What is ethical hacking? (Definition and types of hacking)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 22 June 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.

Ethical hackers are incredibly important figures in the world of cyber security, as they use their extensive technical knowledge to hack computer systems with the target's permission. Their work is vital because it reveals critical flaws in IT systems and enables their owners to devise preventative measures for them. Knowing more about this line of work may inspire you to pursue a career as an ethical hacker. In this article, we explore this type of hacking and its various subcategories and discuss the steps to take to become an ethical hacker.

What is ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking calls on a range of specialised technical skills and knowledge to hack into computer networks on behalf of the network's owners. Unlike unethical hackers, these professionals carry out hacks to test the security of networks and make them more secure. Because ethical hackers have the same skills as unethical hackers, but don't have the same malicious intent, they can be incredibly useful for strengthening IT systems and protecting data. Ethical hackers attempt to think like criminals so that they can identify vulnerabilities. Once identified, technicians seal these entry points to prevent real criminals from doing harm.

Every industry that uses IT systems to protect valuable or sensitive information uses ethical hackers. The ethical hacker may use a variety of methods to identify ways of exploiting a system. They may send out ‘phishing' emails, which are messages designed to extract people's personal information and use the information to fraudulently login to a system. They may also attempt to breach a system by exploiting a misconfiguration, or insert a device containing malicious malware into one of an organisation's computers.

Different techniques

The process may change slightly from person to person, depending on the system and the technique in use. A general outline of the hacking process in sequential order is:

1. Gather intel

This is the first step in the process. The hacker performs reconnaissance to gather information about the target and devise a plan of attack. This includes finding information that is useful to the hack, such as IP addresses, DNS records and login credentials.

2. Test the system

Once the hacker gathers basic information about the target, they can test the system for weaknesses. The hacker uses various tools to test the systems they are attacking. These include apparatus such as network mappers, sweepers and port scanners.

3. Breach the system

Once they have thoroughly probed the system and uncovered weaknesses, the hacker attempts to breach the system. A hacker may gain entry through a malfunction in a system, or they may steal login details from people by various means and use them to gain access. Hackers may also physically breach the premises of an organisation in carrying out a hack.

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4. Maintain access

Once a hacker gains access to a system, they find ways to maintain access so that they can come and go as they please. This may involve adding various passages and entry points that they can use at a later date. Some hackers use tools at this stage to scam systems from within and identify vulnerabilities.

5. Destroy evidence

An important part of remaining undetected is erasing any evidence of the hackers' presence. Hackers delete any logs that detail interactions that occurred during the attack. If a hacker successfully hides the evidence of their wrongdoing, they can keep coming back and hack into the same system repeatedly.

6. Report findings

During this stage, the hacker compiles a detailed report of what they've discovered. This includes explaining in detail exactly where the system's vulnerabilities are and the best course of action to take to fix them. The hacker typically explains their journey from the first step to the last, detailing every aspect of the hack so that their employer can repair faults and strengthen their system.

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Benefits of ethical hacking

Businesses, governments and organisations are the primary beneficiaries of this type of hacking, as it reveals weaknesses in their computer systems that they can then fix or strengthen. Here are some of the major benefits:

  • Prevents data leaks: Having a secure IT system is essential to prevent sensitive or valuable data from leaking into the public domain or getting into the hands of criminals. Ethical hackers prevent data leaks by helping organisations protect their data more effectively.

  • Defends against terrorism: Because many terrorists now seek to conduct their attacks in cyberspace, ethical hackers help to defend against terrorism. Ethical hackers may work for military organisations, strengthening IT systems that hold data unethical personalities actively try to obtain.

  • Reveals weaknesses: Ethical hackers find weaknesses and flaws in computer networks while discovering ways to hack into them. This can be incredibly useful to organisations because they wouldn't know about the weaknesses without the hackers' help.

  • Strengthens security: Once revealed, experts can address weaknesses. This results in the system getting stronger over time, because every weakness the hacker reveals, the organisation can fix and make their systems much stronger as a result.

  • Increases trust in organisations: If the public are aware that an organisation has put effort into testing and strengthening their IT networks, they are more likely to trust an organisation to be responsible with their sensitive data. This is especially important for financial institutions, as a malicious hack into a bank's computer network, for example, can be devastating for customers.

The benefits of using ethical hackers are tremendous in some instances, as these professionals play a critical role in maintaining the national security of all the world's nations.

Types of hacking

There are various types of hacking and each is useful in specific circumstances. Both ethical hackers and unethical hackers use the exact same methods, but their intentions separate them. The unethical hacker uses the methods below for their selfish and criminal gain, whereas ethical hackers use the described methods to help strengthen systems and fight suspect hacking. Here are the main types of hacking in use today:

Web application hacking

This type of hacking exploits web applications via Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and is the means by which the Internet facilitates the transfer of data. Hackers typically hack web applications by first getting a user's login details. They may do this using a phishing scam, which tricks people into giving over their information, or by using keystroke software, which logs the keys a user taps and reveals passwords. A web application hacker may also gain entry into the back end of a website and write malicious code to break the site.

Wireless network hacking

This type of hacking involves a hacker defeating the security of a wireless network. Wi-Fi is one of the most commonly used wireless networks and hackers can attempt to gain access to these by using techniques such as DNS hijacking. Hackers can potentially attack home Wi-Fi networks and having a complex password is one way to strengthen security.

System hacking

System hacking describes the process of attacking a single device or system that is connected to a larger network. Unethical system hackers use this method to perform a range of malicious activities, including stealing, destroying and deleting files and passwords. If hackers breach one system, the entire network of systems that it's connected to are also at risk.

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Web server hacking

A web server is a program that stores files and generates web content in real-time. Hackers can gain access to these systems and steal information or cause harm by destroying data. Web server hackers use DoS attacks, SYN flood attacks and sniffing attacks to carry out their unethical activities.

Social engineering

This is an especially devious form of hacking that uses people to carry out various activities. Social engineer hackers exploit aspects of human psychology to manipulate people into doing things that aid the hacker, such as revealing sensitive information or performing activities on the hacker's behalf. Social engineering is a term used in social science fields and this term has an entirely separate definition when used in the context of hacking.

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Types of hackers

There are various types of hackers in the world today. Some of them do helpful, legitimate work, while others become hackers to make money and to cause harm. Here are some different types of hackers:

  • White hat hackers: People use the term white hat synonymously with ethical and these hackers do helpful, honest work.

  • Black hat hackers: These are the malicious hackers that oppose white hat hackers and other honest Internet users.

  • Grey hat hackers: These hackers exist in a grey area, as the name suggests. They may hack systems without permission, but they don't steal things, they simply do it for entertainment or to challenge themselves.

The various names for hackers derive from old western movies, where the colours of the character's hats indicate which side they are on. With the ‘bad guys' usually wearing black hats and the ‘good guys' usually wearing white hats.

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