27th September, 2023
Cybersecurity threats are growing more sophisticated every day as hackers employ advanced techniques to breach systems and steal data from businesses, organisations and individuals across the globe. While malicious hacking grabs the headlines, there is an entire field of ethical hackers using their capabilities for good. These ethical hackers, often referred to as "white hats", are becoming invaluable resources for protecting individuals, businesses, and government organisations against cyber attacks.
So what are ethical hackers?
Ethical hackers employ the same tools and methods as criminal hackers but do so legally with authorised permission to uncover vulnerabilities in networks, applications, and computer systems. Their goal is not to cause damage or steal information, but rather to identify weak points so they can be patched before malicious actors exploit them.
In the modern era, ethical hackers are in high-demand for their technical abilities as data breaches can lead to significant financial and reputational damage. By taking a proactive approach and working with white hat hackers, organisations can identify and remediate network weaknesses before they are exploited.
The most in-demand ethical hackers today work in a few key roles. Many are penetration testers or information security consultants, working either as freelancers or for firms like WhiteHat Security. One major employer of ethical hackers is the United States federal government, which recruits talent under titles such as cyber operations specialist and IT specialist.
What do ethical hackers do?
Ethical hacking incorporates a large variation of tasks, including, but not exclusive to, the following:
- Penetration Testing - Legally attempting to break into an organisation's systems and networks to evaluate security vulnerabilities.
- Bug Bounty Programs - Hunting for security bugs and flaws in applications and, subsequently, responsibly disclosing them to the developer for a monetary reward. Many tech companies have public bug bounty programs.
- Red Teaming - Simulating a malicious attack on an organisation's infrastructure and systems to test incident response capabilities.
- Social Engineering - Techniques like phishing are used with permission to test human-led vulnerabilities within an organisation and to validate enforced security policies.
- DDoS Testing - Overwhelming a system with traffic to check for denial-of-service vulnerabilities and subsequently report on how well the system performed.
- Wireless Network Checks - Checking for insecure wireless network configurations vulnerable to attacks like WEP cracking or rogue APs.
- Password Cracking - Legally cracking an organisation’s password hashes to check for weak passwords and flawed hashing algorithms.
What does it take to be an ethical hacker?
Skilled ethical hackers possess deep knowledge of operating systems, programming languages, networking concepts, and security protocols. They are always learning about new tools of the trade and emerging exploits. Certifications like the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) credential demonstrate an ethical hacker's expertise and commitment to operating legally and ethically. Many ethical hackers come from related IT and cyber security backgrounds such as network administration or software engineering. Passionate lifelong learners do well in this stimulating, ever-evolving field.
Moreover, skilled ethical hackers are just as creative and curious as the hackers they aim to prevent. This requires thinking outside of the box to identify potential innovative ways malicious actors may breach systems. While ethical hacking requires strength in technical capabilities, soft skills are equally important. Ethical hackers need to communicate risks and findings effectively to stakeholders with varying levels of technical sophistication. They walk a fine line between exposing vulnerabilities without crossing into unethical territory. This also requires legal knowledge to ensure that ethical hacking practices follow standards such as PCI-DSS.
The rise of high-profile data breaches proves no system is impenetrable. However, leveraging the white hat perspective to strengthen defences can help minimise risk. Ethical hackers will continue to play a crucial role in the ongoing cybersecurity arms race. Their mastery of hacking for honourable purposes makes them invaluable assets for any organisation serious about protecting its IT infrastructure and data.