When the term "hacker" was created, it described the engineers who developed code for mainframe computers. Now, it means a skilled programmer who attempts to gain unauthorized access to computer systems and networks by taking advantage of vulnerabilities in the system. Hackers write scripts to penetrate systems, crack passwords, and steal data.
Even though hacking has become a term that most often describes malicious and unethical activities, it doesn't have to be. A hacker can still use these skills for good.
Ahead, we'll take a look at ethical hacking and show you how you can start your journey to becoming an Ethical Hacker. And if you want more details, check out our free Introduction to Ethical Hacking course. You'll learn more about the differences between ethical and unethical hacking, the tools and strategies Ethical Hackers use to find and address security vulnerabilities, and how to decide if the field is right for you.
What do Ethical Hackers do?
Ethical hacking is also known as white hat hacking or penetration testing. It can be an exciting career because Ethical Hackers spend their workday learning how computer systems work, discovering their vulnerabilities, and breaking into them with no fear of being arrested.
Unlike malicious hackers, who are typically motivated by financial gain, Ethical Hackers aim to help companies (and society as a whole) keep their data safe. Companies hire Ethical Hackers to find the vulnerabilities in their systems and update the flawed software so no one else can use the same technique to break in again.
As an Ethical Hacker, you'll either be able to break into a system and then fix it or try to break into a system and not be able to. Either result is a win for the Ethical Hacker and the company because the company's network is secure in the end.
Vulnerabilities are flaws or bugs in software that can be taken advantage of to gain unauthorized access to a network or computer system. Common vulnerabilities include:
- Outdated software
- Misconfigured systems
- A lack of data encryption
Some vulnerabilities are easy to test for because the bugs have already been documented. In these cases, all the Penetration Tester has to do is scan the system to see if the bug exists on the system and update the software with a patch to remove the flaw.
Other vulnerabilities may still be unknown, and the Penetration Tester will use scripts and other tools to push the system to the limit and see if any bugs shake loose.
Demonstrate methods used by hackers
Ethical Hackers can also take on the role of a teacher. Many companies know little about cybersecurity threats and how their actions can either prevent a threat or help the hacker steal data.
Ethical Hackers hold classes on cybersecurity and warn team members of new threats as they're discovered. Education is especially effective against phishing and other social engineering-type cyber attacks that require the target of the attack to take action to make it possible.
When people are aware of a potential threat, there's a greater chance it can be stopped before it infects a system.
Help prevent cyber attacks
Ethical Hackers also work with other security team members to create a more secure infrastructure.
Ethical Hackers know what kind of threats are out there and can help the team choose the tools and security policies that can prevent threats they may not even know about yet. They can also help set up systems for backup and recovery, which can be used in a worst-case scenario.
What are the key principles of ethical hacking?
The line between black hat (or malicious) hacking and white hat (or ethical) hacking can seem blurry. After all, there's also gray hat hacking, which sits between the two.
As an Ethical Hacker, here are some principles you should follow:
- Obey the law: Hacking is only ethical if you have permission to perform a security assessment of the system you're hacking.
- Know the scope of the project: Stay within the boundaries of the agreement you have with the company. Know exactly what you're supposed to test and only test those systems.
- Report all vulnerabilities: Report any vulnerabilities you find and suggest ways to fix them.
- Respect any sensitive data: A Penetration Tester will often test systems that hold sensitive data and will have to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
What kind of jobs can an Ethical Hacker get?
Companies of all sizes and industries are concerned about their network security. As long as security breaches still happen and companies still have sensitive data, Ethical Hackers will be in demand, so the job market looks good for them well into the future.
Some larger enterprises have Ethical Hackers on staff who run security tests and penetration tests all day long. In other companies, ethical hacking may only be part of the job while you spend most of your time configuring networks and setting up new systems.
An Ethical Hacker can have many titles. Here are a few of them:
- Penetration Tester
- Security Analyst
- Ethical Hacker
- Certified Ethical Hacker
- Security Consultant
- Security Engineer
- Security Architect
- Information Security Analyst
- Information Security Manager
How to become an Ethical Hacker
Most Ethical Hackers, Penetration Testers, and white hat hackers get into ethical hacking because they're curious about how the internet and information security works. One thing an ethical hacker needs to know is cybersecurity.
Our Introduction to Cybersecurity course will teach you how to identify and protect yourself against common cybersecurity threats. Once you know what type of threats there are, you can use similar techniques to test the security of computer systems and networks. For ethical hacking, you'll also want to be familiar with networks (wired and wireless) and operating systems (especially Windows and Linux.)
Once you’ve got the basics of cybersecurity down, check out our free Introduction to Ethical Hacking course to learn more about the tools and techniques you’ll use on the job. Then, look for opportunities to start building your experience.
Since an Ethical Hacker also deals with software vulnerabilities and may need to write scripts to help with the job, you'll also need to learn a few programming languages. Our Learn Python 3 course will teach you a great language for writing penetration scripts and other tools to help you hack.
Other courses you might consider are Learn the Command Line and Learn Bash Scripting since many ethical hacking tools are run from the command line. Familiarity with vulnerability testing tools like Metasploit and OpenVAS is a plus. There are also certifications for ethical hacking, like CEH and OSCP.
But the most important requirement is still curiosity, so stay curious and good luck with your ethical hacking!