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Ethical hacking refers to the process of identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities in computer systems, networks, and applications, with the intention of improving their security. Unlike malicious hacking, ethical hacking is carried out with the permission of the system owner, and the goal is to help prevent unauthorized access, data theft, or other cyberattacks.
Ethical hacking is important because it helps organizations identify and address vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by cybercriminals. Ethical hackers can provide valuable insights into a system's security posture and recommend improvements to mitigate the risk of a successful attack.
As technology continues to play an increasingly important role in our lives, ethical hacking is becoming an essential part of any organization's cybersecurity strategy.
Hacking refers to the process of gaining unauthorized access to a computer system or network. It can take various forms, including exploiting software vulnerabilities, stealing passwords, or using social engineering tactics to trick people into divulging sensitive information.
Hacking is typically categorized into three types:
White hat hacking: These hackers are more or less synonymous with ethical hackers. Their attempts to break through security barriers are intended to help an individual or organization identify points of vulnerability in their systems. They respect privacy and security laws and only execute their activities when requested to do so. In addition, they disclose their findings in an attempt to help increase security.
Black hat hacking: As the name would suggest, black hat hackers are the antithesis of white hat hackers. Rather than help organizations discover and mitigate security loopholes, they seek to breach systems for personal gain. They execute their activities illegally and either leave systems in disarray or hold data and other assets for ransom.
Gray hat hacking: This type of hacker is a bit more difficult to clearly define. Gray hat hackers fall somewhere between white hat and black hat hackers. They consider themselves to be “good,” but tend to be less strict in their observance of the law. For example, while they might not attempt to damage or crash a system like a black hat hacker, they also might not request permission to access it in the first place — but their intentions might be as good as an ethical hacker’s.
The key difference between these types of hacking is the intent behind the activity, with black hat hacking being illegal and unethical, white hat hacking being legal and ethical, and grey hat hacking being a legal grey area.
What is ethical hacking?
Ethical hacking, also known as "white hat" hacking, is a legal and ethical approach to identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities in computer systems, networks, and applications.
The purpose of ethical hacking is to simulate real-world attacks in a controlled environment, with the goal of helping organizations to identify and address vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by malicious actors.
Ethical hacking is an essential component of any comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, as it provides organizations with an accurate assessment of their security posture and helps them to make informed decisions about how to allocate resources to improve their defenses.
Ethical hacking is still a growing area of cybersecurity and many organizations find it to be a foreign approach. That said, the industry is growing 21% per year. The value is becoming more clear, especially as black hat and gray hat hackers leverage more sophisticated tools like artificial intelligence to carry out their attacks.
Global Tech Council identifies 12 benefits of ethical hacking. Here are a few of the most important ethical hacking benefits discussed:
Discover loopholes, inconsistencies, and vulnerabilities across your data stack
Scan public data to discover sensitive information hackers could use to breach your system
Identify open ports that should be closed
Uncover entry points in firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and honeypots
Conduct covert social engineering activities and test employee readiness
Ethical hacking typically involves a series of steps, starting with reconnaissance and information gathering, followed by vulnerability scanning and penetration testing.
In the reconnaissance phase, ethical hackers gather as much information as possible about the target system, including IP addresses, network topology, and potential attack vectors.
In the vulnerability scanning phase, ethical hackers use specialized tools to identify vulnerabilities in the system, such as software bugs, misconfigurations, or weak passwords.
Once vulnerabilities are identified, ethical hackers use penetration testing techniques to attempt to exploit them, simulating a real-world attack scenario to assess the system's defenses.
Common tools and techniques used in ethical hacking include network scanners, vulnerability scanners, password-cracking tools, and social engineering tactics.
The role of a penetration tester is to carry out ethical hacking activities on behalf of an organization, with the goal of identifying and reporting vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cybercriminals.
Penetration testers must have a deep understanding of the latest hacking techniques, as well as knowledge of cybersecurity best practices, to ensure that they are operating ethically and safely.
Organizations will often have Vulnerability disclosure programs or bug bounty programs running alongside other ethical hacking methods to encourage researchers and ethical hackers to share their findings with the affected organization for a reward.
There are several common ethical hacking techniques used by penetration testers and other security professionals. One such technique is social engineering, which involves manipulating human behavior to gain unauthorized access to systems or data. This can include tactics such as phishing emails, pretexting, or baiting.
Other techniques include password cracking, which involves using specialized tools to guess or crack passwords in order to gain access to systems, network and application testing, SQL injection attacks, and denial of service attacks.
While these techniques can be effective for identifying vulnerabilities, they also pose risks to the target systems and data. For example, a denial of service attack could cause a system to crash or become unavailable, disrupting business operations.
To mitigate these risks, ethical hackers must operate within a controlled environment, with clear rules of engagement and procedures for handling sensitive data.
They must also obtain explicit permission from the target organization and work closely with security teams to ensure that vulnerabilities are identified and remediated in a timely manner.
There are several ethical hacking standards and certifications available for professionals who want to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in the field.
One of the most well-known certifications is the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) offered by the International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council). This certification covers a broad range of ethical hacking topics and techniques, including reconnaissance, scanning and enumeration, system hacking, and web application attacks.
Other certifications include the Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) and the CompTIA PenTest+. These certifications are highly respected in the industry and can help professionals demonstrate their expertise to potential employers or clients.
The benefits of obtaining an ethical hacking certification include increased credibility, improved job prospects, and the ability to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and techniques in the field.
By obtaining a certification, professionals can also demonstrate their commitment to ethical hacking standards and best practices, helping to promote a culture of responsible and effective cybersecurity.
Ethical hacking resources refer to various tools, techniques, and knowledge sources used by ethical hackers or penetration testers to identify and address security vulnerabilities in a system or network.
These resources may include:
Penetration testing frameworks: These are comprehensive frameworks that provide guidance and methodology for conducting penetration testing, such as Penetration Testing Execution Standard (PTES), NIST SP 800-115, and Open Source Security Testing Methodology Manual (OSSTMM).
Exploitation frameworks: These toolkits provide a collection of exploits for different systems and applications, such as Metasploit Framework, Cobalt Strike, and Canvas.
Network mapping and reconnaissance tools: These are tools that help ethical hackers to discover and map a network and its devices, such as Nmap, Netcat, and Wireshark.
Password cracking tools: These are tools used to crack passwords or test password strength, such as John the Ripper, Hashcat, and Hydra.
Web application testing tools: These are tools that help to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in web applications, such as Burp Suite, OWASP ZAP, and Nikto.
Social engineering toolkits: These are toolkits that simulate social engineering attacks, such as phishing or spear phishing. The Social Engineering Toolkit (SET) is one popular example.
Learning resources: These include books, online courses, tutorials, and forums that help ethical hackers to learn new skills and keep up with the latest developments in the field.
Ethical hacking resources from Snyk:
Snyk offers a wide variety of resources that can help with ethical hacking:
Snyk Learn - in-depth interactive cybersecurity lessons
Snyk Training - learn how to use Snyk for ethical hacking and securing your applications.
In today's rapidly evolving technological landscape, the need for ethical hacking has never been greater. As cyber threats become more sophisticated and pervasive, organizations must take a proactive approach to cybersecurity, and ethical hacking is an essential component of any effective security strategy.
Whether you are a developer or simply interested in cybersecurity, learning more about ethical hacking and the related certifications can help you develop the knowledge and skills to secure computer systems and networks against evolving threats.
Next in the series
Ethical Hacking: Skills & Training
Both technical and non-technical skills are required for ethical hacking, find out what you need to learn, and where to learn it!Keep reading