Everything to Know about Ethical Hacking

‘Ethical Hacking’ generally refers to making authorized attempts to gain unauthorized access to a data, application, system, or network owned by an organization. Ethical hackers, or ‘White hats’ as they are commonly called, imitate the strategies and actions of malicious hackers to identify security vulnerabilities, or weak points, if any, in the software infrastructure. This prevents the organization from falling prey to cyber-attacks. As the demand for ethical hackers has surged in the last ten years, we find more and more software students and professionals taking up the ‘Certified Ethical Hacker’ certification (CEH certification) to make their transition into the cyber security domain smoother and more transparent. In this article, we have listed all that you need to know about CEH certification, how to get certified, and what its benefits are.

Difference between ethical hackers and malicious hackers

Although the style of operation of Ethical hackers and malicious hackers are similar in many ways, there is a vast amount of difference in the reasons behind their operations and the principles that these two types of hackers follow. Ethical hackers use their technical knowledge to secure the technology and improve organizations’ data and network systems. They critically serve the organizations by identifying vulnerabilities in their systems and networks that can lead to security breaches by imitating the actions of attackers with the organization’s consent.

Apart from reporting the identified vulnerabilities to the organization, ethical hackers also provide remediation advice and, with the organization’s consent, perform re-tests to ensure that the vulnerabilities are fully resolved. 

On the other hand, malicious hackers try to gain unauthorized access to an organization’s resources, often confidential and sensitive resources, to secure their own financial gains or cause harm to the organization, including financial loss or damage to reputation. Some malicious hackers deface websites or crash their backend servers just for fun. The methods malicious hackers use, and the vulnerabilities they find are not reported. These hackers aren’t concerned with improving the organization’s security structure in any way.  

Key concepts of Ethical Hacking

There are four key protocol concepts that hacking experts follow:

  1. Get legal consent: Get proper approval from the company before accessing and performing a security assessment on their data.
  2. Define the scope: The scope of the assessment must be predetermined so that the ethical hacker knows what and where to access within the organization’s approved boundaries. This is important to ensure that the hacker’s work remains legal.
  3. Report vulnerabilities: Notify all the vulnerabilities of the organization that the hacker discovers during the assessment. Moreover, offer solutions for resolving these vulnerabilities.
  4. Respect data sensitivity: Depending on the sensitivity of the data, ethical hackers might have to abide by a non-disclosure agreement, as well as other terms and conditions set by the organization they are working for. 

Skills and certifications to become an Ethical Hacker

Ethical hackers are supposed to have wide-ranging computer skills. Moreover, they must be subject matter experts (SMEs) on a particular topic or subdomain within the ethical hacking domain.

Some common skills that ethical hackers should have are:

  • Thorough knowledge of networking.
  • Expertise in scripting languages.
  • Proficiency in operating systems.
  • A solid foundation in the information security principles.

Commonly acquired certifications by Ethical Hackers include:

  • CompTIA Security+
  • Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) Certification
  • EC Council: Certified Ethical Hacking Certification
  • SANS GIAC
  • Cisco’s CCNA Security

Difference Between Ethical Hacking and Penetration Testing

The terms ethical hacking and penetration testing are often used interchangeably. However, there are some minor differences between the two. Generally, penetration testing refers to a company trying to discover the exact nature of its vulnerabilities, risks, and target environment to secure and take over the complete system. Therefore, penetration testing analyzes and targets the organization’s defense systems, comprising all of the organization’s computer infrastructure and systems.

However, in ethical hacking, the hacker performs the whole gamut of hacking techniques and potential attacks that a computer or network system and its infrastructure could face. Ethical hacking comprehensively looks at ways to safeguard the system for future use, unlike penetration testing, which merely looks at how a system could be attacked.

What problems does Hacking identify?

An ethical hacker aims to mimic an attacker while assessing the security and robustness of an organization’s IT asset(s). An initial reconnaissance is performed to gain as much information as possible. During this exercise, hackers identify attack vectors against the company assets.

With enough information, the ethical hacker looks for vulnerabilities against the organization’s assets. Hackers often use a combination of automated and manual testing to perform this assessment. A good hacker can identify vulnerabilities in even sophisticated systems with complex countermeasure technologies.

Often ethical hackers don’t stop at revealing vulnerabilities. They use all possible exploits against these vulnerabilities to show how a malicious attacker might exploit them.

Below we have listed a few of the most commonly discovered vulnerabilities by ethical hackers:

  • Broken authentication
  • Injection attacks
  • Use of components with known vulnerabilities
  • Security misconfigurations
  • Sensitive data exposure

Once the testing is completed, ethical hackers draft a detailed report including steps to compromise the vulnerabilities discovered during the test and the necessary steps to mitigate them.

Limitations of Ethical Hacking

Although it is the safest bet against cyberattacks targeting organizations, Ethical hacking has a few shortcomings. Some of the important limitations of ethical hacking are listed below:

  1. Limited scope: Ethical hackers are constrained by a defined scope, beyond which they cannot proceed to simulate an attack successfully. The problem is that the actual attack may not follow these constraints. But, it is possible and common for ethical hackers to discuss the possibilities for out-of-scope attacks and recommend safeguards to the organization.  
  2. Resource constraints: [CEH] Certified Ethical hackers often work with limited resources, the most important of which is time. However, malicious hackers are not limited by any time constraints followed by ethical hackers. Moreover, there are additional constraints of computing power and budget that ethical hackers have to deal with.
  3. Restricted methods: A few organizations request hackers to avoid test cases that may lead the to server crashes, such as Denial of Service (DoS) attacks. Such concerns of the clients or employers must be considered during Ethical hacking. 

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