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What Is an Ethical Hacker?

Rob Behnke

The word hacker in cybersecurity is broadly associated with people who are capable of gaining access to target systems by exploiting weak points and vulnerabilities in the target systems or networks.

There are two main categories of hackers: 1) immoral hackers, or those who get unauthorized access to target systems for a malicious purpose such as identity theft, information disclosure, and systems destructions and 2) ethical hackers, or those who access the target systems on behalf of the owners in order to identify the vulnerabilities in those systems. 

White Hat vs Black Hat vs Grey Hat Hackers: What’s the Difference?

Ethical hackers are also referred to as White Hat hackers whereas, on the other side of the pillar, immoral hackers are also called Black Hat hackers.

But then there’s another category of hackers that lands in between Black Hat and White Hat (Ethical) hackers and they’re called Grey Hat hackers. Without being hired officially, Grey Hat hackers find the flaws in highly critical systems and networks to identify the vulnerabilities in them. Instead of utilizing the identified flaws for malicious purposes or selling this information to criminals, the Grey Hat hackers sell that valuable information to governments, militaries, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement agencies. Governments and other stated agencies then use this information to hack the systems of rivals and other criminal suspects. 

Though the hacking activities conducted by Grey Hat hackers are potentially for good intentions Grey Hat hackers are illegal because overall they are not permitted to hack the systems of the organization without proper permission. By selling the critical information of systems to the wrong hands, the Grey Hat hackers become Black Hat hackers. On the other hand, after selling information to good hands they never become White Hat hackers. But, there is always a grey area when it comes to white and black!

So What Does an Ethical Hacker Do?

Broadly defined, the primary objectives of ethical hackers are to collect and analyze the information of networks or systems and investigate the open holes, vulnerabilities, and weak points in targets in order to find ways to enhance their security strength. 

For the stated purpose, ethical hackers are hired by enterprises - often, large business organizations - for developing solutions against vulnerabilities and data breaches in their systems and networks. The Ethical Hackers are like a digital permutation of the ancient saying “It takes a thief to catch the thief”. 

The role or profession of ethical hackers emerged in the 1990s when John Patrick, a former International Business Machine (IBM) employee, first introduced the term “Ethical Hacking”. But this concept was already in practice much earlier and was part of the responsibility of computer experts or programmers. A prime early example of this can be seen in the 1983 film War Games which features a student, played by Matthew Broderick, who cracks the war-game supercomputer unintentionally and starts helping the parent organization of that supercomputer, i.e. The United States Army, by highlighting the uncovered vulnerabilities in front of them.

Hacking As a Service

Today, ethical hackers commercialize their hacking skills and offer Hacking as a Service (HaaS). Identifying potential injection attacks, analyzing the security setting changes, checking for sensitive data exposure, finding the breaches in authentication protocols, highlighting the components of the system that may be utilized by Black Hat hackers as access points, and uncovering the vulnerabilities in systems or networks are included but not limited to the services offered by ethical hackers.

Due to the high level of dependency of modern business modes on Information and Communication Technology (ICT), the Black Hat hackers get an attractive target. According to The Hidden Costs of Cybercrime report by software security company McAfee, monetary losses due to cybercrimes reached the highest level (nearly 945 billion dollars!) in 2020. 

Therefore, business organizations - both traditional enterprises and blockchain-based projects -  tend to hire ethical hackers to harden the security of their systems. In the same report, McAfee revealed that organizations are planning to devote approximately 145 billion dollars collectively to ethical hackers and cybersecurity technologies to make their system secure against Black Hat hackers.

Ethical hackers can greatly improve the security of any organization. To find out more about how the ethical hackers at Halborn can help your company, get in touch with us at [email protected]

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