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When Is Hacking Considered Ethical?

Elviraluke Napwora's profile image

By: Elviraluke Napwora

November 30, 2021

Hacking can be defined as the misuse of computer technology, i.e., devices and networks to gain unauthorized access to an account or data or computer system/network to cause damage or corrupting systems, gathering user's information, data theft, or disruption of the systems.

On the other hand, ethical hacking involves an authorized attempt to gain unauthorized access to systems/applications, devices, networks, or data. It utilizes the same tools/techniques/skills a malicious hacker would use to attack an enterprise. In identifying the security vulnerabilities and weaknesses the systems face, actionable steps can be undertaken to address and resolve them before a malicious attacker gets an opportunity to exploit them. Ethical hackers preempt actual attacks and determine the specific security vulnerabilities/loopholes the organization is at risk in thinking like a hacker. The end goal is to improve the security posture of an organization's digital infrastructure. They eventually may need to work together with other IT security professionals to strengthen the overall system security.

The Different Types Of Hackers

The hacker categorizations are generally based on the motive/intention and aim behind the attack/hack. However, the three general categorizations are:

White Hat hackers are professionals with expertise in cybersecurity involved in Ethical hacking to identify potential threats/vulnerabilities on a computer or network or system and test the level of security resilience in an organization. With the security loopholes identified, mitigation measures to implement and solution fixes aimed at countering the given attack in the future are then presented as a report to the relevant parties so that the vulnerability is addressed. They work under set rules and regulations that define the scope of the hacking attack, periods and timelines, disclosure procedures, etc. And thus why white hackers, commonly referred to as Ethical hackers, are considered legal. They usually are individuals with a strong IT security background and may even be certified as ethical hackers or have other security certifications.

Motives & Aims: The goal of a white hacker is to help organizations build resilient security procedures by detecting security gaps/loopholes and identifying threats that make the organization is vulnerable. They can hack only under permission by the organization to test the security of their systems and are focused on fostering security and protecting the IT system.

Black Hat hackers gain unauthorized access to information, systems, or networks with the malicious intent of either stealing data, exposing an organization/public harassment, destroying the system, personal and profit gains, etc. Though they are knowledgeable computer experts, their activities are considered illegal/criminal as the guiding intention is wrong.

Motives & Aims: This group hacks into organizations to cause damage to the organization in the form of data or funds theft, harassment of the target company, reputation damage, etc. The stolen resources are then used to profit themselves, sold on the dark web, or hold ransom to the target company, among other forms of exploitation.

Gray Hat hackers hack for their purpose/gain and are not interested in data or monetary theft. They are normally viewed as the intermediary between the black hat and white hat hackers.

Motives & Aims: Most gray hat hackers do it as a fun experience; they find joy in experimenting on various systems to identify loopholes but are not driven by monetary needs or data theft.

It is important to note that over time, many other categorizations of hackers have come up.

When is Hacking Ethical?

It refers to the actions carried out by white hat security hackers with a client mandate to assess their organizational IT-security posture. It involves acquiring access to computer systems and networks to test for potential vulnerabilities and fix any identified weaknesses. What differentiates the different types of hackers is the guiding motive, and thus several measures/rules must be upheld for the hacking to be deemed ethical. The rules are meant to protect the client and the assets involved and legalize their work. A trust relationship is forged with a code of conduct guiding the two parties involved(client and ethical hacker). Also, their techniques may expose or use privileged accounts, and thus a guide ensures that backdoors to the system are not introduced or privacy infringed outside the scope of work engaged. The typical content of such a code of conduct contains rules that guarantee the ethical hacker's prior, during, and after actions/processes do not introduce risks to the organization as a binding contract guides them.

The Key Distinctive Concepts That Make Hacking Ethical are:

  • Intention/Motive

The focus is fostering security by identifying vulnerabilities and generating reports to the concerned parties to fix the flaw. This is despite ethical hacking utilizing the tools, techniques, and tactics that a malicious hacker would employ.

  • Legality & Permission

The hack is performed under organizational consent with proper approval defined before the security assessment. This is usually written permission from the system or network owner before the assessment defining the specifics of the ethical hacking exercise.

  • Ownership

Guiding Contract by the organization allows the White Hat hackers to penetrate their systems and detect security issues.

  • Project scope

Defining the project scope is relevant in ensuring the ethical hacker works only within the organization's approved boundaries and legalizes the engaged work. However, this also introduces an obligation for the ethical hacker to act in honesty.

Some of the aspects that need to be defined include; the permissions granted, systems/networks to be accessed, user accounts that can be used, etc.

Periods for the engagement also need to be stated. For example, the attack can only be done outside of work hours. The business impact may also need to be defined and associated risks if a critical system is involved.

  • Report vulnerabilities

The client should be notified of all vulnerabilities discovered during the assessment; this is frequently presented as a report. Furthermore, the best options on how to remediate and resolve the detected vulnerabilities should also be included.

  • Project Documentation

Besides the report indicating vulnerabilities, it is important for the hacker to document/transcript all the actions undertaken and transparently communicate to the client.

  • Security Practices

In performing the attack, the ethical hacker must observe/undertake good security practices that will not expose the client and the data involved and introduce unnecessary business impact. For example; Key in performing hacking is the need to remove the hacker traces or backdoors introduced during the process that bud guys could easily exploit.

  • Data sensitivity Management

Data sensitivity is a key aspect that needs to be handled in carrying out ethical hacking exercises; organizations have varying levels of data sensitivity ranging from their trade secrets, privileged accounts, etc., that should be highly guarded. In most instances, they may need to agree on a non-disclosure agreement in a bid to protect and respect the data privacy of the assessed organization.

Ethical Hacking vs. Penetration Testing; What is the difference?

Though ethical hacking and penetration testing are commonly used interchangeably, they have different definitions and encompass another. The first looks at the broader security picture of an organization and the hacking risk of every part of the system to understand and improve the security posture of the organization's systems as a whole. On the other hand, the other considers one aspect of the organization's security, i.e., system, network, mobile, application, etc.

Ethical Hacking Techniques

Some hacking techniques include the following:

  • Port scanning to identify open ports and possible vulnerabilities or targeted exploits on each port.

  • Analyzing software updates and patch installation processes to ensure that they don't introduce new vulnerabilities that can be exploited.

  • Network traffic analysis & network packet capture.

  • Defense systems evasion attempts. For example, attempts to prevent their malicious activity detection by security systems like intrusion detection systems, intrusion prevention systems, honeypots, antivirus, endpoint detection systems, firewalls, etc.

  • Testing applications, systems, databases to identify security loopholes.

  • Audit an organization's information assets.


With Ethical Hacking clearly defined, what comes out is the need to up your skills, knowledge, and practice to keep up with the cybersecurity challenges the world is constantly facing. This can be achieved through relevant certifications and courses to advance your career in cybersecurity.

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