What Is Ethical Hacking?

Ethical hacking is an offensive-focused security investigation used to identify and exploit cybersecurity vulnerabilities within an IT environment.

Written by Anthony Corbo
Published on Dec. 16, 2021
What Is Ethical Hacking?
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David Moose Wolpoff | Aug 10, 2022

The purpose of ethical hacking is to report the current security status back to the company so vulnerabilities can be addressed. Ethical hackers, often known as white hat hackers or white hats, utilize a versatile set of up-to-date hacking techniques to access systems while following legal, contractual and ethical guidelines to ensure vulnerabilities can be exploited without real damage.

What can an ethical hacker do?

Ethical hackers are hired by companies to purposefully try to exploit vulnerabilities within their IT environment.

Ethical hackers are cybersecurity professionals and hobbyists with expertise in exploiting vulnerabilities in applications and systems. Typically, ethical hackers will fall into one of two categories: penetration testers and red teamers. Penetration testers attempt to identify as many vulnerabilities as possible within a defined time period.  These ethical hackers may also provide guidance to mitigate breaches and protect companies from catastrophic losses. Red teamers take things a step further and attempt to emulate real-world adversarial scenarios while avoiding detection. Beyond simply identifying vulnerabilities, red teamers look at data, human and other vulnerable assets to test incident responses, security awareness and security controls. By mimicking malicious “black hat” hackers, red teamers offer proof of potentially catastrophic vulnerabilities that businesses can patch more quickly. Ethical hacking is always performed with the consent of the targeted company.

Is ethical hacking safe?

When performed by experts that follow strict rules and standard guidelines, ethical hacking is considered safe.

Ethical hacking is used to determine vulnerabilities within an IT environment that could threaten the integrity of a business and the safety of its customers. Ethical hacking must occur within the parameters of business needs, however. Only approved exploitation methods should be used to target the company’s systems. Although white hats are often hired to check the overall security of a system, this is not always the case — meaning proper communication between white hat hackers and the company must be taken to ensure ethical hacking doesn’t compromise a system to black hat hackers.

Additionally, security-cleared consultants with expertise in ethical hacking should be hired to ensure all safeguards are effective and white hats abide by current legislation in place. Finally, it is the responsibility of ethical hackers to document findings and report any vulnerabilities while also ensuring any methods utilized to access systems are no longer present after discontinuing access.

How hard is it to learn ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking requires advanced knowledge of up-to-date exploitation techniques and common black hat intentions.

Ethical hacking is a highly in-demand skill that allows skilled hackers to use their abilities to protect organizations from harmful practices committed by cybercriminals. White hat hackers must possess expertise in network hacking skills like network and communication basics, along with understanding how pre- and post-connection attacks occur. Additionally, learning how to gain access on both the server-side and the client side is necessary as well as understanding how black hat hackers will use post-exploitation techniques such as accessing file systems, maintaining access and spying on targets to gain increased access. Finally, having an in-depth knowledge of website functionality, how to gather information on websites, and web application hacking techniques will be highly beneficial for proper ethical hacking.

Learning how to become a white hat hacker requires internalizing several key pieces of knowledge as well as gaining experience on test systems. To learn the fundamentals of ethical hacking, as well as gain advanced knowledge of ethical training principles, Udemy and Udacity offer multiple training options created by experts in the cybersecurity field.

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