What is Ethical Hacking?
Malicious hackers use an array of tools and methodologies to breach cybersecurity, such as social engineering techniques or exploiting vulnerabilities in networks, configurations, and software with cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection (SQLI), and other types of attacks. Adding hurdles in their way are ethical hackers, also known as white hat hackers. Such professionals use their own sets of tools and assessment techniques to identify security vulnerabilities before malicious hackers can take advantage of them.
Read this in-depth guide for more on:
What is ethical hacking?
Is ethical hacking legal?
White hat hacker vs black hat hacker vs gray hat hacker
How to get into ethical hacking
Here is an ethical hacking definition in simple terms: ethical hacking is a legal and sanctioned attempt to circumvent the cybersecurity of a system or application, typically to find vulnerabilities. Many ethical hackers try to operate from the mindset of a malicious hacker, using the same software and tactics.
An example of ethical hacking is when a person is authorized by an organization to try and hack their web application. Another example is when a white hat hacker is hired by an organization to test its staff with simulated social engineering attacks like phishing emails.
- Tools and methodologies: The lessons learned from ethical hacking help with the creation of effective testing tools and methodologies. Such tools and methodologies further improve an organization’s cybersecurity posture.
- Vulnerability identification: White hat hackers can find critical security flaws in systems, applications, and websites. Patching vulnerabilities before a malicious hacker can exploit them can enhance different types of security, including Internet security. Vulnerability identification is also an important component of vulnerability management.
- Incident Response: Ethical hackers can run attack simulations using the same methods and tools as malicious hackers to help security teams prepare for cyber threats. With the aid of cyber attack exercises, security teams can improve their incident response plan and reduce their incident response time.
- Anti-phishing: Many modern ethical hacking teams offer anti-phishing training services. Here, they use emails, text messages, phone calls, and baiting to test the readiness of organizations against threats that utilize phishing. Read about this hacking prank for an example of a clever social engineering attack.
- Secure development: Some software developers hire ethical hackers to test their products during the development cycle. By ironing out vulnerabilities, developers can stop hackers from taking advantage of zero-day bugs.
- Data security: Modern organizations manage different types of sensitive data. Malicious hackers can access this data by using social engineering attacks or exploiting software vulnerabilities. Ethical hackers can improve data security by running penetration testing and simulating phishing attacks.
- National security: National organizations such as security agencies and public sector organizations face sophisticated threats from state-sponsored entities. They can mitigate the risk of terror threats and cyber attacks by using the lessons learned from ethical hacking to improve their cybersecurity.
- Financial rewards: Some ethical hackers rely on contracts and programs to generate income. They can find full-time or part-time employment with companies that develop software or need to reduce security vulnerabilities. They can also earn rewards by finding security vulnerabilities in bug bounty programs.
- Financial losses: Companies can suffer significant financial losses due to the exploitation of software vulnerabilities by hackers. Ethical hackers can reduce the risk of long-term losses by improving security.
- Regulatory compliance: Organizations must comply with regulations concerning privacy and security. They can comply with such regulations more easily by hiring white hat hackers to find bugs that can be exploited by attackers.
- Reputational Damage: A cybersecurity attack can dent a company’s reputation if it results in the loss of sensitive information. Running attack simulations and patching exploitable bugs with the assistance of ethical hacking can prevent incidents that damage an organization’s standing with its clients and partners.
Who is an ethical hacker?
An ethical hacker is any person who attempts to circumvent the security of an organization, website, application, or network with legal consent. The goal of an ethical hacker is to locate weaknesses and vulnerabilities legally to help organizations mitigate the risk of exploits, breaches, social engineering campaigns and other kinds of cyberattacks. Professional ethical hackers work closely with security teams and offer detailed reports and proposals.
Although the term “hacking” is usually associated with negative connotations, there are several different types of hackers, including white hat, back hat and gray hat hackers. Although all hackers attempt to find vulnerabilities, their motivations can vary.
As mentioned, white hat hackers are also known as ethical hackers. They have consent from owners of systems to find security flaws through hacking, penetration testing, and anti-phishing simulation. White hat hackers can also use the same methods as malicious hackers to simulate attacks.
Black hat hackers are also known as malicious hackers. They break into systems and networks illegally. Black hat hackers engage in hacking to steal sensitive information like passwords, addresses, and credit card information, damage systems, or for spying.
While gray hat hackers don’t have malicious intentions, they operate outside the law. For example, they may break into a system without the consent of the system owner. Grey hat hackers may look for vulnerabilities to highlight them. Some gray hat hackers breach systems to show off, however, they don’t steal data, nor do they cause any harm.
How does ethical hacking work: The 5 phases of ethical hacking
Ethical hackers usually start by defining the scope of their tasks in the first phase of ethical hacking. The planning phase depends on the project, tools, methodologies, and objectives outlined by the organization and security partners. The ethical hacker may also utilize search engines and other tools to gather information about the target.
After gathering information and planning the approach, an ethical hacker usually scans the target for vulnerabilities. The goal is to find entry points and flaws that can be exploited most easily. Ethical hackers may use scanning tools like port scanners, dialers, network scanners, web app scanners, etc.
With the vulnerability assessment complete, the ethical hacker begins to take advantage of the security flaws. Ethical hackers can use different tools and methods, including technology utilized by malicious hackers. However, they avoid tools and areas outside of the scope defined by their client.
After breaching the target’s security, an ethical hacker thinks like a malicious hacker by trying to maintain access for as long as possible and evading security measures. They also gain an understanding of the potential damage they can cause, such as data theft, privilege escalation, malware drops, lateral movements, opening backdoors and more.
After exploitation, the ethical hacker offers a detailed report of their actions. The report includes details of the breach, identified security flaws, and suggestions for remediation. Their client may follow recommendations from the report to apply patches, reconfigure or even reinstall systems, change access controls, or invest in new security tools. The ethical hacker may simulate a second attack to check the effectiveness of the remedial measures.
Many experts classify penetration testing as a subset of ethical hacking. While ethical hacking is a general term for finding cybersecurity vulnerabilities in a system with the consent of its owner, penetration is a specific technique that utilizes a systemic approach involving targeting, analysis, exploitation, and remediation.
Organizations hire penetration testers to improve their cybersecurity posture. Penetration testers are authorized to simulate attacks on a computer system and may use the same tools and methodologies as black hat hackers to demonstrate the flaws in a system. Some penetration testers are given instructions ahead of the attack while others are given no information and are required to gather intelligence on their own. In covert penetration tests, the cybersecurity team of an organization is kept completely in the dark about the simulated attack to make the test more authentic.
The first responsibility of an ethical hacker is to have authorization for hacking. In other words, they must have consent from their target before hacking their systems. It’s also a good idea to have the scope of the test defined and written beforehand to prevent any legal problems.
After beginning the task, they must avoid any activity that may harm their client or is out of the agreed-upon boundaries of the ethical hacking project. Ethical hackers should also remain professional and respect the privacy of everyone involved. Some ethical hackers must sign non-disclosure agreements for the protection of their clients.
As mentioned, penetration testing is a type of ethical hacking. White hat hackers use penetration testing to find and exploit vulnerabilities in a computer system. The goal is to test the defences of a system, offer recommendations, and show how easily a threat actor can initiate an effective cyberattack.
Authentication is the process of verifying the identity of the user of a system. Threat actors try to breach the authentication process to gain unauthorized access to confidential data or complete other malicious tasks. Ethical hackers can help test the strength of an authentication system by testing passwords, lockout mechanisms, and the account recovery process by simulating brute force attacks, multi-factor fatigue attacks, and more.
Ethical hackers can simulate attacks like spearing-phishing, smishing, vishing, pretexting, and baiting, to test an organization's readiness against social engineering attacks. An ethical hacker may also deploy scareware, which is malicious software that uses fictitious threats and false alarms to test how people react.
Ethical hackers must use their skill set, training, techniques and tools to identify all weaknesses within the parameters of the simulated attack. Finding vulnerabilities is usually an ethical hacker’s primary task, and they must be thorough. The vulnerabilities can include zero-day flaws, misconfigurations, or other weaknesses.
Ethical hackers should remediate security loopholes to prevent malicious hackers from utilizing them. They should remove any traces of their activities, including malicious software. Folders, applications, and files should be restored to their original status.
In addition to knowing common programming languages, ethical hackers should know about hardware, reverse engineering, and networking. They should also complete the right certifications and stay up to date in their field about threats and security vulnerabilities. They can tackle the latest security threats and utilize the newest remediation measures by upgrading their training and staying in touch with cybersecurity groups.
A professional ethical hacker must offer a thorough report of their actions to their client. The report must include an account of discovered vulnerabilities and suggestions for improvement.
A conventional hacker tries to gain unauthorized access to a system for personal gain or notoriety. In the process, they may damage their target, use malware like ransomware, or steal confidential information. However, an ethical hacker mimics the actions of a traditional malicious hacker with the authorization of their client. Instead of personal gain, ethical hackers use their knowledge and skills to harden the cybersecurity of an organization.
Ethical hacking examples: Types of ethical hacking
- System hacking involves the assessment of computer systems such as workstations.
- Network hacking tests technology like routers, switches, VPNs, and firewalls.
- Web server hacking assesses the security of web applications by simulating attacks like SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS).
- Wireless network hacking checks the strength of WiFi network security by testing passwords, encryption protocols, and access points.
- App hacking is the testing of applications on endpoints like smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
- Social engineering tests human resources by using psychology to breach cybersecurity.
- Flawed authentication measures can be a dangerous attack vector.
- Misconfigured security protocols can often be manipulated by malicious hackers to breach cybersecurity.
- Injection attacks allow threat actors to inject malicious code into data snippets and attack vulnerable web apps.
- Information exposure in an organization due to inadequate data security can result in a costly data breach.
- Using software or hardware with known vulnerabilities can be a recipe for disaster.
Ethical hackers use a number of penetration testers, network scanners, and other security testing tools to find security vulnerabilities.
Nmap, short for network mapper, is one of the most popular network scanning and mapping tools for security auditing. Ethical hackers can use their baked-in library to scan for open ports and find vulnerabilities in target systems. Nmap also works on some rooted and unrooted phones.
Wireshark is one of the most popular packet sniffers in the world. It grabs entire streams of traffic while listening to a network connection in real-time. Ethical hackers can analyze network traffic with this network protocol analyzer to find vulnerabilities and other issues.
Burp Suite is a comprehensive web security testing platform. Ethical hackers can use it to scan, intercept and modify traffic, and scan for flaws in web applications. It includes a proxy server, repeater, and intruder mode. Burp Suite also has useful tools such as Spider, Intruder, and Repeater.
As cybersecurity threats grow more frequent and complex, expect the ethical hacking industry to expand further. More organizations are using ethical services to remediate vulnerabilities and protect themselves and their clients. Ethical hackers may use more complex tools and methodologies in the future that utilize artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) for more effective attack simulations.
An ethical hacker informs the organization about the vulnerabilities discovered and offers guidance on how to address them. They may also conduct a follow-up assessment, with the organization's permission, to verify that the vulnerabilities have been completely resolved.
Penetration testing is one of the most popular ethical hacking example - which involves replicating black hat hacker tactics to test the system for vulnerabilities.
Ethical hacking is legal because ethical hackers have authorized access to test an organization's for soft spots in order to improve cyber security.