Ethical hacking is the practice of exposing weaknesses in computer systems and networks. By doing so, you are alerted to potential problem areas that need to be addressed before cyber attackers can exploit them. Employing the same methods malicious hackers use, ethical hackers test your cybersecurity defenses. They assess how prepared you are to withstand an actual attack.

Here’s how you can think of it. To prepare for an important match, a boxer may spar with someone who has the same style as the upcoming opponent. The sparring partner can help expose the boxer’s weaknesses against the other fellow. This helps him make the necessary adjustments and prepares him for the fight. Ethical hacking gives a similar advantage to a company’s computer systems.

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There are four main reasons why hacking occurs, which are:

  • To prove that hackers can do it
  • For financial gain
  • To destabilize a nation
  • To gain a competitive edge

Let’s focus on the first reason, as this is where ethical hacking falls. In this scenario, the hackers are either script kiddies who want to gain notoriety among their peers or ethical hackers, also knows as white hat hackers. The latter’s goal is to improve an organization’s cybersecurity posture. In a nutshell, the company gives ethical hackers the authority to infiltrate its systems if they can.

The skills required in ethical hacking is no different from those that cybercriminals possess. Ethical hacking is still hacking. The only difference is that an organization hires white hat hackers to hack its own network. By knowing the vulnerabilities in their systems, companies can quickly install patches so cybercriminals won’t stand a chance if they decide to infiltrate corporate networks.

What ethical hackers do is called “penetration testing” or “pen-testing.” White hat hackers scan a network, systems, devices, and web applications for vulnerabilities that malicious actors can exploit. The process can be manual, although programs for automating pen-testing also exist.

Once white hat hackers find plausible entry points, they are bound to report these to their employer and also propose remedies. An interesting thought, though, is this: Could a white hat hacker turn into a malicious actor after finding entry points for cyber attacks?

Can a White Hat Hacker Turn into a Black Hat Hacker?

An internal team of cybersecurity experts or a third party can perform ethical hacking. Obviously, asking an internal team to do the hacking is more secure, as they must adhere to company policies such as nondisclosure agreements (NDAs).

But not all organizations have an internal team of cybersecurity experts that can spend a considerable amount of time to unearth their vulnerabilities. Some companies, therefore, resort to hiring outsiders, albeit with the utmost caution. After all, there are ample motivations for a hacker to replace their white hats with black ones.

Money is one. When security expert, David Holmes, asked a white hat hacker if she would wear a black hat for US$1 million, the hacker’s answer was no. But when Holmes upped the price to a billion dollars, there was a hesitation on the white hat’s part.

Holmes asked several white hat hackers the same question and found that 74% of white hat hackers say that no amount of money can turn them into criminals. That’s a comforting thought, although it still means that 1 out of 4 white hat hackers could turn to the dark side for the right price or the right cause.

Ethical Hacking Should be Done with Caution

Organizations that decide to hire a third-party expert to perform ethical hacking should take all precautionary measures to protect themselves. For one, they should ensure that the person or team they hire is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). That way, penetration testing is done in a controlled environment following industry standards.

Companies must also make contracts and NDAs as detailed as possible so that they and their stakeholders are protected.

With the proliferation of cybercrime, organizations need to step up and do everything they can to avoid becoming the next victims. Ethical hacking is just one of the radical methods that businesses employ to protect themselves from cyberattacks. It’s not without issues, though, so companies must take all the necessary precautionary measures when hiring white hat hackers.