When you hear the word “hacking”, what images enter your head? You’ll most likely think about teenage geeks in their bedrooms trying to find ways into military systems, or groups of criminals using hacking skills to pull of digital heists.
While it’s true that hacking can often be damaging, the word is gaining a much more positive aura these days. In fact, hack labs are popping up all over the world, turning hacking skills to good use. This has called for a new term – an ethical hacker – used to describe a person with a moral code who doesn’t exploit the security holes but help companies fix them.
How ethical hacking differs from its unethical counterpart?
In traditional hacking, outsiders exploit vulnerabilities in networks or software to gain illegitimate access – and there’s usually nothing ethical about their activities.
But that’s not always the case. Ethical hacking also seeks to gain access to protected systems, but for the best possible reasons. In these cases, hackers try as hard as they can to breach security measures. By testing the integrity of an organization’s security systems, ethical hackers can provide valuable knowledge for fixing the holes in their defenses.
Another form of ethical hacking revolves around “hacking” technology to make it more socially useful. In practice, the two often go together. People that are keen on using their cybersecurity skills to protect companies and public organizations tend to be more socially-minded as well.
What does ethical hacking involve?
The activities of ethical hackers have to satisfy certain criteria. Here’s a checklist to make sure your efforts stay in line:
- Permission – the whole point of ethical hacking is to provide a service, not to take systems offline. While you can definitely help out organizations by finding weaknesses without letting them know beforehand and getting their permission, this is usually frowned upon by ethical hackers.
- Limits – when ethical hackers gain access to the company’s IT systems or databases, this gives them a huge (and tempting) amount of power. They could harvest personal details or map out the way servers are structured, among other things. But they don’t do that. Instead, ethical hackers limit their actions to what is strictly necessary to provide valuable security insights.
- No loose ends – when ethical hackers gain access to a system, they take care not to cause any damage. More importantly, they definitely do not leave any backdoors for other hackers to exploit in the future (including themselves). That’s again another temptation to resist, and clearly not all hackers are up to the task.
- Honest reporting – being an ethical hacker requires one to communicate about his or her findings. Ethical hackers must report whatever they find to their clients or managers, giving a clear, actionable account of what needs to be done. Otherwise, there’s no (ethical) point in doing the whole thing.
The difference between White Hat and Black Hat hackers
If you already know a thing or two about hacking, you’ve probably heard about the White Hat and Black Hat hackers. These two are different as night and day.
When we say “hackers”, we usually mean the Black Hat hackers, which are malicious and potentially criminal. Their efforts are mostly geared toward personal gain, whether that’s financial profit or pure pleasure. This could involve staging man-in-the-middle attacks, running botnets, or breaking passwords and stealing credit card details. In any case, they don’t warn about their attacks and don’t explain their methods.
On the contrary, White Hat hackers are welcomed by companies. Usually employed as cybersecurity experts, White Hatters are skilled at simulating the activities of their Black Hat counterparts. And it’s not that uncommon for Black Hats to turn White, especially after getting caught by law enforcement.
Do real ethical hackers really exist?
There have been plenty of critics of ethical hacking. These critics question whether there is a clear line between the White Hats and Black Hats. They see the the term “hacker” itself as problematic. By giving a sense of legitimacy, supporters of ethical hacking normalize the act of gaining forced entry to computer systems and networks.
What’s more, while there are multiple cases of Black Hat criminals seeing the light, there are plenty of those who juggle both hats successfully, and often without telling their employers. It’s fair to say that these IT professionals carry huge insider threats to businesses, and encouraging them to assume the hacker identity seems to feed this risk.
On the other hand, the notion of White Hats and Black Hats doesn’t have to be related to hackers only. Plenty of other workers that hold significant power or certain knowledge can use it as a leverage against their employer or simply for their personal gain. Therefore a Black Hat can be successfully worn by a medic or a priest – it’s impossible to paint the reality in black and white.
Should you learn ethical hacking?
There are more reasons to take issue with the critics of ethical hacking. Most importantly, their opposition doesn’t seem to correspond to what we actually know about how ethical hackers operate.
A survey of over 1,600 White Hat hackers found that they aren’t primarily motivated by money. Instead, they are more interested in expanding their knowledge and skills, not using them for personal gain.
However, there’s no doubt that learning ethical hacking can be a lucrative career move. The same survey found that hackers can make 2.7 times as much as conventional software engineers. Their skills are in huge demand, often ignoring any concerns about the ethical standpoint.
Is it hard to get into ethical hacking?
If you put your time and effort into becoming an ethical hacker, you could join one of the best cybersecurity companies and be part of a community which saves the world.