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Ethical Hacking: How Does It Really Work?

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By: Cybrary Staff

October 29, 2021

Ethical hackers typically work with cybersecurity teams to proactively test computer networks for vulnerabilities by using similar tools to malicious actors.

Summary: Ethical hackers play an essential role in proactive cybersecurity by using the same types of tools and methods that malicious actors use to infiltrate a computer network. This blog will explore the key concepts of ethical hacking and the skills and certifications they should have before starting a job.

To catch a thief, one needs to think like a thief. That idiom sums up ethical hacking, a rapidly growing field in the era of proactive cybersecurity.

Also known as white-hat hackers, ethical hackers work under contract with their clients in an attempt to gain unauthorized access to their networks, computing systems, or data. Carrying out these ‘attacks’ involves replicating the actions and using similar tools and tactics to malicious actors.

The practice of ethical hacking is important to organizations hoping to get a fresh perspective on their existing cybersecurity environment by revealing previously unknown vulnerabilities. This gives the organization a chance to remediate before a malicious attacker has a chance to exploit the vulnerabilities.

Ethical hacking is important in enterprise computing environments due to the persistent threat presented by sophisticated attackers, such as those working for rival nation-states and other organizations. Along with other organized black-hat hacking groups, such actors routinely use advanced attacks that conventional IT security measures cannot stop.

The four key concepts of ethical hacking

While they have the same skills and use the same tools as black-hat hackers, ethical hackers work under contract and operate legally. They also hold an industry-approved accreditation, such as the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) from the EC-Council or the Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) from Offensive Security. Ethical hackers must follow a strict set of principles to ensure that they stand on the right side of the fence:

  • Ethical hackers always stay on the right side of the law by obtaining proper approval before accessing a client’s computing assets and performing simulated attacks.

  • The scope of the attack should also be clearly defined in advance, and varying degrees of visibility may be granted. For example, ethical hackers may be contracted to exploit specific attack vectors, while others might be granted near-complete freedom to exploit any vulnerability they find.

  • Ethical hackers must document and report, in complete detail, any vulnerabilities they find, as well as how they were able to exploit them. They should also provide full remediation advice for resolving the vulnerabilities.

  • Respect for data sensitivity is a must. Ethical hackers have a huge responsibility, usually backed up by a legally binding non-disclosure agreement.

Insofar as business leaders are concerned, ethical hacking is about staying ahead of malicious actors. By contrast, black-hat hackers operate illegally and have no concern for their victims and their security posture.

What sort of vulnerabilities can ethical hackers identify?

By mimicking the methods that malicious attackers use, ethical hackers can identify the vulnerabilities that organizations are unlikely to find by themselves and existing IT security systems cannot protect against. The first goal is reconnaissance, while the second is to attempt to exploit any vulnerabilities found. This demonstrates how malicious actors can also exploit those vulnerabilities.

Ethical hacking and penetration testing reveal common vulnerabilities include:

  • Malicious code injection attacks.
  • Exploits of broken authentication measures.
  • Exposure of sensitive data.
  • Misconfigurations in existing security systems.

At the end of the project, ethical hackers will provide a comprehensive report detailing how they could attack, providing remediation advice.

What tools do ethical hackers use?

Much like malicious actors, ethical hackers will also use tools that are widely available, albeit for legitimate purposes. Here are some of the most important tools that ethical hackers should learn about when pursuing a relevant certification:

  • Network Mapper (NMAP) is an open-source tool for network discovery and auditing. It is one of the first tools an ethical hacker will use to get a big-picture network view.

  • Angry IP Scanner is another open-source IP address and port scanner intended for network discovery and auditing.

  • Metasploit is one of the world’s most popular exploit tools, allowing ethical hackers to carry out penetration tests on networks of virtually any size.

  • Cain & Abel is a password recovery tool designed to crack passwords, uncovering cached passwords, and analyze identity and access management controls.

These are just a few tools that ethical hackers may use to carry out vulnerability scans and penetration tests. Many of these tools were built with legitimate purposes in mind. However, they are also routinely used by malicious actors.

How to become an ethical hacker

If they hope to get hired, ethical hackers must be approved and certified by a widely recognized organization, such as CompTIA or EC-Council. Trust is paramount in the sector, so ethical hackers must have a pristine track record and a couple of years of experience working in information security.

The most widely recognized ethical hacking certification is the EC-Council’s Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification. Successful candidates need to pass a 125-question exam, which they have up to four hours to complete and must pay $1,119 for the privilege. They must also maintain their accreditations by earning at least 40 EC-Council Continuing Education (ECE) credits every year or a total of 120 ECE credits over three years. However, successful candidates can expect to earn a six-figure salary and enjoy myriad job opportunities in the IT security space.

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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