What does hacking actually LOOK like? For example, what interface is the hacker using, what’s their goal, and are they typing in a bunch of passwords like in the movies?


What does hacking actually LOOK like? For example, what interface is the hacker using, what’s their goal, and are they typing in a bunch of passwords like in the movies?

In: Technology

It looks absolutely nothing like the movies. What it looks like depends on what you’re trying to do

Nothing like the movies. Most of it is writing a program at your leisure, depending on what you’re doing. It’s just exploiting over sights or weaknesses in a code or system. Very little is done in real time, and even that is more more mundane, just exploring directories for data you want, etc.

Typically a console. Like a terminal emulator. Command line. You have one one your box right now. run “cmd”. Now type “help”. They might also use some tools with a GUI, which will look like most boring corporate tools. And a phone. Don’t forget that fooling people is a large part of it.

Goals range across the board. State actors and big corporations really care about not getting found and ID’d, so covering their tracks and plausible deniability. Activists (haha, hactivists) care about finding embarrassing data or shutting down ‘the man’. Thieves and crooks want anything they can sell, or bank accounts, or enough information to fraud a target. In general, the goal for them all is to get access to stuff they’re not supposed to have, typically without others knowing.

> are they typing in a bunch of passwords like in the movies?

Haha, no. When actual brute-forcing, there are tools that try a bunch of passwords at computer-speeds. You can search for and play with “gpg” and “jack the ripper crack” if you want to see them in action.

I’ll try to explain in ELI5 fashion.

Let’s say I’m trying to physically break into a building I could have a bunch of motives. Maybe I’m trying to just rob the place (like when hackers are trying to steal data like credit card numbers for fraud).

Perhaps the office has some specific info in there I’m trying to get (like if a government agency is spying on someone).

Maybe I just want to vandalize the place (hackers who just cause destruction) or perhaps I just want to explore the building (hackers who like the challenge but don’t do anything malicious).

Just like breaking into a building people can have many reasons.

Now let’s talk methods

Maybe I just try to break into the building by smashing a window (this would be a brute Force attack which is a program I write that tries a bunch of different passwords)

Perhaps I tricked an employee and got a copy of his employee badge (phishing attacks)

Maybe this badge works at other buildings too (a common thing to happen is people reuse passwords, then one site gets leaked and I can write a program that checks other sites to see if those same credentials work)

I could also find a vulnerability with something protecting the building like shoving a pen in the lock will open it. Some people fixed their locks but I want to find the buildings that didn’t (if there’s a bug in a program, usually a patch is released but if a site didn’t update then I can use the known vulnerability against them. If the door lock company doesn’t even know about this issue it’s called a zero day vulnerability… It means that someone discovered a bug and kept it a secret from the company so no one knows about it except the hackers.)

I could also dress up as someone who works there, trick them into thinking I do, get let in and then unlock the backdoor so I come back at night (this is essentially what some malware does. It tricks you into downloading it and then gives a hacker access to the computer). Or maybe the people working there just give me what I want because they think I work there (social engineering)

These are just some of the methods people use to hack. There’s a lot out there and some way more complex. But this is a quick basic guide.

One thing though for sure, no one is sitting in front of their computer with a mask and gloves to hide fingerprints like the movies.

Hacking usually just involves running a program and waiting for the program to finish its process. It may ask for some input while it’s running, but most of it is clicking some file to run, watching a terminal while the program is at work, and then get the output of the program. In some cases, it may be like browsing a computer with File Explorer and just copying/downloading files.

People say that it’s “nothing like the movies”. That’s partially true: it’s not like it’s some kind of digital fencing with the hacked computer like they sometimes tend to show. Usually the moment of access is very anticlimactic as your hacking tool simply returns values. That doesn’t mean that the act of hacking cannot be tense.

I’ve done some research on the security of older WiFi encryption (WEP most of all, which has been deemed insecure for a couple of years now). To crack the passcode for the network, I basically had to collect traffic packages at bulk, hoping to get a duplicate. So most of the work was just waiting, hoping for someone to start using the network (in my case it was a lab setting so the use was simulated) and then watch the package count increase until I had acquired enough to make it statistically likely to have a usable set of duplicates. At which point, I saved the sniffed data (like you’re exporting an excel as .csv), loaded it into the program I wrote (which was in C and simply ran in a Windows terminal) and then waited for the program to finally crack the code. When it did, it sent a message “password found: XXXXXX” and I tried to connect to the network on a different computer with the given passcode.

I also tried this with my own network at home and I tried to connect to the network with another PC with the cracked code and checked how much of my data I was able to collect. Trying to open a shared folder and then to find that I’m able to basically download my entire My Documents folder without any problems, could run printing tasks on the shared printer on the network, was very exciting. At which point you’re just using Windows File Explorer to peek around.

Hacking can be exciting, when it is successful. However, depending on the kind of hack you are either looking at numerous failures before you have any success, if that, or you’ll have to collect data for minutes, hours, or sometimes even months before that data is sufficient to crack the system. All that time spending mass data collection is quite boring.

The more interesting hacks are pentests in which you try to physically penetrate a company building, attach a network backdoor somewhere hidden, and then use that network backdoor to log in from outside the building, basically like a remote PC. In which, again, the Moment Supreme is just the moment at which you try to log in to your backdoor and you see the desktop appear and the icon shows as “connected” in the bottom right corner of the remote desktop. Once you’re in, you’re just peeking around with a file explorer to see what you have access to.

If you’re interested in hacking and the process of it, I’d advice the Darknet Diaries podcast series. It interviews (in)famous hackers, pentesters, social engineers about major historic hacks and how they were carried out.