When you think of hackers, you probably imagine someone with a mask in a dark room, plotting to overthrow major corporations, break into bank accounts, and generally control the internet. You know, Mr. Robot style.
While this is definitely a more exciting way to see hacking, reality is a bit different: there are three types of hackers. There are black hat hackers, who infiltrate systems to plant malware and exploit system vulnerabilities for their own personal reasons, white-hat hackers, who seek out vulnerabilities in systems to fix them, and gray hat hackers, who may dabble a little in both. There are also a few other hats hackers can wear, which we’ll get into in this post.
Ethical Hacking: What is it?
White hat hackers are pretty much cyber superheroes, fighting cyber pirates and cyber attacks 24/7. They engage in ethical hacking, which is super important for the security of all the online systems we use in our everyday lives.
How does ethical hacking work? Well, ethical hackers are hired to hack systems and figure out the holes that evil hackers (pirates trying to steal data or bring down a system) could use. They find flaws and fix possible weak points to prevent system break-ins.
Think of it like trying to break into your own house before going on a long vacation. You’ll want to be sure that there aren’t any windows left open and that the doors are all locked. That’s basically what ethical hackers do for technology systems and that’s why they’re so valuable.
Other types of ethical hackers
The internet is a massive space, with many specific networks and systems. That means there are a number of paths you can follow if you’re interested in becoming an ethical hacker (remember, they are in high demand!).
Blue-hat hackers are hired by organizations to bug-test new software system networks before they are released. They find the loopholes and weaknesses and fix them to keep criminals out.
Red-hat hackers work for government agencies to test security systems. If you’ve ever had to login to pay your taxes or use a pin to access a government account, you know red-hat hackers have vetted that system intensely. They even use black hat tactics to take down cyber criminals.
Both of these types of hacker fall under the umbrella of white hat but here’s the difference: blue-hat hackers work for private companies and red-hats are government contractors. If you want to be a white-hat hacker, the choice is yours: both paths are very lucrative.
Rules to Ethical Hacking
To stay white hat and not go gray, ethical hackers need to follow a few general guidelines. Let’s break it down:
First, they must explain their plan to the organization or government they are working for and obtain complete authorization.
Once they get started, they must report all security breaches or vulnerabilities found immediately. You can’t find a breach and then save it for yourself for later!
Everything you find needs to stay confidential; non-disclosure agreements are key.
Finally, they have to leave the system cleaner than they found it, with no traces they were ever there.
What kinds of things do ethical hackers look for?
Like we said, the internet is a vast space, so the needs that each organization or governments have are totally different. As an ethical hacker, you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions:
What is the security situation like? Why were you hired?
What tech stack are the teams working with? Which programs and platforms are they using?
What technology is in place? What about applications, operating systems, software, and more?
Once you have a good understanding of the situation, you can start looking for vulnerabilities. In general, you’ll start by trying to get through any security solutions that are in place. Make sure you are hacking the most up-to-date version of any solution.
Now it’s time to break into everything! There are so many different systems out there, the process can be complicated, and you may have to learn new skills to break systems that have upgraded their security and privacy systems. Or you may have to work with internal teams to understand where they perceive possible vulnerabilities and read up on past breaks. Ethical hacking means constant learning, both on and off the job.
The Four Steps of Ethical Hacking
There are four stages that ethical hackers go through when they do their daily work. Unsurprisingly, they are the same steps that black-hat hackers use, since they have to be on the same wavelength! To protect the organizations they are working for, white-hat hackers need to follow the same mindset that black hat hackers use.
Research or reconnaissance
The hacker needs to gather information about the target organization and identify areas that might be vulnerable. Here’s how that works:
The first part of this phase is dumpster diving, which is when the hacker finds important information like old passwords that are stored in the system, identifies important employees within the networks, and gets a deep idea of how all the systems function.
The hacker then engages in footprinting to gather data on the security situation and minimizes the scope of work by identifying the most important IP addresses and drawing a network map.
This may involve mirroring a website and using search engines to research the organization and investigating current employees in case of impersonation.
There are three methods to engage in scanning: pre-attack, port scanning or sniffing, and information extraction.
During pre-attack, the hacker scans the network for details they found during the reconnaissance phase.
The port scanning or sniffing phase involves using dialers, port scanners, and vulnerability scanners to gather data.
Then the hacker collects information about ports, live machines, and operating system details to launch an attack.
The hacker gains access to the system, applications, and networks and gains control of the systems. Then, they secure access and launch an attack targeting specific system vulnerabilities.
Covering their tracks
As mentioned before, the last step is covering their tracks. The hacker must conceal their access from system administrators by clearing the cache and cookies, adjusting log files, and closing open ports.
The Value of Ethical Hacking
As we’ve mentioned more than a few times, ethical hacking is an extremely lucrative profession. Companies invest millions of dollars per year to secure their systems from black and gray-hat hackers.
Companies like Google, Meta, and Microsoft even hold events that are called “bug bounties” where they invite hackers to try and get into their systems. Hackers that find bugs and infiltrate systems are given rewards; governments and states have used the same tactic.
It’s kind of a weird concept to pay people to break into your house. But that just shows you the value that companies with major budgets place on their security–sometimes they actually hire the hackers on the spot.
How do you become an ethical hacker?
Let’s start with the obvious: check your ethical track record. If you have a history of cybercrime, it’s not going to work well for you. Make sure your resume is squeaky clean and then get hacking! Here’s a quick overview of what you should do:
Gain an understanding of both wireless and wired networks and learn operating systems like Windows and Linux
Study firewalls and different filing systems and permissions
Polish your coding skills
Cultivate your creativity–you’ll need to be steps ahead of the bad guys and anticipate how they think!
You’ll also need to consider what it is you want to achieve and why cybersecurity is the path you want to take in your professional technical development. Think about where your strengths are now and what aspects you will need to hone to achieve your goals and stay ahead of the bad guys.
While a college degree may be helpful as you get into ethical hacking, this is a career that is going to require constant innovation. Short courses to plug the gaps in your current knowledge will always be important so that you are a few steps ahead of the black-hat hackers who are learning as they go. Invest in your professional development and you’ll stay competitive within the hacker pool.
How do I get started?!
A great way to get started is with a Cybersecurity Bootcamp! Why?
It will give you the skills you’ll need to land a job in the growing cybersecurity industry
You’ll gain knowledge in one of the fastest growing areas in technology
You will definitely get a massive return on your investment
Our bootcamps are either full or part-time, depending on your schedule, and you can choose to learn online or visit one of our amazing campuses.
You will become a cyber superhero and work your creative muscles as you stay steps ahead of black-hat hackers to protect governments, institutions, and private citizens’ data and money. This is such an exciting career path to choose, and there is definitely a lack of trained professionals, meaning you are going to bring incredible value with your cybersecurity skills.