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What Is Ethical Hacking?

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Ethical hacking has become a vital part of the information security field today. Skills in penetration testing, password cracking, and social engineering are hot commodities for companies that want to boost their security. If you want to become an ethical hacker, or if you’re just curious about the profession, what do you need to know?

What is ethical hacking?

Ethical hackers, also called white hat hackers, are trained security specialists who companies or governments hire to spot weaknesses in their systems. Ethical hackers are trained to think like malicious hackers, and duplicate malicious attacks to find security vulnerabilities in the systems and networks of their clients or employers. 

The difference is, ethical hackers always use legal means to accomplish their tasks and have the permission of their targets to carry out “attacks” and security assessments. The goal of ethical hacking is to help improve an organization’s security.

Examples of ethical hacking

Ethical hackers use methods such as penetration testing to do their work. They might also use password cracking techniques or social engineering to find weaknesses.

These are just a few examples of hackers doing good and uncovering critical security vulnerabilities for organizations.

  • WordPress plugin that leaked Twitter info: In 2019, a French security researcher found a vulnerability in the WordPress plugin Social Network Tabs, which leaked users’ Twitter account info, compromising personal data.
  • Visa contactless cards that bypassed payment limits: In 2019, two researchers in banking security found a bug with contactless Visa payment cards, which would allow a user to bypass the card’s purchase limit (£30 per purchase is the usual limit in the UK, where the researchers tested the vulnerability).
  • Mac Zoom Client vulnerability: In 2019, a security researcher found a vulnerability in the Zoom client for Macs, which allowed malicious websites to launch a user’s camera and join a meeting without their authorization.
  • Boeing 787 crew information system flaws: In 2018, a security consultant discovered that Boeing 787 Dreamliners’ crew information systems could easily be hacked, exposing documents, binaries, and configuration files.

As you can see from this list, ethical hacking finds critical flaws that could expose user data and compromise an organization’s security.

Types of hacking

Although hacking deals with information systems, hackers are human. Because they’re humans, hackers aren’t simply “good” or “bad.” There are black hat hackers and white hat hackers, but these two colors only represent the ends of a spectrum of types of hackers. In reality, people hack for a myriad of reasons, with different motivations, and with or without the permission of the person/company they’re targeting.

The hacker hat rainbow

Black hat hackers usually have malicious intent and exploit vulnerabilities in computer systems or networks to cause harm. Their activities are almost always illegal, and they’re motivated by monetary gain, disruption, or cyberespionage. At the other end of the spectrum is the white hat hacker, which is just another name for an ethical hacker.

In terms of motivation and methods, grey hat hackers are in between black and white hat hackers. They might look for security vulnerabilities in order to warn their targets, or release the info to the public. But they don’t always use legal means to do so, and may not have their targets’ permission. Grey hat may also refer to hackers who used to be black hat but have since turned to ethical hacking (such as world-famous hacker Kevin Mitnick or Brett Johnson, who appeared on our Easy Prey podcast).

There’s no longer just black, white, and grey hat hackers, though. Recently, green, blue, and red have been used to identify other types of hackers as well.

Green hat hackers are people new to hacking, eager to learn but lacking the needed skills. Blue hat hackers could either refer to Microsoft’s corps of BlueHat hackers or wannabe hackers out for revenge. Finally, we have red hat hackers, who are like vigilantes. They go after black hat hackers, but not necessarily through legal or official means like white hats do. Red hats could also refer to someone who targets Linux systems.

Why would you want to be an ethical hacker?

Ethical hacking has become popular in the last several years for many reasons. The main draw is getting the chance to hack into systems or use hacking skills and tools and getting paid for it. For some, the motivation behind hacking is to cause chaos. But others simply like the challenge and find it interesting. With an increased awareness of cybersecurity issues and the need for defense against cyber criminals, those who like hacking have a chance to turn it into more than just a hobby.

What are some other reasons to consider getting into ethical hacking?

  • Constant opportunities: The cybersecurity field is evolving constantly, giving both new and experienced hackers, analysts, and penetration testers the chance to enter the field and progress their careers.
  • Growing need: IT tends to be an understaffed industry, and cybersecurity has an even bigger talent gap. There are simply not enough talented individuals to fill all the cybersecurity openings that keep popping up. If you can learn valuable ethical hacking or cybersecurity skills, you can make yourself a viable candidate for a position in cybersecurity (even without a degree in IT).
  • Problem-solving skills: While there is an emphasis on learning technical skills in ethical hacking, it also teaches you analytical thinking and problem-solving. These attributes not only serve you in cybersecurity, but in any job you might get in IT.
  • Physical hacking: We imagine hackers as people who sit in front of their computer all day, but sometimes penetration testing requires getting out of the office. To test an organization’s defenses they might ask you to try to physically break into their building by bypassing their security systems, or use a social engineering scheme to convince employees to grant you access to things you shouldn’t have access to. You can learn more about the physical side of ethical hacking and social engineering by listening to our Easy Prey podcast episode on the subject.
  • Hacking legally: Hacking can be a dangerous hobby, since in most cases it’s illegal. If you like hacking, however, becoming an ethical hacker gives you a chance to do what you love without breaking the law or harming anyone.

How to become an ethical hacker

As more organizations, governments, and companies understand the value of ethical hacking, the profession has expanded. Companies now hire security specialists to be white hat hackers, and you can complete specialized training to become an ethical hacker. 

Certified Ethical Hacker qualification

If you want to pursue a career as an ethical hacker or get a job in information security, there are certain certifications that will help you learn the skills you need. EC Council Certified Ethical Hacking Certification is the most well-known, and recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Other qualifications include the Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) Certification, the CompTIA Security+, Cisco’s CCNA Security, and SANS GIAC. As an ethical hacker, you’ll need to be an expert in scripting languages, proficient in operating systems, knowledgeable about networking, and have a good basis of information security.

If you want to learn more about cybersecurity, you can also check out our cybersecurity resources page, with courses, books, influencers, and podcasts to help learn and stay up to date on the industry. You can also check our Easy Prey podcast episodes, featuring interviews with experts:

Can you get paid to be a hacker?

Ethical hacking is a legitimate profession, with lots of opportunities for those interested in cybersecurity. Companies may either hire a trained ethical hacker to evaluate their systems, or crowdsource their ethical hacking with bug bounty programs. 

According to sources like Zip Recruiter, Glassdoor, Payscale, and Salary.com, average yearly salaries for ethical hackers average around $85,000 per year. If you don’t have the experience to land a full-time, salaried position as an ethical hacker, you can hunt bug bounties. HackerOne, one of the largest bug bounty platforms in the world, reports companies pay an average of $979 per vulnerability, and an average $3,650 per critical vulnerability.

As information security becomes increasingly important and nuanced, the need for ethical hackers and cybersecurity specialists will grow. There’s already a high demand for these professionals that remains unmet in the U.S. Whether you’re a CEO, small business owner, or ethical hacker in training, you cannot deny the importance of ethical hacking in today’s information security sector.

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