An ethical hacker, also referred to as a white hat hacker,
is an information security expert who systematically attempts to penetrate a computer
system, network, application or other computing resource on behalf of its owners — and with
their permission — to find security vulnerabilities that a malicious hacker could potentially exploit.
The purpose of ethical hacking is to evaluate the security of and identify vulnerabilities in
systems, networks or system infrastructure. It includes finding and attempting to exploit any
vulnerabilities to determine whether unauthorized access or other malicious activities are
Ethical hackers use their skills and many of the same methods and techniques to test and
bypass organizations’ IT security as their unethical counterparts, who are referred to as black
hat hackers. However, rather than taking advantage of any vulnerabilities they find for
personal gain, ethical hackers document them and provide advice about how to ramediate
them so organizations can strengthen their overall security.
Ethical hackers generally find security exposures in insecure system configurations, known
and unknown hardware or software vulnerabilities as well as operational weaknesses in
process or technical countermeasures.
Any organization that has a network connected to the Internet or provides an online service
should consider subjecting it to penetration testing conducted by ethical hackers.
White hat, gray hat and black hat
Uses of ethical hacking
There are a number of ways ethical hackers can help organizations, including:
Finding vulnerabilities. Ethical hackers help companies determine which of their IT security
measures are effective, which need to be updated and which contain vulnerabilities that can
be exploited. When ethical hackers finish evaluating organizations’ systems, they report back
to company leaders about those vulnerable areas, for instance, a lack of sufficient password
encryption, insecure applications or exposed systems running Unpatched software.
Organizations can use the data from these tests to make informed decisions about where and
how to improve their security posture to prevent Cyber attacks.
Demonstrating methods used by Cyber criminals. These demonstrations show executives the
hacking techniques that malicious actors use to attack their systems and wreak havoc with
their businesses. Companies that have in-depth knowledge of the methods the attackers use
to break into their systems are better able to prevent them from doing so.
Helping prepare for a Cyber attack. Cyber attacks can cripple or destroy a business, especially a
small business. However, most companies are completely unprepared for Cyber attacks.
Ethical hackers understand how threat actors operate and they know how these bad actors
will use new information and techniques to attack systems. Security professionals who work
with ethical hackers are better able to prepare for future attacks because they can better
react to the constantly changing nature of online threats.
Ethical hacking techniques
Ethical hackers generally use the same hacking skills that malicious actors use to attack enterprises. Some of these hacking techniques include:Scanning ports to find vulnerabilities. Ethical hackers use port scanning tools, such as Nmap, Nessus or Wireshark, to scan a company’s systems, identify open ports, study the vulnerabilities of each port and take remedial action.
Scrutinizing patch installation processes to be sure that they don’t introduce new vulnerabilities in the updated software that can be exploited.
Performing network traffic analysis and sniffing by using appropriate tools.
Attempting to evade intrusion detection systems, intrusion prevention systems, honeypots and firewalls.
Ethical hackers also rely on social engineering techniques to manipulate end users and obtain information about an organization’s computing environment. Like black hat hackers, ethical hackers rummage through postings on social media or GitHub, engage employees in phishing attacks through email or roam through premises with a clipboard to exploit vulnerabilities in physical security. However, there are social engineering techniques that ethical hackers should not use, such as making physical threats to employees or other types of attempt to extort access or information.
How to become an ethical hacker
There are no standard education criteria for an ethical hacker, so an organization can set its own requirements for that position. Those interested in pursuing a career as an ethical hacker should consider a bachelor’s or master’s degree in information security, computer science or even mathematics as a strong foundation.
Individuals not planning to attend college can consider pursing an information security career in the military. Many organizations consider a military background a plus for information security hiring, and some organizations are required to hire individuals with security clearances.
Other technical subjects including programming, scripting, networking and hardware engineering, can help those pursuing a career as ethical hackers by offering a fundamental understanding of the underlying technologies that form the systems that they will be working on. Other pertinent technical skills include system administration and software development.