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The Modern Hacker: Who They Are, Where They Live, & What They’re After

The Modern Hacker: Who They Are, Where They Live, & What They're After

Andrew Douthwaite

September 7, 2020

Last updated August 19, 2022


  • Modern hackers have become more professional and organized, turning hacking into a multi-billion dollar growth business.
  • An increasing amount of hacking is state-sponsored—countries like Russia have been accused of interfering in elections, while Saudi Arabia has used state-sponsored hacking to target private businesses.
  • Non-state groups of hackers often form to coordinate large-scale attacks, sometimes for activism purposes.
  • Modern hacking tools include social engineering and selling malware on the dark web.
  • The majority of the world’s hackers live in The United States, Russia, and China.
  • The goals of modern hackers typically include criminal financial gain, access to corporate or national secrets, the pursuit of political goals, or sheer fame.

Hacking, the act of gaining unauthorized access to or otherwise compromising digital devices and networks, is an evolving and ongoing threat. When many of us imagine a hacker, we think of a lone mischievous teenager writing malicious code in a dark basement, but the modern reality is much more diverse and sophisticated.

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The Cost of Hacking

Hacking is a billion-dollar growth business. According to Forbes, hackers stole $4 billion from victims in the first half of 2019 alone, making hacking incredibly tempting for individuals with few scruples. We discussed the most costly cyber attacks of 2019 in our blog post The 8 Most Expensive Cyberattacks of 2019.

Who is the Modern Hacker?

While there are still loners breaking into secure systems from their basements, hacking is becoming much more professional and organized.

State Sponsored Hacking

Modern hackers are state-sponsored actors; unlikely soldiers conscripted in wars between nations. Russia, in particular, has been accused of using state-sponsored hacking in many instances, including allegations that they interfered in America’s 2016 federal election. However, governments aren’t the only targets: state-sponsored hackers are increasingly targeting private businesses as well. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and the owner of the Washington Post, was targeted by the Saudi Arabian government in 2018 in an attempt to influence how the newspaper covered the kingdom in an attempt to limit or prevent criticism and cast the country in a more flattering light.

And state-sponsored hacking may be on the rise. Only last July, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom announced that hackers associated with Russian intelligence had attempted to hack government systems in order to steal information related to COVID-19 vaccine development. That same month, the United Kingdom also accused Russia of interfering in their general elections.

Non-State Groups of Hackers

Hacking is becoming a team sport both within government and outside of it, with hundreds or even thousands of individual hackers banding together to pull off Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) and other widespread attacks.

The most notable groups of non-government sponsored hackers are currently Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and LulzSec, who use their hacking skills for activism purposes.

The Tools of the Modern Hacker

More than Just Writing Code

While there is a technical aspect of hacking (such as creating malware or breaking into networks), psychology also plays a role in this illegal activity. Social engineering, where hackers use psychology to trick unsuspecting victims into complying with their requests, plays a vital role in many cybersecurity attacks. This use of psychology takes many forms, from using phishing to trick users into revealing their usernames, passwords, or other sensitive information or using spam to scare them into handing over money or sensitive information.

Malware for Sale

In the modern world, hackers don’t need technical skills to wreak havoc, just a connection to the dark web. Criminal enterprises are increasingly offering malware for sale, so non-technical hackers (known as “script kiddies”) can carry out devastating and sophisticated attacks. This business of selling malware saw one group of hackers to sell backdoor access to PCs for as little as $10. In addition to selling the program necessary to hack these computers, the sellers also offered tips for how hackers could avoid detection. These groups are rarely concerned with who they are selling their product to, or what the buyers intend to do with their newfound malware.

Where Does the Modern Hacker Live?

Though hackers come from around the world, it isn’t easy to track down this elusive group that works hard to stick to the shadows and cover their tracks. However, recent research suggests that the majority of the world’s hackers are from within the United States, followed by China and finally Russia.

What Are Hackers After?

Hackers are a diverse group, and as such, are motivated by a variety of factors.

Criminal Financial Gain

One of the most common goals of hacking is financial gain through illegal means. This category includes credit card credential theft as well as defrauding banks.

Corporate Secrets

Corporations are increasingly using hackers for corporate espionage. While some organizations rely on outside hackers to break into secure networks and steal corporate secrets and IP, these threats are increasingly originating from within organizations themselves.

National Secrets

Much like corporate espionage, governments are also turning to hackers to target other governments or private businesses, such as the Russian hack examples against the American, Canadian, and British governments mentioned above. Another famous example of governments using hackers to gain intelligence and sow chaos is Stutnex, which was developed jointly by the American and Israeli governments and used to wreak havoc on the Iranian nuclear facility Natanz.

The Rise of Hacktivism

Some hackers are socially or politically motivated. These hacker-activists (or hacktivists) use their skills to draw the public’s attention to social and political issues by shining an unflattering light on their targets, typically by making sensitive or damaging information public.


Some hackers are motivated by fame and the drive to gain the respect of their fellow hackers. In these cases, hackers often deface or otherwise leave identifying marks on the websites and systems they infiltrate as a way to show their skills off to other hackers.

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