The term “hacking” originated in 1955 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In the minutes of a meeting of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC), this word was used to describe disrupting the operation of the club’s electric trains (“Mr. Eccles requests that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.”)
Since then, hacking has taken on a variety of meanings but generally refers to unauthorized access or control over a computer system.
Is all hacking bad, though? What if the hacker has good intentions?
This is where the term “ethical hacking” comes in.
In this blog post, we’ll define ethical hacking, explore its origins, and discuss why its importance is ever-growing in this digital age.
The definition of ethical hacking
The term “ethical hacker” was first coined in 1995 by then-Vice President of IBM, John Patrick.
Ethical hacking is the practice of penetrating a computer system, network, or application to find security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a malicious hacker. One of the terms closely related to ethical hacking is penetration testing. It is important to note that these are slightly different concepts – pen testing is a subset of ethical hacking.
The goal of ethical hacking is to improve the security of the system, not to cause damage or steal data.
Ethical hacking is hacking for good (as opposed to hacking for personal gain or to cause harm).
Ethical hackers are hired by organizations to test their cyber security. They use the same tools and techniques as malicious hackers but with explicit permission from the owner of the system. (They even get paid for it!)
This allows organizations to find and fix vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.
Types of hacking
Even though some people still believe that hackers are always engaging in criminal activity, ethical hacking is a legitimate and important profession.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the different types of hackers:
- Black hat hacker: This type of hacking refers to an illegal activity carried out for personal gain. Black hat hackers typically exploit vulnerabilities to steal data or disrupt services. (Think of the now-infamous Equifax data breach, which exposed the personal information of over 147 million people.)
- Gray hat hacker: This type of hacking occupies the middle ground between black hat and white hat hacking. Gray hat hackers may not have malicious intent, but they do not always adhere to the law. For example, they may engage in “information security research” without permission from the system owner.
- White hat hacker: As we’ve discussed, this type of hacking refers to a legal activity carried out for the benefit of the system owner. White hat hackers are also known as “security researchers.”
The importance of ethical hacking
As computer technology advanced, so did the tools and techniques used by malicious hackers.
Here are some significant yet highly concerning numbers:
- In 2021, there were over 4,100 data breaches (publicly disclosed ones, meaning the total number is likely much higher), exposing over 22 billion records.
- The average cost of a data breach in 2021 was $4.24 million.
- The number of ransomware attacks in 2021 rose by a staggering 92.7% compared to the previous year.
These statistics make it clear that organizations need to do more to protect themselves from cyber-attacks. Malicious hacking is becoming more sophisticated, and data breaches are becoming more costly.
By identifying vulnerabilities before malicious hackers do, ethical hackers can help organizations avoid the damage caused by cyber-attacks.
For example, ethical hackers may find that an organization’s web application is susceptible to SQL injection (a type of attack in which malicious code is injected into the database).
If the organization’s IT team is not aware of this security vulnerability, an unethical hacker could exploit it to gain access to sensitive data.
However, if the IT team is notified of the vulnerability, they can take steps to fix it, improve their security measure profile, and prevent a data breach.
In other words, ethical hacking is a crucial part of an organization’s cybersecurity strategy.
Key concepts of ethical hacking
Every ethical hacker has their own methodologies and toolkits. However, there are some key concepts that all ethical hackers lean on in their work:
- Nothing without authorization – An ethical hacker will never start hacking without permission from the system owner. This is a key difference between an ethical hacker and a criminal hacker.
- Agree on the scope – Before any hacking takes place, the ethical hacker and the system owner will agree on the scope of the engagement. The scope defines what systems can be tested, what types of tests can be performed, and how long the engagement will last.
- Report, don’t exploit – When a hacking security professional finds a vulnerability, their job is to report it to the system owner. They should never exploit the vulnerability, as this could cause damage to the system.
- Respect user privacy – Ethical hackers understand that user privacy is important. They will never access or view any data that is not necessary for the purpose of the engagement. Moreover, their discoveries remain confidential and are only shared with the system owner.
- Clean up after yourself – Ethical hackers take care to leave the systems they test in the same condition they found them. They will never install any software or make any changes without prior approval from the system owner. Any loopholes they may have found and exploited during their testing should be closed before they finish their engagement.
These are just a few key concepts that all ethical hackers adhere to. By following these guidelines, ethical hackers can help organizations improve their cybersecurity and avoid costly data breaches.
Types of ethical hacking
Just like there are different types of hacking in general, there are also ethical hackers that specialize in different types of ethical hacking. Here are some of the most common types of ethical hacking:
- Web hacking – Web hacking is one of the most common types of ethical hacking. Ethical hackers specialize in finding vulnerabilities in web applications and websites, such as cross-site scripting (XSS) and SQL injection.
- Network hacking – Network hacking is another common type of ethical hacking. Ethical hackers who specialize in network hacking test the security of an organization’s network infrastructure, such as routers and switches.
- Wireless hacking – Wireless hacking tests the security of an organization’s wireless networks. Ethical hackers who specialize in wireless hacking look for vulnerabilities in an organization’s Wi-Fi network, such as weak passwords and unencrypted data.
- Email hacking – Ethical hackers who specialize in email hacking look for vulnerabilities in an organization’s email server and system.
- Mobile hacking – Mobile hacking tests the security of an organization’s mobile devices. Ethical hackers who specialize in mobile hacking look for vulnerabilities in an organization’s mobile apps and devices, such as un-secure data storage and weak authentication.
There are many other specialized types of ethical hacking, such as social engineering and physical security testing.
If you wish to become an ethical hacker, you don’t have to concern yourself with these specializations. However, as you gain more experience and knowledge, you may find that you’re drawn to one or more of these specialized areas. Follow your interests and specialize in the type of ethical hacking that you find the most challenging and rewarding.
How to become an ethical hacker
If you are interested in dedicating your career to ethical hacking, there are a few steps you can take to become an ethical hacker.
First, it is important to get a solid understanding of computer networking and programming. Many ethical hackers have at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field. (However, a college degree is not required to become successful in this field.)
Second, you should gain experience with different types of hacking tools and techniques. There are many online resources that can teach you about various hacking tools and techniques.
Third, you should get certified in ethical hacking. There are many different certification programs available, such as the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) program from the International Council of Electronic Commerce Consultants (EC-Council).
Finally, you should join an ethical hacking community that can provide you with support and resources as you start your career in ethical hacking.
The road to becoming an ethical hacker is long and filled with continuous learning, practice, and certification. However, the rewards of a career in ethical hacking are many, and the need for ethical hackers is only growing. If you have the dedication and skill set required, becoming an ethical hacker may be the perfect career choice.
Ethical hacking is an important and growing field that is essential to the security of organizations and individuals alike. Ethical hackers use their skills to find vulnerabilities in systems and help organizations to fix them before they can be exploited by malicious hackers.
It’s essential to remember that ethical hackers always operate with the permission of the organization or individual they are hacking. Without permission, ethical hacking becomes illegal hacking.
Becoming an ethical hacker is a long process that requires dedication and continuous learning. However, for those with the required skill set, a career in ethical hacking can be immensely rewarding.
If you are interested in becoming a certified ethical hacker, feel free to contact us at the I4 Group. We would be happy to provide you with the training and resources you need to start your career in ethical hacking.