Ethical hacking: An introduction
Ethical hacking, as the term itself proclaims loud and clear, is hacking that’s ethical and which gives authorized access to a computer system, an application or data. Ethical hackers, also known as “white hats”, perform assessments on systems and networks so as to help organizations improve their security posture.
An ethical hacker thinks like a malicious hacker and then duplicates actions and strategies of a malicious hacker. This is the only way an ethical hacker can identify those security vulnerabilities that a hacker (hacker, in general, being used to refer to malicious hacker) would exploit to gain access to a system or network.
Though an ethical hacker thinks and functions like a malicious hacker, he does it all with prior approval from the owner of the IT asset or the organization involved.
The four key protocol concepts of ethical hacking
There are four key protocol concepts that ethical hackers follow:
* They always stay legal and obtain proper approval before going on with their hacking activities.
* Ethical hackers always define the scope of the security assessment they are going to perform so that it all remains well within the organization’s approved boundaries.
* Once ethical hackers find security vulnerabilities during an assessment, they promptly notify the organization and provide remediation advice as well.
* Ethical hackers may, depending on data sensitivity, agree to a non-disclosure agreement plus other terms as required by the organization that hires them for the security assessment.
Ethical hackers vs malicious hackers: The divide
It’s a clear divide that sets the two sections of hackers totally apart.
While ethical hackers use their knowledge to provide an essential service to business and organizations, in the process securing and improving the technology used by these organizations, malicious hackers use the very same kind of knowledge for malicious purposes. They gain access into a system or network intending to steal data, make money, tarnish reputations, destroy businesses, hijack infrastructure and sabotage their functioning or at least derive some pleasure out of doing such acts.
While ethical hackers look for vulnerabilities, find them and report them so as to help plug them, the malicious ones look for the very same vulnerabilities, find them and exploit them for unethical purposes.
In short, though it’s the same kind of knowledge that both these sections of hackers use, the ethical hackers make money by helping others secure themselves while the malicious hackers make money by causing harm to business, organizations and individuals.
How to qualify yourself to become an ethical hacker…
To become an ethical hacker, one should acquire a wide range of computer skills, become a specialist or an expert as regards everything pertaining to computers, internet and cybersecurity. An ethical hacker needs to be constantly thinking like a hacker.
To be a good ethical hacker, one needs to be proficient in all operating systems, have a thorough knowledge of networking, be an expert in scripting languages and have a thorough knowledge as regards the principles of information security.
Certifications for ethical hacking include EC Council: Certified Ethical Hacking Certification, Cisco’s CCNA Security, OSCP (Offensive Security Certified Professional) Certification, CompTIA Security+ etc.
Ethical hacking: How they do it!
As already mentioned, an ethical hacker has to think like a malicious hacker. So, what does an attacker do?
To begin with, an attacker should find and identify attack vectors. Ethical hackers too look for attack vectors. So, for that they perform reconnaissance, seeking to gain as much information as possible as regards the security infrastructure and security posture of the organization.
Once information is gathered, the ethical hacker should look for vulnerabilities. Automated and manual testing is done. They won’t ignore even the most advanced and sophisticated of systems, because vulnerabilities are present everywhere.
Once vulnerabilities are detected and identified, the ethical hackers use exploits against them to prove how a malicious hacker could do the same. They look for broken authentication, injection attacks, sensitive data exposure, security misconfigurations, components with known vulnerabilities etc. Once they find issues, vulnerabilities etc and do the testing, they prepare and provide a detailed report, which would include steps to patch or mitigate the issues/vulnerabilities.
The challenges that ethical hackers face…
Compared to malicious hackers, there are some challenges, or rather limitations, that ethical hackers would face in the course of their professional engagements.
Firstly, it’s constraints related to resources, namely time, money and computing power. Malicious hackers have all the time they need while ethical hackers are expected to function within a set time-frame and with deadlines to deliver results. They would have to face constraints relating to budget and computing power as well.
Secondly, there is limited scope for ethical hackers to progress while executing an attack while for the malicious hackers the sky is the limit. The malicious hacker can just do anything that he wishes to do.
Finally, ethical hackers work within the bounds of restricted or limited methods. For example, the organizations that hire them might ask them to avoid things that crash server crashes, while the malicious hacker can go on and crash servers or entire networks.