Ethical hacking involves an authorized attempt to gain unauthorized access to a computer system, application, or data. Carrying out an ethical hack involves duplicating ways and actions of malicious attackers. This practice helps to spot security vulnerabilities which can then be resolved before a malicious attacker has the chance to take advantage of them.

Also called “white hats,” ethical hackers are security specialists that perform these assessments. The proactive work they do helps to boost an organization’s security posture. With previous approval from the organization or owner of the IT asset, the mission of ethical hacking is opposite from malicious hacking.

What are the key concepts of ethical hacking?

 Hacking experts follow four key protocol concepts:

  •       Stay legal – Obtain proper approval before accessing and performing a security assessment.
  •       Define the scope – Determine the scope of the assessment so that the ethical hacker’s work remains legal and within the organization’s approved boundaries.
  •       Report vulnerabilities – Notify the organization of all vulnerabilities discovered during the assessment. Provide remediation advice for resolving these vulnerabilities.
  •       Respect data sensitivity – Depending on the data sensitivity, ethical hackers may have to agree to a non-disclosure agreement, in addition to other terms and conditions required by the assessed organization.

What problems does hacking identify?

While assessing the security of an organization’s IT asset(s), ethical hacking aims to mimic an attacker. In doing so, they look for attack vectors against the target. The initial goal is to perform reconnaissance mission, gaining the maximum amount of information as possible.

Once the ethical hacker gathers enough information, they use it to look for vulnerabilities against the asset. They perform this assessment with a mixture of automatic and manual testing. Even subtle systems may have complex countermeasure technologies which can be vulnerable.

They don’t stop at uncovering vulnerabilities. Ethical hackers use exploits against the vulnerabilities to prove how a malicious attacker may exploit it.

Some of the most common vulnerabilities discovered by ethical hackers include:

  •       Injection attacks
  •       Broken authentication
  •       Security misconfigurations
  •       Use of components with known vulnerabilities
  •       Sensitive data exposure

After the testing period, ethical hackers prepare a detailed report. This documentation includes steps to compromise the discovered vulnerabilities and steps to patch or mitigate them.

What are some limitations of ethical hacking?

Limited scope – Ethical hackers cannot progress beyond a defined scope to make an attack successful. However, it’s not unreasonable to discuss out of scope attack potential with the organization. 

Resource constraints – Malicious hackers don’t have time constraints that ethical hackers often face. Computing power and budget are additional constraints of ethical hackers.

Restricted methods – Some organizations ask experts to avoid test cases that lead the servers to crash (e.g., Denial of Service (DoS) attacks).

What skills and certifications should an ethical hacker obtain?

An ethical hacker should have a wide range of computer skills. They often specialize, becoming subject matter experts (SME) on a particular area within the ethical hacking domain.

All ethical hackers should have:

  •       Expertise in scripting languages.
  •       Proficiency in operating systems.
  •       A thorough knowledge of networking.
  •       A solid foundation in the principles of information security.

Some of the most well-known and acquired certifications include:

  •       EC Council: Certified Ethical Hacking Certification
  •       Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) Certification
  •       CompTIA Security+
  •       Cisco’s CCNA Security
  •       SANS GIAC