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What is Ethical Hacking & How Does it Work?

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We live in an era of unprecedented cybercrime, both in quantity and quality. These attacks, which can take many forms, can significantly impact national security and business interests. It is more important than ever for organizations to address these challenges, and one of the best precautions is prevention.

This is where ethical hacking comes in.

Ethical hacking is the authorized attempt to gain unauthorized access to a computer system, application, or data. By carrying out an ethical hack, you duplicate the same strategies used by malicious attackers, which helps identify security vulnerabilities that can be resolved before they are exploited from the outside. Any system, process, website, or device can be hacked, so it is critical for ethical hackers to understand how such an attack could happen and the potential consequences.

What is an Ethical Hacker?

Experts who carry out ethical hacking are called “ethical hackers,” which are security experts performing security assessments to improve an organization’s security measures. After receiving approval from the business, the ethical hacker sets out to simulate hacking from malicious actors.

There are a few key concepts that ethical hackers follow:

  • Legal: An ethical hacker should obtain prior explicit approval from the organization’s leadership before carrying out ethical hacking or any type of security assessment.

  • Scope: An ethical hacker should ensure their work is legal and within the approved boundaries by determining the scope of the assessment.

  • Vulnerabilities: An ethical hacker should notify the business of all potential vulnerabilities discovered and provide insight into how such vulnerabilities can be addressed.

  • Data Sensitivity: When carrying out ethical hacking, ethical hackers must consider data sensitivity and any other conditions required by the business.

These are just a few of the concepts ethical hackers follow.

Unlike malicious hackers, ethical hackers use the same type of skills and knowledge to protect an organization and improve its technology stack rather than damage it. They should obtain various skills and certifications, and they often become specialized in certain areas. A well-rounded ethical hacker should be an expert in scripting languages, proficient in operating systems, and knowledgeable of networking. They should also possess a solid understanding of information security, especially in the context of the assessed organization.

The Different Types of Hackers

Hackers can be categorized into different types, with their names indicating the intent of the hacking system.

There are two main types of hackers:

  • White Hat Hacker: An ethical hacker that does not intend to harm the system or organization. However, they simulate this process to locate vulnerabilities and provide solutions to ensure safety in the business.

  • Black Hat Hacker: Your traditional hacker, black hat hackers are non-ethical hackers that carry out attacks based on malicious intentions, often to collect monetary benefits or steal data.

Phases of Ethical Hacking

Ethical hacking involves a detailed process to help detect vulnerabilities in an application, system, or organization’s infrastructure to prevent future attacks and security breaches.

Many ethical hackers follow the same process as malicious hackers, which involves five phases:

  1. Reconnaissance: The first phase in ethical hacking is reconnaissance, which is the information-gathering phase. This preparation involves collecting as much information as possible before launching an attack. The type of data collected can contain passwords, essential employee details, and other crucial data. The hacker can collect this data through the use of several tools, and it helps identify which attacks have the best chance of success and which of the organization’s systems are most vulnerable.

  2. Scanning: The second phase is scanning, which involves hackers identifying different ways to gain the target’s information. This information often includes user accounts, IP addresses, and credentials, which provide quick ways to access the network. Various tools are used in this phase, like scanners and network mappers.

  3. Access: The third phase is to gain access to the target’s systems, applications, or networks. This access is achieved through various tools and methods, enabling the exploitation of the system by downloading malicious software, stealing sensitive data, gaining access, making ransom requests, and more. Ethical hackers often turn to firewalls to secure entry points and the network infrastructure.

  4. Maintain: The fourth phase is maintaining access once a hacker accesses the system. The hacker continuously exploits the system during this phase through things like DDoS attacks and stealing the database. The hacker then maintains access until the malicious activities are carried out without the organization noticing.

  5. Hiding: The last phase involves hackers clearing their tracks and hiding all traces of unauthorized access. A hacker needs to maintain their connection in the system without leaving clues that can lead to their identification or response by the organization. During this phase, it is common for folders, applications, and software to be deleted or uninstalled.

These are the five common steps that are carried out by ethical hackers when trying to identify any vulnerabilities that can provide access to malicious actors.

Benefits of Ethical Hacking

Hackers provide one of the greatest threats to an organization’s security, so it is crucial to learn, understand, and implement their own processes to defend against them. There are many key benefits to ethical hacking, which can be applied by security professionals across industries and various sectors. The most significant benefit lies in its potential to inform, improve, and defend corporate networks.

There is often a need for more focus on security testing in many businesses, which leaves software vulnerable to threats. A well-trained ethical hacker can help teams conduct security testing efficiently and successfully, which is preferable to other practices that require more time and energy.

Ethical hacking also provides an essential defense in the age of the cloud. As cloud technology continues to pick up steam in the tech world, so does the number of threats and their intensity. There are many security breaches when it comes to cloud computing, and ethical hacking provides a major line of defense.

Ethical Hacking Certifications and Benefits

If your organization is looking to perform ethical hacking, many great ethical hacking certifications should be considered for your team.

Some of the best ones include:

  • EC Council: Certified Ethical Hacking Certification: This certification is divided into 20 modules and delivered through a training plan that spans five days. Each module offers hands-on lab components that enable you to practice the techniques and procedures needed for ethical hacking. The program is recommended for a variety of roles, such as Cybersecurity Auditor, Security Administrator, IT Security Administrator, Warning Analyst, and Network Engineer.

  • CompTIA Security+: This global certification validates the baseline skills needed to perform core security functions. It is a great starting point since it establishes the core knowledge required for any cybersecurity role. You will learn many skills like attacks, threats, and vulnerabilities; architecture and design; implementation; operations and incident response; and governance, risk, and compliance.

  • Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) Certification: A self-paced course, it increases OSCP preparedness through instructor-led streaming sessions. The course also introduces you to the latest hacking tools and techniques, and it is designed for security professionals, network administrations, and various other technology professionals.

There are many benefits to gaining ethical hacking certifications. For one, they indicate that you know how to design, build, and maintain a secure business environment, which is invaluable when analyzing threats and devising solutions. Certified professionals also have better salary prospects, and certifications help you stand out for job roles.

You can find a list of our other recommended cybersecurity certifications here.


Alex McFarland is an AI journalist and writer exploring the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has collaborated with numerous AI startups and publications worldwide.