The term “hacker” goes back to MIT in the 60s. It was then used to describe an expert who uses their knowledge and skills to re-design mainframe systems in order to increase their performance and enable multitasking.
These days, most people use the term to refer to skilled programmers that exploit vulnerabilities in a computer system such as flaws or bugs to “hack” them, which means to obtain unauthorized access. A hacker can, for instance, create algorithms that they use to crack passwords, breach networks, or cause disruptions to in-network services.
Any person with advanced computer technology skills who can trick organizations, circumvent security systems and penetrate networks without authorization is referred to as a “hacker.” Some do it for illicit financial gains from fraud or theft, while others get a thrill from the challenge.
Regardless of their intentions or motivation, cybercrime and especially data breaches has a strong negative impact on a company’s reputation since it causes clients, business partners, and customers to lose their trust. It takes a lot of time and money to recover from a cyberattack and, in terms of trust and reputation, there’s no guarantee that the company will recover. That’s why ethical hacking is an essential service in the digital era.
Ethical hacking is also referred to as penetration testing or pen-testing. It’s a service that involves testing a company’s security systems by breaking into them, but legally. It’s one of the most interesting and exciting IT sectors to work in. You get the thrill and intellectual stimulation, and you get paid. The best part is there’s no threat of getting arrested.
Since this job requires knowledge of the methods used by malicious or “black hat” hackers, some of the people currently working as ethical hackers started off on the “dark side.” However, you can also learn these skills in a more formal classroom environment and earn a certification. If you do a quick Google search, you can find a spectrum of courses on ethical hacking and get a better understanding of what an ethical hacker does and what skills they need to have. Since search results are personalized according to your location and search history, you might want to try using a VPN.
You can think of an ethical hacker as a secret shopper that goes into stores undercover to find out what needs to be improved. Actually, some secret shoppers are also tasked with staging shoplifting incidents to see how effective security measures are. Ethical hackers learn the same skills cybercriminals use. The difference is that they use them for good since they help organizations identify their vulnerabilities and learn how to better protect their computer systems and data.
Typically the work that ethical hackers do has a much broader scope than that of penetration testers who focus on a few specific vulnerabilities. For example, they can use social engineering tactics like getting employees to reveal sensitive data on false pretenses.
How Does Ethical Hacking Work?
Ethical hackers adhere to four main protocols:
- Maintain legality by obtaining authorization to access a company’s computer system and assess security.
- Agree on the scope and boundaries of the assessment with the company.
- After conducting the assessment, provide the company with an accurate report of security vulnerabilities and provide recommendations for mitigating them.
- Because of the sensitive nature of the data ethical hackers get access to during these assessments, they often sign non-disclosure agreements and establish additional terms and conditions with their clients.
As we’ve explained, what an ethical hacker does is approach a company or an organization the same way a cybercriminal would. They replicate their methods but don’t actually carry out the attack. Afterward, they provide the company or organization with a report of their work. They’re legally required to disclose any vulnerabilities they found during the assessment in this report. Of course, it’s up to the organization to respond to the findings listed in this report by strengthening their security.
Prior to conducting the assessment, ethical hackers discuss the scope, conditions, and boundaries with their clients. They need to agree on what computers will be assessed and what platforms. They’ll also establish when the assessments will be carried out and if there are days or hours when it should be avoided as not to cause any service interruptions. In some cases seeing if you can cause service interruptions is an important part of the test.
Moreover, some companies prefer to have ethical hackers attempt to penetrate their computer systems without first notifying the cybersecurity team to test the existing detection and prevention protocols.
Some of the strategies used by ethical hackers to conduct their assessments include:
- Scanning the company’s systems to find open ports using tools like NMAP and Nessus.
- Checking security patches to ensure they’re not making the system more vulnerable to attacks.
- Attempting to circumvent firewalls, honeypots, IDS, and IPS.
- Attempting to crack wireless encryption and hijack web servers
- Employ social engineering tactics
What Skills Do Ethical Hackers Need?
Ethical hackers usually have a broad range of skills, and they specialize in a particular area. The skills required usually depend on the type of testing they conduct:
- Knowledge of scripting languages is required when testing for network and host-based attacks.
- Knowledge of programming is required for testing application security.
- Knowledge of networks is required for threats targeting networks. To test for them, the ethical hacker needs to have a thorough understanding of how the devices in a network are connected and how they can get compromised.
- Knowledge of databases is, as you would expect, required when assessing database management systems. Most cyberattacks are data breaches, so this skill is particularly important.
Ethical hackers also need to have a good understanding of the fundamentals of information security and know-how to work on multiple platforms like Unix, Linux, and Windows. Finally, they need to keep up with the latest technologies, schemes, and tools used by black hat hackers.
Since the frequency, severity, and cost of cyber-attacks continue to increase, ethical hackers are in high demand. In the U.S., they earn an average salary of $90,000 per year.
Whether they learned the skills we enumerated above on their own or in a formal setting, they usually get certified in order to get access to good-paying jobs.
The most popular ethical hacking certifications are:
- CEH or Certified Ethical Hacker offered by EC-Council
- SANS GPEN
- Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)
- Foundstone Ultimate Hacking