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Difference Between Ethical Hacking And Cybersecurity

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By: Cybrary Staff

September 15, 2021

What is the difference between ethical hacking and cybersecurity?

Ethical hackers often work with security teams to help them build proactive defense strategies, but there are important differences between these roles.

Summary: Ethical hacking is a rapidly growing trend at a time when proactive cybersecurity is top of mind for many business leaders. Certified ethical hackers routinely work with security leaders to find vulnerabilities and provide valuable feedback. This blog looks at the differences between the two roles.

Given the complexities of today’s threat landscape, it is hardly surprising that cybersecurity is a rapidly growing field. At the same time, there remains a serious global skills gap that has seen many businesses struggle to find the skills and expertise they need to protect themselves from the myriad of threats out there.

Cybersecurity is also an extremely broad field and, much like the threats it serves to counter, it is constantly changing and evolving. Security leaders must leverage an ever-wider range of skills and tools to keep ahead of hackers. Moreover, there has been a dramatic shift in recent years towards more proactive security models.

A proactive information security strategy denotes a high level of security maturity. It is now a requirement for doing business in certain fields, such as the defense and critical infrastructure sector. That said, every business can benefit from proactive security. Ethical hacking plays a key role in such a strategy, an integral component of modern cybersecurity.

What is cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity is a catch-all term describing the numerous protective measures and strategies needed to safeguard an organization’s digital data. This includes both reactive and proactive solutions. Given how broad the topic area is, cybersecurity is often divided into application security, data security, and endpoint security categories. On top of that, there are hundreds of different solutions and methods. Moreover, several industry-leading frameworks, such as the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, serve as the strategic basis for organizations and the basis of industry-specific regulatory standards.

What is ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking could be described as an area of cybersecurity, albeit from a different perspective. Ethical hackers bring a similar set of skills and tools to the table as those used by malicious actors. However, they work under contract to look for vulnerabilities and, should they find any, attempt to exploit them. As such, ethical hacking is a legal and regulated form of hacking intended to help organizations guard against advanced attack vectors, including advanced persistent threats (APTs).

Same broader objectives, different strategies

Naturally, ethical hackers are also cybersecurity experts. They have extensive knowledge of networking components and protocols and often a strong background in other cybersecurity areas. They may work as penetration testers, security consultants, threat-hunting experts, or a variety of other specialties. All ethical hackers are accredited by organizations like CompTIA or the EC-Council and work under contract, albeit with varying degrees of oversight from the organizations they work with.

The biggest difference between conventional cybersecurity and ethical hacking is alignment. Cybersecurity is largely a defensive process involving securing IT infrastructure against attacks by using encryption, multi-factor authentication, and detection and response solutions. By contrast, ethical hacking takes an offensive stance by focusing on how to attack a system by bypassing its current security controls.

What does it take to become an ethical hacker?

Ethical hacking follows the concept that, in order to catch a criminal, one needs to think like a criminal. Also known as white-hat hackers, they only work under contract with clients, and an appropriate organization must accredit them. Most certifications require at least a couple of years of professional experience in the information security field, and candidates will need to pass a lengthy exam. Here are the most broadly recognized certifications:

  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), from the EC-Council
  • Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP), from Offensive Security
  • Computer Hacking and Forensic Investigator (CHFI), from the EC-Council
  • A Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) credential, such as the GIAC Penetration Tester (GPEN) certification, from the SANS Institute

Several closely related and even more specialized certifications are available, such as the PenTest+ accreditation from CompTIA, which covers penetration testing. While not quite the same thing as ethical hacking, the two areas share a lot in common.

Ethical hackers have a strong background in computer programming and engineering. They should be familiar with all the essential coding languages, especially those widely deployed in web and mobile app development. Other key knowledge areas include database engines like MySQL and PostgreSQL and server-side operating systems like Windows Server and Linux.

While cybersecurity incorporates a wide range of disciplines that are not primarily focused on technology, such as training and awareness, ethical hacking is an exclusively technical area. After all, it is intended to counter equally high-tech attacks perpetrated by highly sophisticated actors like state-sponsored operators. That being said, ethical hackers still need important soft skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Who should pursue an ethical hacking certification?

There are dozens of different job titles in the cybersecurity space, and ethical hacking is just one of them. Accredited ethical hackers often find themselves working in various areas. Those wanting to invest in their careers and who already have a background in cybersecurity should undoubtedly consider earning an industry certification. Employers should also think about the benefits of upskilling their teams by enrolling them into training, especially given the growing skills shortage.

Ethical hacking is not for everyone. However, those with a strong technical background who prefer to stay on the technical, rather than the leadership, side of things may find that taking an ethical hacking course is exactly what they are looking for. These days, almost any high-profile job in the cybersecurity space is extremely well-paid, and there are many opportunities to branch out as well.

Cybrary for Teams is an all-in-one workforce development platform that helps organizations develop stronger cybersecurity skills, prepare for new certifications, and track team progress. Get started with our penetration testing and ethical hacking course to learn more.

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