what is ethical hacking

What is ethical hacking & why ethical hackers are crucial to organizations?


Ethical Hacker also knew as white hat hacker is a security professional. An Ethical Hacker primarily is responsible to detect vulnerabilities and weaknesses in systems. The skills functional to any malicious hacker are the same that are deployed by ethical hackers. The ethical hacker, however, makes these breeches for security purposes that is to locate exploit vulnerabilities and fix them before they are identified and targeted by black hat hackers.

The legality of the breach is what distinguishes ethical hackers from their counterparts. Their role and function resonate with that of the penetration testers, however, it is a rather broad and large scale in case of the ethical hacker.

Considering the number of illegitimate security breaches that occur and the damage that those breaches cost, it is only wise that enterprises hire ethical hackers to undertake preventive measures as soon as any vulnerability is identified in the system.

It is important for ethical hackers to be able to Gain the trust of the company’s customers and investors for the security of their product or data. This sense of trust is a sanction for the breach that they would carry out.

What incorporates ethical Hacking?

Ethical Hackers need to define the scope of a test and the methodology that would be deployed for performing it. This assessment requires a sense of potential vulnerabilities. It is done by footprinting tools. This gives them a direction to proceed.

The hacking in itself may incorporate website hacking, email hacking, password hacking, computer hacking or network hacking. Each form of hacking gives the hacker an understanding of the vulnerabilities of the systems in the organization and knowledge about the loopholes of their security policy.

Ethical Hackers undertake a significant share of responsibilities apart from the testing duties. They may deploy any of the given approaches to penetrate the system in order to counter or rather prevent a potential breach.

  1. Scanning ports and seeking vulnerabilities: Port scanning tools are used by ethical hackers in order to locate open ports within their own systems. It allows the study of individual ports and figures out preventive measures accordingly.
  2. Examine patch installation and ensure their prevention from any exploitation.
  3. Social engineering concepts like dumpster diving are the kind of activity in which ethical hackers engage in order to secure away with confidential information. They may also indulge in tricking employees for passwords and access information.
  4. Ethical Hackers usually escape Intrusion Detection Systems or Intrusion Prevention Systems.
  5. They manage situations of forgery and theft of system information, hardware, etc.
  6. They necessarily hijack web servers, bypass wireless encryption, crack web applications and sniff networks.

The penetration allows the ethical hacker to determine the efficiency of the response team of the organization and the inherent weaknesses in the security policy of the firm. Doing so allows the security professional to strategize their preventive and remedial measures accordingly.

The security professionals like a forensic analyst, intrusion analyst and those wishing to enter the field the CEH Certification is an ideal start. The qualification elaborates on the nuances of security, backdoors, trojans, countermeasures, honeypots, wireless hacking, and other relevant areas. The CEH V9 or CEH V10 is necessary for ethical hacking jobs. The job demand for ethical hackers have been considerably high for long therefore professional white hat hackers can easily expect to make $120,000 annually. The figures could higher if the Ethical Hacker runs her own consultancy or penetration testing firm.

Types of Ethical Hackers

  1. Hactivists: Hactivists are ethical hackers who break into systems for a political or social stand. It is a form of protest wherein the hacker disrupts the system by causing irregularities on the main page of the website or to the traffic of the website.
  2. Cyber warrior: Cyberwarfare is undertaken for political motives by governments wherein disruption is caused by nation states in the systems of another country. Hackers infiltrate into another system as cyberwarriors. The legal sanction from one country to cause a disruption into the systems of another country makes the breach a part of ethical hacking.
  3. Black box penetration tester: The black box penetration tester is a hacker hired by a particular organization to try to make a malicious breach into their system without any former knowledge about their system. The tester has to identify vulnerabilities and inform the company about the shortcomings of their system.
  4. White box penetration Tester: Just like the black box penetration tester the white box penetration tester is an individual infiltrating into the system of a particular organization that hired her to do so. However, the distinction lies in the fact that the white box penetration tester, unlike the black box penetration tester, is given complete knowledge about the systems of the organization. It is an insider breach rather than a third party trespass.
  5. Licensed Penetration Tester:The professional works as a penetration tester I, e she infiltrates into systems of an organization in order to locate vulnerabilities and inform the organization of the same. The penetration tester could be a black box penetration tester or a white box penetration tester. She does the job of both either way.
  6. Elite Hackers: A term often used amongst hackers to address the most skilled amongst them. The Elite Hacker receives knowledge of a new exploit before anyone else. However, a black hat hacker or a white hat hacker could be and elite hacker.

Phases of Ethical Hacking

Ethical Hacking primarily comprises six steps to it. These are not necessarily to be followed as directed but can be understood as an approach to the process.

1. Reconnaissance

This is the primary step wherein the hacker collects all relevant information about the organization’s systems and their security structure. It incorporates the detection of the packet- hops, IP configuration, operating systems, etc. to break into the systems. This process involves the use of tools like Hping, Google Dorks, Nmap, etc.

Reconnaissance can have more dimensions to it.

The process of gathering information has a lot to do with the kind of information that is targeted by the hacker. It can be understood in two of the ways

2. Active Reconnaissance

Active Reconnaissance is when the hacker indulges in direct or active interaction with the system for gathering information. The information obtained can be accurate and relevant however, the approach in itself is rather risky because the hacker can get caught in the process. If the action is detected for being unauthorized the system admin can act against the hacker accordingly.

3. Passive Reconnaissance

Passive Reconnaissance, unlike its counterpart, is an indirect approach wherein the hacker makes her findings without any interaction with the system. There is no engagement with the target system thereby being a secure approach.

4. Footprinting

Footprinting is one of the most common and primary approaches undertaken by an ethical hacker to intrude into a system. It allows determining which system to target and the appropriate attack for the particular system.

Footprinting again comes under the reconnaissance process. It can be active or passive depending upon the hacker. Usually passive footprinting occurs for reviewing a company’s systems. While active footprinting is one wherein the hacker deliberately attempts to gain confidential information form the systems. The information that can be gathered in this process would include email address, IP address, Domain Name, Employee information, Phone Numbers and Namespaces.

5. Fingerprinting

Fingerprinting is a term that implies the approach used to find the operating system of the target computer. Again, alike Footprinting, it can also be either active or passive. For either of the approaches there are certain inherent challenges that occur with footprinting and fingerprinting.

Active Fingerprinting involves the delivery of especially developed packets to the target system and recording its response for information pertinent to its operating system. While Passive Fingerprinting depends largely on sniffer traces gathered from other systems. The sniffer traces such as the wireshark can assist in identifying the operating system of the target system. It is necessary to determine the operating system before an attack is conducted because it makes the job easier. Fingerprinting involves detailed analysis of the packets to determine the operating system.

6. Scanning

This is the point that involves the breach. The hacker uses tools like Nexpose, NMAP, Nessus, etc. for the purpose of identifying exploit vulnerabilities and target them.

7. Gaining Access

The hacker exploits the vulnerabilities that she identified in the scanning process. The purpose is to gain access without getting attention in the process. Metasploit is a tool that becomes functional in this process.

8. Maintaining Access

A rather crucial step in the process of hacking. Now that the hacker has access to the system, the hacker attempts to deploy backdoors and payload in the systems. Payload refers to the activity undertaken once the illegitimate access is attained while backdoor refers to the possible approach for the hacker to gain quicker access to the system in the future.

9. Clearing Tracks

The disruptions caused after the unauthorized access is attained can be identified. Therefore the hacker deletes all possible logs of the activities that were undertaken in the unauthorized access. White hat hackers perform this step in any case because they mirror the approach of black hat hackers.

10. Reporting

This is the point wherein the ethical hacker records her findings from the hacking. It includes the vulnerabilities detected, steps followed, tools that were deployed, success rate and potential damage. All this information is reported by and ethical hacker.

Importance of Ethical Hacking

Considering the frequency of cyber attacks on enterprises and the inherent damage that it causes, it is important for enterprises to hire Ethical Hackers. Ethical Hackers help the organization by providing it with an objective and detailed analysis of its security expertise. Such a job not only helps the organization maintain its users privacy and confidence, it also helps them to secure their systems from potential threats. With the advancement in technologies with cloud computing, virtualization, IT outsourcing etc. the requirement has reached its height.

The greatest issue that emerges for businesses is that the various forms of threats, exploits, vulnerabilities are always evolving and there is no permanent remedy for it. However, professional hackers recognize the evolving tactics for security breach and their input in this sense solves the number of security threats exclusive to an organization.

A recent white paper that was published entitled “The Importance of Ethical Hacking: Emerging Threats Emphasise the Need for Holistic Assessments” by Frost & Sullivan highlighted the importance and immediate need for independent ethical hacking assessments, technical concerns, solutions, security architecture and the role of ethical hacking in these spheres.

Why ethical hackers are crucial to organizations

The importance of ethical Hackers particularly with regard to organizations has to do with the two emerging aspects. First, the increasing number of cyber attacks on enterprises whether small scale or large scale. The attacks have affected financial loss, data breach and privacy violation affecting consumers largely. Precautionary measures need to be approached considering the tendencies of hackers. This makes the job of the ethical hacker further important.

Second, the increasing transition to cloud has increased the threat upon organizations with virtualization and  IT outsourcing becoming major trends. Due to the complexities of cloud technology and its evolving ability the security requirements are as complex. Therefore ethical hackers are needed for tackling this specific requirement of organizations.

Difference between ethical hacking and penetration testing

Considering the similarity in their functions ethical hacking and penetration testing are often assumed to be synonymous to each other. However, there is fine difference that differentiates the two.

Penetration testing comprises the particular activity of locating vulnerabilities, risks and loopholes within the system. While ethical hacking comprises of all possible activities that can locate potential threats to the security of the organization. It can be threat to the systems, hardware, database or issues with the security policies.

Penetration testing is one of the many activities that are a part of ethical hacking. While penetration testing focuses on the possible manner in which an attack can occur, ethical hacking looks into the ways in which the threat can be remedied.

Ethical Hacking as a career

Ethical hacking can be an extremely demanding and challenging job for any professional. To enter the field alone one needs a grasp on security concepts, knowledge of networking, database, operating system. It takes years of experience with the technical know how before one can expect to be hired by a major enterprise. While certifications are quite of value, it alone can’t fulfil the job requirements. The ethical hacker needs a practical approach, problem solving abilities and understand the legal aspect of the job. Due to the high demand for ethical hackers, those who land the job, earn lavish amounts.

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