What’s the difference between hackers, malware and data breaches?

·5 min read

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It's important to know what popular internet security words and phrases, like hacking, actually mean. (Photo: Getty)
It's important to know what popular internet security words and phrases, like hacking, actually mean. (Photo: Getty)

You've probably heard the terms ‘hacker,’ ‘malware,’ and ‘data breach’ before. But ever wonder what those terms actually mean? With cybercrime on the rise, it's important to know not only what these terms mean but also how to protect yourself from becoming the victim of a cybercrime.

What is hacking, exactly?

With hacking, information from your devices is extracted involuntarily, such as through a cybercriminal taking over your computer system. The term "hacker" refers to anyone who breaks into any system, such as a network, website, or database. There are many different types of hacks, including:

• Social engineering – where an attacker tries to trick someone into giving up their password/login details.

• Phishing – when attackers send emails pretending to come from legitimate companies asking for personal information, such as bank account numbers, passwords etc.

• Ransomware - when criminals demand payment before releasing encrypted copies of important documents or demanding ransom payments to decrypt them.

• Software exploits – when software programs contain bugs that allow malicious code to run without authorization.

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"Hacking involves closely studying a given system in order to 'fool' its built-in defenses," Jacob Sever, co-founder and chief product officer at the cybersecurity firm Sumsub, tells Yahoo Life. "When good actors hack, they discover weaknesses that can put users in harm’s way."

Sever continues: "When bad actors hack, they do so for bad reasons — including stealing credit card information to commit fraud or gathering personal data to dox someone. Nevertheless, hacking is an essential practice in IT, although its malicious form can have severe consequences."

Malware is malicious software that can delete files on your computer, corrupt databases, or steal confidential information. (Photo: Getty)
Malware is malicious software that can delete files on your computer, corrupt databases, or steal confidential information. (Photo: Getty)

What is malware?

Malware is another name given to viruses, worms, trojans, spyware, adware, keyloggers, rootkits, backdoors, or bots. These are many forms of malicious software that can damage your computer by deleting files, corrupting databases, stealing confidential information, spreading infections, or causing a denial of service attacks, which are designed to shut down a device or network.

"Malware is software that’s specifically designed for malicious computer activity," says Sever. "In day-to-day life, you’ll most likely come across malware in the form of a virus or phishing link, or by visiting a particularly shady website. If infected by malware, your computer becomes vulnerable to a wide range of hacking, manipulation, and data theft. Also, your computer can become a tool for further criminal activity, as malware can replicate itself and spread to other devices."

Some examples of malware include:

Trojan horse virus – This is a program designed to look like something harmless but actually contains hidden instructions that do things such as steal sensitive information or delete critical files. Trojan horses have been used to spread ransomware.

Worms – This is a self-replicating piece of malicious software that spreads itself over networks using email attachments or websites. It usually starts off small but grows larger with time.

Spyware – This is similar to a worm except instead of being self-replicating, it sends out fake alerts telling its owner whenever new activity occurs on the infected machine. Spies also collect information about the user's online activities.

Adware – This is a form of advertising software that displays ads while browsing web pages. Often times it comes bundled together with free applications downloaded from the internet.

Backdoor – This is a way for cybercriminals to get around security measures by exploiting software vulnerabilities, allowing them to gain unauthorized entry into a computer or network.

Rootkit – This is a special kind of backdoor that uses malicious software to gain remote access to the operating system. Once installed, it can hide from normal detection methods, making it difficult to remove.

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Malware can seriously slow down your system. Learn how to protect your devices (photo: Getty)
Malware can seriously slow down your system. Learn how to protect your devices (photo: Getty)

What is a data breach?

A data breach is the result of a cyberattack, which allows criminals to gain unauthorized access to a computer system or network and steal the private, sensitive, or confidential personal and financial data of customers or users.

"Data breaches occur when private information becomes public in an unauthorized manner," explains Sever. "While hacking is a common cause, breaches can also occur on their own, as any system — large or small — can have gaping flaws that leak private data accidentally."

Sever continues: "The source of a breach can be as simple as a sticky note with a password left out in the open, or it could be flawed code within a complex system. Either way, the consequences are the same: private information unintentionally becomes public."

This stolen data typically ends up on the dark web — a part of the internet that most people never see. For the most part, criminals use the dark web to traffic various illegal goods. Marketplaces that specialize in large batches of personal information gathered from various data breaches are known, in criminal parlance, as dump shops.

Using strong antivirus software can help you surf the internet safely. (Photo: Getty)
Using strong antivirus software can help you surf the internet safely. (Photo: Getty)

How can you protect yourself from these attacks?

Cybercrimes are becoming increasingly common, so it's important to make sure your devices are as secure as possible. Updating your devices' software and installing antivirus software can help, but you also want to safeguard your personal information by making sure your passwords are strong.

If a hacker gets a hold of your password, they can do everything from draining your bank account to opening new accounts under your name. One of the best ways to help protect yourself is by installing a password manager like LastPass Premium. It can help you create stronger and more secure passwords for all of your online accounts, while also protecting it from hackers. LastPass Premium doesn't just generate unique passwords — it can remember them for you, so logging into your accounts is easier. The software can also alert you to potential attacks on your system.

Try LastPass Premium, part of Yahoo Plus Secure, risk-free for 30 days.

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