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What is ethical hacking?

Read our guide about ethical hacking to find out what it is, why it’s important, its benefits and challenges and much more.

ethical hacking

Our world is relentlessly digital. Companies and individuals rely on the sophistication of technological systems to enhance productivity, streamline operations, and facilitate communication.

But at what cost? Hackers can infiltrate your network at any given moment. They can find your most hidden vulnerabilities and exploit them for malicious gain. Ultimately, the integrity of your security, data, and reputation is at stake.

But there is a flipside to hacking. An ethical side. So let’s take a look at the world of ethical hacking.

In this guide, we’ll be covering:

  • What is an ethical hacker? 
  • Is ethical hacking legal?
  • What problems does ethical hacking identify?
  • Different types of ethical hackers
  • What’s the difference between black, gray, and white hat ethical hacking?
  • How are ethical hackers different from malicious hackers?
  • Different types of ethical hacking
  • What’s the difference between penetration testing and ethical hacking?
  • Benefits of ethical hacking
  • Challenges and limitations of ethical hacking
  • Phases and processes of ethical hacking
  • Tools used in ethical hacking
  • All about ethical hacking as a career
  • Final thoughts

What is an ethical hacker?

Ethical hacking is when a hacker legally and ethically identifies vulnerabilities in computer systems, networks, and applications. It is also known as white hat hacking and its primary goal is to help organizations improve their security posture, prevent data breaches, and protect against cyber threats.

Their work plays a vital role in the continuous improvement of cybersecurity practices, fostering a safer digital environment for individuals, businesses, and societies as a whole.

Skills of an ethical hacker 

Ethical hackers possess a diverse set of technical skills, including knowledge of operating systems, networking, programming, and security principles.

They stay updated with the latest hacking techniques, emerging threats, and evolving security practices. In addition to technical skills, ethical hackers must adhere to a strict code of ethics and legal boundaries. 

Is ethical hacking legal?

Ethical hacking is legal when conducted within the boundaries of the law and with proper authorization. Here are some key points to consider:

  • Authorization: ethical hacking requires explicit written consent, often through contracts or agreements.
  • Scope and limitations: ethical hackers must operate within defined boundaries and not exceed agreed-upon limitations.
  • Compliance with laws and regulations: adherence to laws, regulations, and ethics is essential.
  • Professional codes of conduct: ethical codes that emphasize respect for privacy, and responsible disclosure of vulnerabilities must be adhered to.
  • Reporting and documentation: ethical hackers should document findings and provide detailed reports to stakeholders.
  • Non-destructive testing: non-destructive techniques should be prioritized to avoid disrupting services or tampering with data.

What problems does ethical hacking identify?

Certified ethical hacking helps identify a wide range of problems and vulnerabilities, such as:

  1. Software vulnerabilities: uncovers vulnerabilities in software applications, operating systems, and firmware. These vulnerabilities may include programming errors, design flaws, or misconfigurations.
  2. Network weaknesses: identifies weaknesses in network infrastructure, such as insecure configurations, open ports, weak passwords, or unpatched systems.
  3. Web application flaws: discovers security vulnerabilities in web applications, including injection attacks, insecure session management, authentication bypass, and other flaws.
  4. Social engineering risks: assesses an organization’s susceptibility to social engineering attacks. This involves testing the effectiveness of security awareness training, the strength of password policies, and the resilience of employees against manipulation techniques.
  5. Wireless network insecurities: identifies weaknesses in wireless networks, such as misconfigured access points, weak encryption protocols, or the presence of unauthorized devices.
  6. Malware and intrusion detection: helps organizations detect the presence of malware, backdoors, or unauthorized access points within their systems.
  7. Data leakage and privacy risks: reveals potential data breaches, such as unprotected databases, improper access controls, or unencrypted sensitive information.
  8. Compliance and regulatory issues: identifies gaps in compliance with industry standards, regulations, and security best practices. Also ensures they meet the requirements and mitigate legal and regulatory risks.

Different types of ethical hackers

Within ethical hacking, there are different fields of specialization. These include:

Social engineers

Social engineers are experts in assessing an organization’s susceptibility to social engineering attacks and simulating various tactics, such as phishing, pretexting, or impersonation, to test the effectiveness of security awareness training.

Red teamers

Red teamers are ethical hackers who simulate real-world cyber attacks to test an organization’s overall security posture. Through red teaming services, they go beyond technical vulnerabilities and provide a holistic evaluation of an organization’s ability to detect, respond to, and mitigate sophisticated attacks.

Penetration testers

Penetration testers are responsible for assessing the security of infrastructure, networks, or applications. Pen testers simulate real-world attacks to identify vulnerabilities and exploit them within an authorized scope.

They also provide detailed reports on the vulnerabilities discovered and recommend remediation measures.

Vulnerability assessors

These guys focus on identifying and assessing vulnerabilities within systems and networks and use various techniques, including vulnerability scanning and configuration review, to discover weaknesses.

Their assessments help organizations prioritize and address vulnerabilities.

Web application security experts

Web app experts specialize in identifying and assessing vulnerabilities in web applications, by analyzing the code, configurations, and server-side components to uncover common web application vulnerabilities, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting, or insecure direct object references.

Network security specialists

These types of specialists focus on assessing and securing network infrastructures, by analyzing network architecture, configurations, and protocols. Their expertise includes knowledge of firewalls, routers, switches, and other network devices.

Wireless security experts

Wireless security experts specialize in assessing the security of wireless networks, such as Wi-Fi. They identify vulnerabilities in wireless access points, encryption protocols, and network configurations.

Mobile security specialists

These focus on the security of mobile applications and devices by identifying vulnerabilities in mobile apps, analyzing application traffic, and assessing the security configurations of mobile devices.

Roles may overlap, and ethical hackers often possess a diverse range of skills across multiple areas. The type of ethical hacker required also depends on the objectives, scope, and nature of the security assessment being conducted.

What’s the difference between black, gray, and white hat ethical hacking?

Here are the fundamental differences between black, gray, and white hacking:

Black hat hacking:

  • They’re individuals who engage in hacking activities with malicious intent or for personal gain. 
  • They exploit vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access, steal sensitive information, cause damage, or disrupt services. 
  • It’s illegal and unethical, as it violates the law and infringes upon the privacy and security of others.

Grey hat hacking:

  • They’re individuals who engage in hacking activities without proper authorization, but their intentions may not be explicitly malicious. 
  • They can discover vulnerabilities and disclose them to the owners or the public without consent. 
  • Their actions can be helpful, but they still operate outside the boundaries of legal and ethical practices.

White hat hacking:

  • They’re professionals who engage in hacking activities with authorized permission and ethical intent. 
  • Their goal is to help organizations improve their security by proactively identifying and remediating vulnerabilities.
  • They work within legal and ethical boundaries, following strict guidelines and obtaining proper consent from system owners before conducting security assessments. 

How are ethical hackers different from malicious hackers?

Ethical hackers differ from malicious hackers in various ways, including:

  • Intent: ethical hackers aim to improve security and black hat hackers have malicious intentions. 
  • Authorization: ethical hackers obtain explicit permission from system owners and malicious hackers operate without authorization.
  • Methodologies: ethical hackers follow structured methodologies to improve security and malicious hackers use subversive techniques to compromise systems.
  • Legality: ethical hacking is legal with authorization and malicious hacking is illegal.
  • Impact: ethical hackers enhance security and malicious hackers cause harm and exploit vulnerabilities.

What’s the difference between penetration testing and ethical hacking?

Penetration testing and ethical hacking are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct differences in focus and approach:

Penetration testing:

  • Controlled and methodical security assessment process.
  • Simulates real-world attacks to identify vulnerabilities.
  • Requires explicit authorization and consent from the system owner.
  • Follows a structured methodology: reconnaissance, vulnerability scanning, exploitation, and analysis.
  • Specific objective: assessing the security of a particular system, network, or application.

Ethical Hacking:

  • Broader concept encompassing various activities and techniques.
  • Takes a holistic approach covering network, web application, system, wireless, and social engineering security.
  • Proactively identifies vulnerabilities and helps enhance security posture.
  • Continuous process involving regular assessments, monitoring, and staying updated on emerging threats.
  • Specific objective: improve the overall security of computer systems, networks, or applications.

Benefits of ethical hacking

Now that we’ve covered what ethical hacking is, let’s explore the benefits. 

Identifying vulnerabilities

Ethical hackers discover weaknesses that may be exploited by malicious actors. This enables organizations to take proactive measures to strengthen their security defenses.

Proactive risk mitigation

Ethical hacking allows organizations to proactively address security risks before they are exploited. This helps them prioritize and implement security measures to protect their assets and sensitive information.

Compliance and regulatory requirements

Ethical hacking assists organizations in meeting compliance and regulatory requirements. Many industry standards and regulations require regular security assessments.

Enhancing security awareness

Ethical hacking helps raise security awareness among employees and stakeholders. They educate individuals about the importance of security practices, such as strong passwords or avoiding phishing attacks.

Improving incident response

Ethical hacking helps organizations improve their incident response capabilities. They provide valuable insights for developing effective incident response plans and enhancing the organization’s ability to detect, respond, and mitigate security incidents.

Challenges and limitations of ethical hacking

There are two sides to every coin. Let’s explore some of the challenges of ethical hacking.

Legal compliance

Obtaining proper authorization, defining the scope of testing, and ensuring compliance with local laws and regulations can be challenging.

False positives and negatives

Assessments may result in false positives, which is when an ethical hacker identifies a vulnerability that doesn’t actually exist, or false negatives, which is when an ethical hacker fails to identify an actual vulnerability.

Impact on system availability

There is a possibility that systems or networks may experience disruptions or unintended consequences during a simulated attack.

Skill and expertise requirements

Ethical hacking requires a high level of skill, knowledge, and expertise. Organizations need to hire experienced and certified ethical hackers who possess the necessary technical proficiency.

Evolving threat landscape

Ethical hackers must update their skills, stay informed about emerging threats, and adapt their methodologies to keep up with an evolving threat landscape. 

Phases and processes of ethical hacking

Ethical hacking follows a structured approach with several phases and processes. Adhering to a well-defined methodology ensures a systematic and comprehensive assessment. While methodologies may vary, here are some common phases:

  1. Reconnaissance: gathering information about the target system, network, or application using techniques like Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).
  2. Scanning: identifying open ports, services, and potential entry points through active and passive scanning.
  3. Enumeration: probing the target network or system for detailed information, such as system configurations and user accounts.
  4. Vulnerability assessment: analyzing the target for known vulnerabilities using tools and manual reviews.
  5. Exploitation: attempting to exploit identified vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access or control.
  6. Post-exploitation: analyzing the compromised system or network for deeper insights and gathering additional information.
  7. Reporting: documenting findings, vulnerabilities, and recommendations in a detailed report.
  8. Remediation: addressing identified vulnerabilities and implementing necessary security measures.

Tools used in ethical hacking

Ethical hackers choose tools based on specific needs and target systems. A combination of these tools, along with manual techniques, helps identify vulnerabilities and improve security effectively. Commonly used tools include:

  • Nmap: for network scanning and reconnaissance
  • Burp Suite: for web application security testing
  • Metasploit Framework: for simulating real-world attacks
  • Wireshark: for network traffic analysis
  • Nessus: for vulnerability scanning and reporting
  • John the Ripper: for password cracking
  • Aircrack-ng: for wireless network auditing
  • OWASP Zap: for web application security assessment
  • Sqlmap: for detecting SQL injection vulnerabilities
  • Hydra: for password brute-forcing

All about ethical hacking as a career

What skills and certifications should an ethical hacker obtain?

Ethical hackers should develop their skills in operating systems, networking, programming, and security principles.

They can also obtain ethical hacking certifications like Certified Red Team Ops (CRTO) and Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) Are ethical hackers in demand?

Yes, the cybersecurity landscape is constantly evolving, with new attack techniques and vulnerabilities emerging regularly so the demand for more people to learn ethical hacking is high.

How to become an ethical hacker

  • Start by gaining a solid understanding of computer systems, networks, and programming languages.
  • Enroll in ethical hacking training programs and learn techniques like vulnerability scanning or pen testing.
  • Finally, obtain ethical hacking certifications to validate your skills and continuously update your knowledge. 

Final thoughts

As technology continues to advance and new vulnerabilities emerge, ethical hacking will remain a critical component of our collective defense against cybercrime. It is essential for organizations to invest in robust cybersecurity measures, including proactive ethical hacking initiatives, to stay one step ahead of malicious actors.

CovertSwarm’s team of experienced ethical hackers employ the exact same techniques, methodologies, and subversive social exploitation tactics that malicious actors do. But instead of holding your data against you, we’ll teach you how to ensure you never experience an attack of that scale again.

Ready to get hacked? Find out more about our ethical hacking services