Ethical hacking, also known as white hat hacking, refers to hacking performed by security experts to identify weaknesses in a computer system or network. The goal of ethical hacking is to improve security by detecting vulnerabilities before malicious hackers, known as black hat hackers, can exploit them. Ethical hackers use the same tools and techniques as black hat hackers, but they do it with permission from the system owner and without malicious intent.
Ethical hacking plays a crucial role in proactive cybersecurity. By finding and fixing security holes before criminals can abuse them, ethical hackers prevent data breaches, identity theft, and other cybercrimes. Many organizations hire teams of ethical hackers or contracting firms to regularly test their networks and applications. Government agencies and military organizations also employ ethical hackers to evaluate and reinforce their security.
Types of Ethical Hacking
There are several types of ethical hacking that target different aspects of a system’s security:
Penetration Testing: Attempting to gain access to computers, networks, web applications, and other systems to evaluate how vulnerable they are to attackers. Penetration testers may use techniques like social engineering, web app attacks, network sniffing, password cracking, and exploitation of known vulnerabilities.
Vulnerability Assessment: Systematically scanning networks, applications, and systems to find known weaknesses and misconfigurations that could allow malicious hackers to gain access. Vulnerability assessment is focused more on auditing than actively exploiting flaws.
Red Teaming: Simulating the techniques and behaviors of real criminal hackers to test an organization’s detection and response capabilities. The goal is to improve security incident readiness.
Social Engineering Testing: Attempting to manipulate employees into divulging sensitive information or granting access to secure systems. Social engineering testing evaluates human weaknesses rather than technical vulnerabilities.
Physical Penetration Testing: Testing the physical security of facilities by attempting to gain access to restricted areas through techniques like lock picking, tailgating authorized personnel, and finding unlocked entrances.
Ethical Hacking Process
Ethical hacking generally follows a structured process to safely and methodically assess security:
Planning: Define the scope and rules of engagement for the test in consultation with the client. Get permission before proceeding.
Information Gathering: Learn about the target organization and systems by gathering intel through open source research, social engineering, network sniffing, and more.
Vulnerability Scanning: Use both automated and manual tools to systematically scan for known software flaws, misconfigurations, weak credentials, and other vulnerabilities.
Exploitation: Attempt to penetrate systems by exploiting the vulnerabilities discovered in the previous steps. Ethical hackers may use tools like fuzzers, password crackers, and SQL injection against test systems.
Post Exploitation: After gaining access to a system, ethical hackers may attempt privilege escalation, pivoting through the network, and maintaining persistent access, as a real attacker would.
Analysis: Document all vulnerabilities discovered and how they were exploited. Estimate the potential business impact if criminals abused these flaws.
Reporting: Compile technical details, proof-of-concept exploits, remediation advice, and recommendations into a report for the client. Discuss the most critical issues in-depth.
Remediation: The client implements fixes and other risk reduction measures based on the report’s findings. Ethical hackers may assist with advice on remediation best practices.
Retesting: Ethical hackers will re-scan the systems after some time has passed to verify that vulnerabilities have been properly patched and that no backdoors were left behind.
Skills of an Ethical Hacker
Succeeding as an ethical hacker requires a diverse mix of technical and non-technical skills:
Penetration testing tools: In-depth knowledge of assessment tools like Kali Linux, Metasploit, Burp Suite, and OWASP ZAP for vulnerability scanning, exploitation, web app testing, and more.
Programming: Scripting languages like Python help automate testing and penetration tasks. Knowing C and assembly may assist with analyzing malware and exploits.
Networking: An understanding of networking protocols, infrastructure, and techniques like packet sniffing allows ethical hackers to better map target environments and intercept data.
System administration: Knowing how operating systems like Windows and Linux work internally assists with finding flaws and gaining deeper access during tests.
Social engineering: The psychological manipulation skills used in social engineering attacks help ethical hackers conduct realistic tests that improve awareness.
Communication: Ethical hackers need to clearly explain technical risks and recommendations to clients without technical backgrounds. Report writing and presentation abilities are key.
While ethical hackers use the same tools as criminal hackers, they must uphold strict standards of ethics and legality:
- Get signed permission from system owners before attempting penetration tests or social engineering.
- Only attack systems that clients explicitly authorize for testing; stay within agreed-upon scope.
- Use the minimum access necessary and do not tamper with production data or systems.
- Disclose all vulnerabilities and exploits to clients privately rather than publicly disclosing.
- Maintain confidentiality agreements and do not divulge client information.
- Do not exploit any access or data obtained during testing for personal gain.
- Refuse unethical hacking jobs that seek to harm systems or abuse vulnerabilities rather than test defenses.
Getting Started as an Ethical Hacker
Aspiring ethical hackers can start learning the ropes through these methods:
Education: Take university classes, certificates, online training, and other courses covering information security and ethical hacking fundamentals. Classes from providers like SANS Institute and EC-Council are popular options.
Virtual labs: Practice hacking skills in safe simulated environments like Hack the Box that pose ethical hacking challenges with a diversity of systems and difficulty levels.
CTFs: Join capture-the-flag hacking competitions to test your abilities against ethical hackers from around the world. Major CTFs include DEF CON CTF and PicoCTF.
Certifications: Respected certifications like the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) and the Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) validate abilities.
Conferences: Attend information security conferences like DEF CON, Black Hat, and B-Sides to learn more about ethical hacking from industry experts.
Bug bounties: Build experience by reporting vulnerabilities through legitimate bug bounty programs hosted by companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook.
Networking: Get to know ethical hackers locally through groups like DC612 or OWASP chapters where you can learn collaboration opportunities.
By developing fundamental skills and gaining hands-on experience through legal channels, ethical hackers can break into this exciting field dedicated to protecting public safety and privacy in the digital world.
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