Also known as a “white hat” hacker, an ethical hacker is a security expert who is called in to uncover security vulnerabilities which threat actors could exploit. They are responsible for evaluating the security of systems, networks or system infrastructures and identify vulnerabilities and attempt to exploit problems that could cause unauthorized access to be gained.

Skills required by ethical hackers

In order to get “true” results, it is important that whoever is carrying out the ethical hacking on systems and networks has a range of skills that will correctly identify security risks and show potential hacking threats. Infosec professionals are often employed as professional hackers as they will have skills that mirror that of hackers. These include:

  • Wide range of computer skills
  • Expertise in scripting language
  • Proficiency in operating systems
  • Knowledge of networks and networking
  • Foundation and principle knowledge of infosec

How does ethical hacking work?

Ethical hacking needs someone who has expertise in infosec to recognize vulnerabilities effectively. During the process, potential threats such as social engineering, DoS and DDoS are investigated, security scanning carried out and reports provided on improvements to be made to avoid these incidents. Threat intelligence is a vital part of ethical hacking, allowing the organisation to remediate through stronger policies, training, procedures and technology.

The two-goal set for an ethical hacker during their investigation:

  1. Find vulnerabilities – What IT is effective, what needs updated and what aspects of the current systems contain dangerous vulnerabilities
  2. Demonstrate methods used by cybercriminals – As they have a knowledge of the company, they will be able to easily exploit all opportunities available that perhaps outside attackers may not initially recognize, allowing organizations to be ahead of hackers.

Concepts and limitations

There are a few concepts and outcomes expected from an ethical hacker during and after their investigation

  1. Stay legal – ethical hackers must ensure that everything they do is legal and that they gain proper approval from the correct personnel to carry out investigations on specific aspects of the systems/networks.
  2. Define the scope – determine what the goals and the level of investigation required for each system or network within the organization. Is it specific parts of a system they wish to find vulnerabilities in or is it a wider focus?
  3. Report vulnerabilities – whenever the ethical hacking is complete it is essential that the vulnerabilities are reported to the IT team in detail in order for them to begin the process of rectifying those issues.
  4. Respect data sensitivity – there are many datasets within an organization that are sensitive and quite often confidential. Even if these datasets are included in the area being “hacked” it is important that the ethical hacker does not abuse their access to the information and cause breaches or leaks. Most ethical hackers will be required to sign an NDA agreement.

Limitations of ethical hacking

  1. Limited scope – unless they have been given free rein to “hack” all aspects of the system or network, it will only provide organizations with limited scope. The “hacker” can make suggestions on out-of-scope attack potential based on their findings, but it will not be based on solid evidence.
  2. Resource constraints – cybercriminals, depending on the size of the group, can have a large number of resources that ethical hackers just do not have. This may include time, computing power and budget.
  3. Restricted methods – during investigations, some organizations tell “hackers” to avoid tests that could cause disruption to services or lead to crashed servers in the instances of testing DDoS attack methods. This will again limit the scope of an ethical hacking report.

Benefits of Ethical Hacking

There are a wide range of benefits associated with ethical hacking which include:

  • Discover vulnerabilities from an attacker’s POV
  • Implement a secure network based on recommendations
  • Keep data secure by knowing where threats can come from and having defences in place to combat them
  • Gain customer trust – if customers know you carry out these in-depth tests of your systems, software and networks they will trust you with their data and custom
  • Real world assessments – these are beneficial for compliance reasons as security policies, procedures and systems are being put to the test and either proving them are fit for purpose or highlighting where improvements can be made.