pixabay
lumpi @ pixabay

Some also include whistleblowers and other anonymous therein: forced to carry out illegal actions in the general interest such as during the disclosure of Panamanian documents.

But this is an exclusively Manichean point of view and they should be considered black hat (in both meanings of the term). They are also aware and do not pretend to wear a hat, which makes any debate about color pointless.

The problem with grey hat definitions is that you can't be both white and black on the same axis:

In this sense, you will only encounter two kinds of grey hat:

  1. Impostors who seek media fame by playing on both side because it is mysterious and reassuring. You could think of them as white hat in both senses of the word, the complete opposite of the whistleblowers they claim to identify with. To avoid unless you have second degree and popcorn.
  2. Shy people who do not assume their black hat side in search of knowledge (because said like that, it is a little naive) and therefore add a touch of white to tell that they are not evil. Avoid unless you like rainbows, paillettes and unicorns.

If you are worried about your position between light and dark, start by breathing slowly. Then repeat to yourself over and over: “these dichotomies are polysemous”. Finally, remember that nobody cares so why bother?

Likewise, tomatoes are fruits AND vegetables and since learning that strawberries, potatoes and salads don't care, they live it better. When in addition we learn that the jackfruit is eaten like meat, is it really necessary to worry?

Minor nuances

Because some are not able to appreciate a monochrome photo, they needed to introduce other colors and other subgroups…

shogun @ pixabay
shogun @ pixabay

Defined by minorities lacking recognition or from pseudo-taxonomist bloggers lacking ideas, we meet everything and especially its opposite. I will therefore only present the three main ones: Reds, Greens and Blues.

Although it is tempting, unfortunately we cannot define all the colors of rainbow (hackers) with these three colors...

Red Hat

The legend… This color would be used by hackers whose goal is to clean up cyberspace and expurgate the bad guys. A sort of knight paladins, crusaders without a flag, who’d chose a color to identify themselves.

Even though they don't identify themselves as red hats, this type of hacker really does exist and under the guise of their good intentions, these vigilantes are in fact dangerous to the society they claim to be protecting.

Unless you want to live in a totalitarian regime where a simple intuition is enough to put a person in prison, let the professionals do their job. The procedures may be cumbersome but they exists to guarantee our safety.

"No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile."

article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

And if you really want to clean up the Internet and put your skills at the service of justice, you have plenty of solutions, like the N-Tech or judicial experts. It may be less lucrative than other careers but, believe us, it is much more rewarding.

Yuri_B @ pixabay
Yuri_B @ pixabay

The reality… This is mainly one of the oldest GNU/Linux distributions (Red Hat Linux, released in 1994) and the name of the company that publishes it. The color was chosen somewhat because it evokes freedom (reminiscent of the Phrygian cap) but above all because it was that of the co-founder's hat (in the colors of his sports club).

Green hats

The legend… for some english speaking people, this term was used to define novices who are just starting out in their quest for knowledge. This would then be a way for initiates to show their superiority over the new ones by introducing ranks.

I don't think it was really used. The black hat movement is deeply egalitarian when it brings together enthusiasts and the feeling of superiority is not linked to skills but really to the nobility of the quest. Affectionately, we can call a beginner "newbie" but we are more likely to denigrate the lamers because they strut or the script kiddies because they do not try to understand.

annca @ pixabay
annca @ pixabay

The reality… there is a group of French hackers who considered themselves green hat and operated briefly between 2014 and 2015.

Their definition is completely different and comes from the so-called six hats management method in which green corresponds to lateral thinking and creativity.

Normally, this method involves wearing successively each hat to solve a problem by addressing each corresponding way of thinking (white for the factual side, red for the emotions, black for the negative, yellow for the positive, green for the creativity and blue for the organization). Claiming only one color is therefore incompatible with the method.

On the other hand, even if the name suggests it, I did not find any group of environmental hackers sporting this color.

Blue hats

The legend… For some bloggers, this term is supposed to group together the surly hackers who work mainly for revenge. This is once again a very Manichean point of view that does nothing for the already bad enough black hat. I have not found any trace of this use outside of these rare blogs.

Alexa_Fotos @ pixabay
Alexa_Fotos @ pixabay

Reality… this term is only found at Microsoft, which uses it as the name for its conference on computer security Blue Hat which takes place once or twice a year. It is then used to define hackers who look for vulnerabilities in software (mainly Windows) and thus allow their correction.

A bit like gray hats (trying to help by looking for loopholes) but with hue...

And after

Among the Arsouyes, we stopped wearing hats when we were about 8 years old because after a unanimous vote, we determined that we are not schizophrenic and even if we have self-mockery, we find that wearing a cyber hat is a bit ridiculous.