Glossary Background Image

No Bad Questions About Cybersecurity

Definition of Ethical hacking

What is ethical hacking

Ethical hacking is the process of authorized hacking into an organization's systems, networks, or applications to identify vulnerabilities and improve overall security.

What is the difference between hacking and ethical hacking?

Hacking. As such, hacking is usually an illegal action to unauthorizedly penetrate a system to breach its security, steal data, or destroy a company's physical infrastructure or public status.

Ethical hacking. It is authorized hacking that mimics the attack methods of malicious actors and aims to proactively detect and remediate vulnerabilities within the organization's strictly defined scope and terms.

What is the difference between ethical hacking and a penetration test?

Penetration test. This term can encompass a variety of methods, including social engineering and physical security breaches, depending on the scope agreed upon with the client.

Ethical hacking is a broader concept that includes penetration testing as one of its methodologies. It tests different aspects: from technical security to physical measures and employees.

Ethical hackers operate by the law. They obtain permission from system owners to conduct penetration testing and security analysis. Prior consent is the key element that separates their activities from illegal practices.

It is also worth noting that in addition to white hats — which are also called ethical hackers who protect organizations from black hats — there are also gray hats.

They are singled out as a separate category because their motives are different, and unlike the black hats, they are not in pursuit of profit or damage. Instead, they may hack into systems for:

Research purposes. They may have a strong interest in banal knowledge of how certain technologies work or a desire to improve their security in critical areas where no one performs security checks or where security is insufficient, in their opinion.

Ideological purposes. They may use hacking as a political statement, an attempt to draw attention to a social issue, etc. It can also be motivated by an attempt to draw attention to their persona by demonstrating their skills and gaining recognition in certain communities.

While the motives of gray hats may be fundamentally different from black hats — both are completely illegal because they operate without the prior approval of system owners and test all areas of the system instead of strictly predetermined areas.

What is ethical hacking used for?

Because many companies can't afford to keep a security team in place all the time, or their team may lack certain expertise, they need ethical hacker support. Ethical hacking helps fill in security gaps by finding all sorts of vulnerabilities and improving the overall security of systems. Here are more specific purposes:

Preventing cyberattacks. Companies, especially startups, value impeccable reputation to gather investments. They may update their code base very intensively and not have time to find new vulnerabilities in their systems. Ethical hackers help to proactively find vulnerabilities, being proactive and preventing possible attacks and their consequences for companies.

Compliance with laws and regulations. Companies also need to meet certain security standards to operate in different industries or jurisdictions. Ethical hacking helps assess the level of this compliance without repercussions in the form of violations and fines and points out those aspects of security that need improvement.

Training and counseling. Ethical hackers can provide information technology and security awareness training, or consulting services. This is especially valuable because their personal, unique experience can provide more specific guidance than a standard set of rules from common frameworks and security standards.

Key Takeaways

  • Ethical hackers help companies proactively find the vulnerable parts in their hardware, software, or human structures and enable them to fix them before real attackers can find and exploit them.
  • Ethical hacking is legal because it emulates real attack methods and tools but with prior permission and with certain terms and areas that system owners provide.
  • It is profitable for businesses because only some companies have enough resources for internal security teams, but external security specialists can provide the balance between viable security budgets and needed security measures.
  • Ethical hacks are still rewarded even if companies maintain an internal security team because outside experts can be more objective and provide missing expertise or unique approaches to security.
  • Attackers may seek to breach the security of a system for various purposes, so ethical hacking takes proactive measures to secure company data, which later preserves a company's competitive advantage, public reputation, or compliance with industrial standards.

More terms related to Cybersecurity