A Complete Guide to Becoming an Ethical Hacker

Cyber Threat

How to Become an Ethical Hacker is the focus of this guide. It contains in-depth information on the function of an ethical hacker, as well as some of the skills and experience required to become one, as well as tactics for securing an ethical hacker job.

Historically, whitehat hackers and blackhat hackers have been used to denote defensive and offensive cybersecurity endeavours, respectively. The good guys were given these nicknames to distinguish themselves from the bad people. While both of these names are still widely used, one of them may not fully describe the different responsibilities that exist in today’s modern cybersecurity environment.

Although a blackhat hacker is still referred to as a bad person, the good guys are now referred to as red teams, blue teams, purple teams, ethical hackers, and penetration testers. Red teams are in charge of offensive security, while blue teams are in charge of defensive security. Purple, which is a mix of red and blue, denotes teams that provide a little bit of each type of security service.

The term ethical hacker includes all security professionals that provide offensive services, whether red team, pentester, or freelance offensive consultant.

Job titles such as security analysts or engineers may also contain inflammatory aspects. These offensive security services are frequently grouped together within a company’s threat and vulnerability management organisation.

While there are some technical distinctions between the services given by an outside offensive cybersecurity consultant and those supplied by an in-house pentester, these many labels for ethical hackers are used interchangeably in this book.

The fundamental goal of an ethical hacker is to look at security from the perspective of the adversary in order to uncover weaknesses that could be exploited by bad actors. This allows defensive teams to prepare for an attack by designing a patch before an actual one occurs. Simulated cyberattacks in a controlled setting are used to achieve this goal.

While checking security controls and devices for perimeter penetration vulnerabilities is a big part of what an ethical hacker does, they also seek for weaknesses that can be exploited deep within a network or application, like data exfiltration flaws.

Role of an Ethical Hacker

Ethical hackers can work as freelance consultants, for a firm that specialises in simulated offensive cybersecurity services, or for a company’s website or apps as an in-house employee.

Knowledge of current attack methods and tools is a requirement across these employment options, however, the in-house ethical hacker may be required to have an intimate knowledge of only a single software or digital asset type.

While in-house red teams are still relatively new in the security business, one advantage they may bring is that they will have a better grasp of how their own systems and applications are built than an independent consultant. This secret information gives the red team an advantage, as long as they can keep their vision from becoming myopic. This advantage would take genuine attackers years to replicate. In-house teams are also regarded to be less expensive than hiring a consulting firm on a long-term basis.

An external ethical hacker, on the other hand, may bring a new set of eyes to find vulnerabilities that the inside team may have missed. Even firms with an internal red team may hire an external ethical hacker on occasion to provide a fresh perspective on their defences.

Before initiating any offensive security actions, any external offensive security service provider should seek written consent from the client. The systems, networks, apps, and web sites that will be included in the simulated attack should be specified in this permission. Do not broaden the scope of the service until you have received further explicit authorisation.

There are white-box, black-box, and gray-box ethical hacker engagements, which follow the industry’s use of colours to distinguish between various cybersecurity roles and functions. When a security professional is given as much information about the target system and application as possible, it is referred to as a white-box engagement. This enables the simulated attack to search widely and deeply for vulnerabilities that would take a real bad actor a long time to find.

A black-box engagement, on the other hand, is one in which the ethical hacker is not given any insider information. This more closely resembles the circumstances of an actual attack and might give useful insight into how a true assault vector could look. A gray-box engagement, as the name implies, simulates an attack in which the attacker has already breached the perimeter and may have spent time inside the system or application.

Many companies use a combination of all three engagement types, as well as in-house and external ethical hackers. This type of applied knowledge can give you the best picture of what protections you need, but it’s also a lot more expensive.

Possessing ethical hacker skills and knowledge is helpful for many other security roles.

Network security analysts and network engineers require these abilities. Purple teams are in desperate need of offensive players. Understanding offensive methods and tools is beneficial to application security developers. Security researchers, often known as bug hunters, rely heavily on their understanding of attack strategies. Many successful bug hunters have a thorough understanding of the application layer, as well as the network layer and other areas that can be exploited.

The Skills Required to Become an Ethical Hacker

While there are numerous anecdotal stories of blackhat hackers being converted to whitehats in the past, the most important requirement for becoming a successful ethical hacker today is to have high ethical standards, as the name implies. The difference between the good guys and the bad guys is ethics. There are many blackhat hackers who have the technical skills to be ethical hackers, but lack the character discipline to do the right thing regardless of the perceived benefits of doing so.

For a member of a cybersecurity team, a history of cybercrime poses an unacceptable risk. This type of risk would be unacceptable to a huge corporation with an experienced legal staff. When applying for work as an ethical hacker, a resume that includes any work that even smells like unauthorised work or unethical behaviour is a surefire way to be disqualified. While people can change over time, most employers recognise that developing a set of ethical life-guiding standards entails far more than simply wishing to change careers.

Second to having the “ethical” part of this colloquial nickname covered is the need to have the “hacker” part covered as well. A candidate for an ethical hacker job must be able to demonstrate advanced cybersecurity technical skills. The ability to recommend mitigation and remediation strategies are a part of the desired experience.

To be an ethical hacker, a candidate must be familiar with both wired and wireless networks. They must be familiar with a variety of operating systems, particularly Windows and Linux. They must be familiar with firewalls and file systems. They must understand file permissions and have a basic understanding of servers, workstations, and computer science in general. Read some information about wordpress file permissions error/issue here.

Strong coding abilities are required, as are clear understanding and demonstration of direct, physical, and hands-on attack tactics. In summary, an ethical hacker should have safeguarded so many assets over the course of their career that copying and then thinking a few steps ahead of the enemy is second nature.

A unique blend of creative and analytical thinking, in addition to solid ethics and excellent technical capabilities, is required. Hackers that are ethical must be able to think like their adversaries. They must comprehend the bad actors’ motivations and be able to assess how much time and effort the blackhat is willing to devote to any given target. To do so, the pentester must first comprehend the significance of the data and systems he or she is guarding.

Ethical Hacker Certifications and Education

Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) and Offensive Security Certified Professional are two qualifications that are specific to ethical hacking (OSCP).

“A Certified Ethical Hacker is a trained professional who understands and knows how to hunt for weaknesses and vulnerabilities in target systems and employs the same knowledge and tools as a malevolent hacker, but in a lawful and legitimate manner to analyse the security posture of a target system,” EC-Council says of their CEH certification (s). From a vendor-neutral standpoint, the CEH certificate qualifies persons in the unique network security discipline of Ethical Hacking.”

EC-Council offers a variety of different cybersecurity professional credentials that will help you become more employable as an ethical hacker.

“The OSCP assessment consists of a virtual network featuring targets of diverse configurations and operating systems,” says Offensive Security of their OSCP certification. The student receives the exam and connecting instructions for an isolated exam network that they have no prior knowledge or experience with at the start of the exam.

The successful examinee will be able to conduct network research (information gathering), discover vulnerabilities, and carry out successful attacks. Modifying exploit code with the objective of compromising systems and gaining administrative access is common.

The candidate must submit a detailed penetration test report with detailed notes and screenshots describing their findings. Each compromised host is given points based on the difficulty and level of access gained.”

Starting your career with a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related subject is an excellent idea. A foundation in computer science or network engineering is recommended for job in the security industry. When looking for a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity, look for programmes that have a strong multidisciplinary focus.

Computer engineering, computer science, and business management abilities will all be emphasised in good curricula. Look for programmes that cover technical writing classes as well as legal problems related to technology and ethics. The finest cybersecurity experts are well-rounded individuals who have a broad perspective on their field.

Self-study is required to keep up with current assault methods and offensive strategies, even if you have a degree and a professional certification or two. A home laboratory can be quite beneficial. Successful ethical hackers use Youtube videos, internet groups and forums, and social media posts and exchanges to maintain their advantage over blackhat hackers.

How to get Experience as an Ethical Hacker

Ethical hackers benefit greatly from experience with vulnerability testing tools such as Metasploit, Netsparker, and OpenVAS. These tools, along with a slew of others, are designed to help you save time when looking for known flaws. These or similar tools may provide a valuable framework for vulnerability scanning and management, but for an experienced ethical hacker, they should only be used as a starting point. Simulated manual attacks must also be directed towards the target. It is critical to have knowledge and experience with how these attacks are carried out.

The path to finding work as an ethical hacker will almost invariably pass through many years as a member of a security team providing defensive security services.

Most of the time, being assigned to an exceptional offensive team is a result of rising through the ranks of the department. After working as a security expert, security administrator, or security software developer, a candidate will be qualified for a position on one of the security specialty teams or as a freelance consultant with extra experience and education.

Past IT security work isn’t the only source of useful experience. Physical penetration tests and social engineering are also useful abilities. Many attacks start with information obtained through a long-term social engineering strategy. Grasp social engineering methods and techniques can be quite beneficial in gaining a comprehensive understanding of the threat landscape.

Physical intrusions into a server room or data centre can also precede a digital attack. An ethical hacker can determine the types and tactics likely to be employed in an actual event if they know what physical assets are exposed.

As security professionals refuse to allow them to use their past methods and techniques, cybercriminals must become more inventive. Physical attacks, such as the use of drones to sniff out vulnerable networks, are becoming more common as a means of gathering information and launching cyberattacks. To give the most comprehensive threat analysis feasible, an ethical hacker must predict and simulate the use of traditional and non-traditional attack vectors.

Typical Assignments

Threat modelling, security assessments, vulnerability threat assessments (VTA), and report writing are common work tasks for ethical hackers. Although the tasks of this position will undoubtedly differ from one organisation to the next, these essentials will almost always be mentioned in the job description.

Threat Modelling

Threat modelling is a technique for improving network security by detecting vulnerabilities and then designing countermeasures to prevent or reduce the impact of an attack. A threat, in the context of threat modelling, is a possible or actual adverse event that can damage the enterprise’s assets, whether malevolent (such as a denial-of-service assault) or inadvertent (such as computer hardware failure). An ethical hacker can help with this process by offering a thorough perspective of the potential malicious assaults and their ramifications for the company.

The goal of good threat modelling is to determine where the greatest emphasis should be placed in order to maintain a system secure. As new conditions emerge and become known, apps are added, withdrawn, or upgraded, and user expectations evolve, this may alter. Threat modelling is an iterative process that begins with describing assets, then recognises what each application performs with these assets, creates a security profile for each application, identifies potential risks, prioritises potential threats, and documents adverse occurrences and the measures done in each situation.

The function of the ethical hacker is critical because it permits threat modelling to remain theoretical rather than post-mortem after a real-world attack.

Security Assessment

Providing a security evaluation is a common responsibility for an ethical hacker, whether a pentester or a red team leader. Simply described, an information security assessment is a risk-based evaluation of a system’s or company’s security posture. Security assessments are exercises that are conducted on a regular basis to examine an organization’s security readiness. They include vulnerability checks for IT systems and business processes, as well as advice on how to reduce the risk of future attacks.

Security evaluations can also be used to determine how well security policies are followed. They can indicate the need for more or upgraded security training and help to strengthen regulations aimed to prevent social engineering. The security assessment is a significant risk management technique since it culminates in a report that identifies problems and makes suggestions.

Vulnerability Threat Assessment

A vulnerability threat assessment is a method for identifying, quantifying, and ranking the vulnerabilities that affect a system, as well as the threats that potentially exploit them. The VTA is similar to a security assessment in that it identifies and correlates specific threats and vulnerabilities. The above-mentioned basic security assessment is used to detect vulnerabilities and analyse the enterprise’s security posture in the absence of any specific threat. The VTA is a threat-based evaluation.

Information technology systems, energy supply systems, water supply systems, transportation systems, and communication systems are all examples of systems for which vulnerability threat assessments should be undertaken. These assessments can be carried out on behalf of a variety of organisations, ranging from small firms to big regional or national infrastructure corporations. The VTA will be performed by someone in an ethical hacker capacity for each of these system types and/or organisations.

Report Writing

The ability to produce clear and concise professional reports is critical for carrying out the tasks of an ethical hacker. Data collection, vulnerability identification, and threat correlation are all useless if the necessary information cannot be communicated to risk management leaders. The red team’s reports are frequently the catalyst for large security resource investments. Professionals in risk management must have complete faith in the conclusions of ethical hackers in their firm. In some circumstances, an ethical hacker is a third-party consultant hired by a company to give the data needed to justify security spending to top management or the board of directors. The report is the major deliverable in the realm of security consulting, and it is crucial.

Do not overlook the value of business writing skills while evaluating professional certifications and educational possibilities to advance a career to include ethical hacking. The ability to write a well-written report will help an individual advance in their profession over a similarly qualified colleague.

Ethical Hacking in Review

Working on an in-house red team or as a freelance whitehat hacker are both intriguing jobs. When it comes to operations level positions, they’re in high demand because they can earn you recognition and status in the cybersecurity industry. Ethical hacker positions are required for effective network, system, and application security. This knowledge is essential across all industries to secure important or sensitive data in national infrastructure entities.

For many, the term ethical hacker is an oxymoron. It indicates two opposing notions. One is that of high ethical standards and the other that of “hacking” which is usually associated with nefarious activity.

Although an offensive security professional is a better definition, ethical hacker is frequently used to characterise this type of security expert since, let’s face it, ethical hacker sounds more mysterious.

Regardless of whether the term “hacker” appears in the job description, these positions are not for the ethically dubious, and especially not for someone with a history of bad behaviour. Ethical hackers must have access to sensitive information, which if leaked might be disastrous for the company. For government personnel and contractors, a security clearance is frequently necessary. A background investigation and an analysis of financial and social media data will be required to obtain a security clearance.

Ethical hackers, with the exception of the freelancing offensive cybersecurity expert, almost always work as part of a team. If you’re on a red team, the other members will be ethical hackers or pen-testers with similar skills, and the team will be part of the security department as a whole. The ethical hacker may be the sole individual with an offensive function in a smaller business, but he or she will almost always be part of a broader security team. To be successful, you must be able to work well with others and communicate well. An ethical hacker isn’t the conventional hoodie-wearing young teenager operating out of his parent’s basement who decides to switch to a white hat. She is usually a well-educated, experienced, competent, and articulate professional who is committed to making the world a safer place to live and work.

While there are examples of self-taught gritty individualists dragging themselves up by their digital bootstraps to the summit of cybersecurity operation throughout history, the standard for ethical hackers is a bachelor’s degree along with one or more specialised professional certificates. Successful ethical hackers typically have years of mettle-testing experience in software development and/or more traditional defensive security roles.

Jennifer Thomas
Jennifer Thomas is the Co-founder and Chief Business Development Officer at Cybers Guards. Prior to that, She was responsible for leading its Cyber Security Practice and Cyber Security Operations Center, which provided managed security services.