What Is Ethical Hacking? (With Examples and Types of Hacker)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 1 December 2022

Published 27 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Originally, computer specialists coined the term 'hacker' to describe professionals who designed, edited and optimised computer mainframe systems, but more recently, hacking typically refers to a malicious process where a user attempts to access online computer systems in an unauthorised manner. A profession that counteracts hacking is known as ethical hacking, where the hacker attempts to secure online information from other users. Learning about what this type of hacking involves may benefit your own online security. In this article, we discuss what ethical hacking is, including examples of multiple kinds of hackers.

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What is ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking is a service that a company may seek to ensure the protection of its sensitive online data. It involves a computer professional attempting to hack into a company's system or network to discover any security flaws. Then, they typically report back to the company with their findings, so the company may address those flaws and increase its cyber-security. This style of hacking works to test a system's digital defences so that unethical hackers aren't able to access the company's information in the same way that the ethical hackers did.

The ethical aspect of this type of hacking refers to the legality of the practice, in that the company allows the hacker to do it. Otherwise, the practices are generally the same. The following are potential vulnerabilities in a company's network or computer system that an ethical hacker may work to avoid:

  • injection attacks

  • unauthorised changes in security settings

  • sensitive data exposure

  • ability to bypass authentication protocols

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Responsibilities of an ethical hacker

Given that this practice is a legal profession, there are rules by which an ethical hacker abides to ensure they're practising a legal form of hacking. Following these rules also allows companies to trust these hackers, which may help ethical hackers find more work. The following are the typical rules that an ethical hacker follows to remain ethical:

  • Inform the company before they attempt to hack into its network or system: This assures the company that this hacker doesn't have malicious intentions and isn't going to steal its sensitive information.

  • Describe exactly what aspects of the company's network or system they're going to investigate: This allows the company to comprehend the scope of the ethical hacker's investigation and provides the company insight into what the ethical hacker may be able to fix.

  • Report any data breaches or vulnerabilities that the company may have in their network or system: This allows the company to quickly improve their security to ensure that no malicious hackers attempt to use these vulnerabilities to access the company's information.

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Ethical hacking vs. unethical hacking

In theory, ethical and unethical hacking are very similar in execution. The primary difference is in the intent of the hacker. Also known as 'black hat' and 'white hat' hackers, these forms of hacking are in opposition to one another. White hat hackers attempt to prevent black hat hackers from accessing online information. These are the differences between black hat and white hat hackers:

  • Techniques employed: Typically, black hat hackers are actively developing methods of hacking into a company's database without the company's prior knowledge. White hat hackers typically track these hacking attempts and try to duplicate them, which can help the company develop security measures that address these hacking attempts.

  • Legality of the hacking: Black hat hackers attempt to illegally access, steal or modify online information to achieve self-gratifying results. Companies typically hire white hat hackers specifically to negate a black hat hacker's attempts to break into its system, meaning the company legally approves of white hat hackers.

Skill set of an ethical hacker

To be an effective ethical hacker, you typically require a high degree of knowledge about whatever digital system you're investigating. These may include:

Knowledge of a programming language

Typically, an ethical hacker understands the coding language that the company's technology utilises. A typical career path to follow prior to performing ethical hacking is some form of computer programming. This can help them understand exactly what the system's code is telling the system to do, which can help the hacker recognise any gaps in the system's security. For example, a company discovers their authentication process for users logging in didn't stop a malicious hacker from penetrating their system. Using their understanding of the program's coding language, an ethical hacker could discover that the system isn't functioning properly.

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Additionally, understanding any given system's coding language allows an ethical hacker to develop a security solution to the problem. A hacker may offer suggestions for security improvements to the company that includes an improved version of the company's security code. For example, an ethical hacker may develop a more effective method of authenticating users before they log in, which the company may adopt.

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Knowledge of scripting

Scripting and programming may seem similar, but the practices have different uses. Scripting automates the execution of certain tasks when a website is loading and performing. This can refer to populating a webpage with active elements, such as videos. Scripting works differently on the client end as opposed to the server end, meaning that a hacker may want to be familiar with both forms of scripting to effectively perform their security check. For example, an ethical hacker may investigate a recent system penetration from both the server and the client end to determine how the unethical hacker entered.

Generally, scripting is more secure than programming due to its compartmentalisation of tasks and access. Scripting languages don't allow penetrative action to take place as easily as a programming language might. An ethical hacker may utilise this knowledge to clarify how an unethical entry occurred.

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Knowledge of computer networks

Ethical hackers typically have a comprehensive understanding of computer networks, as these are extremely common entry points for unethical hackers. Any computer within a computer's network can access the information on the network, so an ethical hacker is typically diligent about ensuring that only authorised users can access the network. If an unauthorised computer is able to access the network, an ethical hacker can typically discover this oversight and remove access privileges from that computer.

As an example, an employee may leave a company's employment, but they never relinquished their access privileges on their computer. Now, without the company's knowledge, they can access the company's valuable information and attempt to sell it illegally. An ethical hacker may discover this security breach, identify the illicit user and revoke their access to the network, thus ensuring the network's exclusivity to the company.

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Knowledge of database construction

Typically, databases are the target of illegal hacking attempts. This is where an unethical hacker accesses to steal the information that the database stores. Therefore, ethical hackers may want to gain a practical understanding of this technology. Knowing how to deconstruct a database's functionality can help an ethical hacker understand how illicit users may be accessing their company's database and what they're doing with their illegal access.

For example, an unethical hacker may manipulate the Structured Query Language (SQL) code that runs the database so that they can manipulate, insert and retrieve any information they like. An ethical hacker may discover this illegal access and revert the database's SQL code. Now the unethical hacker can no longer modify it.

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Certified ethical hackers

As companies commit more of their intellectual property to digital databases, companies are typically interested in hiring certified ethical hackers to help them secure their valuable information. One method an ethical hacker may utilise to achieve this kind of work is to become a Certified Ethical Hacker. This is a broad certificate that verifies your working knowledge of typical security threats and countermeasures an ethical hacker may take to thwart an illegal hacking attempt.

While companies are typically looking for certification similar to this, an experienced ethical hacker may be able to find work by proving they have at least two years of cybersecurity experience. A programmer may achieve this experience by working directly with some form of online security, such as participating in the construction of a company's computer network. They may also have prior experience as a malicious hacker, but they may decide to use their talent to start a legitimate career instead.

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