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A complete guide to ethical hacking

By Academy Xi

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Believe it or not, hackers aren’t always the bad guys. Are you new to the world of ethical hacking? Learn everything you need to know about this emerging profession and get all the advice you need to plan your own path into cyber security.

Academy Xi's complete guide to ethical hacking

What is an ethical or white hat hacker?

Also known as “white hats,” ethical hackers are security experts who legally and deliberately use hacking methods to perform security assessments. These assessments help businesses and organisations improve their security posture. 

Ethical hacking is an authorised attempt to gain access to restricted data on a computer, system or network, replicating the hacking methods a malicious attacker would use. This practice helps to pinpoint security vulnerabilities, which can then be strengthened before an attacker has the chance to exploit them.

What are the key concepts of ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking is a complex, multifaceted process, with many different elements to consider. An ethical hacker will identify security weaknesses in a variety of different ways, while they will also perform a range of other Cyber Security-related tasks. These include: 

  • Assessing vulnerabilities
  • Gathering intelligence about entry points
  • Scanning infrastructures to spot weaknesses 
  • Accessing systems/networks and exploiting vulnerabilities (known as penetration testing)
  • Hiding hacker access and evading detection 
  • Compiling reports and giving analysis of any weaknesses

White hat hacker vs black hat hacker 

While white hat hackers are the good guys, black hat hackers are definitely the villains of the piece. When white hat hackers go in search of security vulnerabilities, it’s black hat hackers that their assessment is intended to defend against. 

Black hat hackers are criminals who break into computer networks with malicious intent. They may also release malware that destroys files, holds computers hostage (known as ransomware), or steals passwords, bank details and other sensitive information.

Black hats are motivated by self-serving reasons, such as financial gain, revenge, or simply a desire to create havoc. Sometimes the hacker’s motivation is ideological and they will target people or organisations who adopt policies that they strongly disagree with.

Is ethical hacking legal?

As you’ve probably figured out by now, ethical or white hat hacking is a completely legal activity, provided the ethical hacker has been given permission by the company who owns the system, network or data that the hacker will attempt to breach. 

With that in mind, there’s a shortlist of responsibilities that every ethical hacker should follow one-by-one. Let’s take a closer look at that list. 

What are the responsibilities of an ethical hacker?

There are a few simple protocols that every ethical hacker should follow. These will keep clients happy and ethical hackers on the right side of the law. These protocols are as follows:

  • Stay legal: Obtain proper approval before attempting a hack and performing a security assessment
  • Define the scope: Determine the scope of the assessment so that any work remains legal and within the organisation’s approved boundaries
  • Report vulnerabilities: Notify the organisation of all vulnerabilities discovered during the assessment. Provide remediation advice for resolving these vulnerabilities
  • Respect data sensitivity: Depending on the data sensitivity, ethical hackers may have to agree to a non-disclosure agreement, in addition to other terms and conditions required by the assessed organisation

The main benefits of ethical hacking

There are a number of benefits that come with ethical hacking, the biggest being:

  • Improving security posture – The most obvious benefit of ethical hacking is that it helps organisations identify and address security vulnerabilities in their systems. Organisations can harden their defences by testing their system against potential attacks, making themselves better prepared to deal with real-world threats.
  • Reduce the risk of data breaches – Data breaches are becoming increasingly common and can have devastating consequences for businesses (for example, the fallout from the recent Telstra and Optus attacks was enormous). By identifying and addressing security vulnerabilities before they can be exploited, ethical hacking can help to reduce the risk of data breaches.
  • Improve incident response – In the event of a security incident, it is crucial to have an effective incident response plan in place. Ethical hacking can help organisations test and refine their incident response plans to better deal with actual incidents.
  • Enhance security awareness – Organisations that engage in ethical hacking often find that it helps to raise awareness of security issues among their employees. As well as identifying vulnerabilities, ethical hacking can create a security-conscious culture and a team better equipped to deal with threats. 
  • Build customer trust – In today’s hyper security-conscious world, customers are more concerned than ever before about the safety of their data. By demonstrating that you take security seriously and are proactive in addressing vulnerabilities, you can build trust with your customers and show that you are committed to safeguarding their data.

Is ethical hacking a good career?

The Australian Cyber Security market is growing at a rate of more than 8% annually. A hefty chunk of this growth can be attributed to rising levels of cyber crime and the increased regulation of cyber security protocols, which companies are now striving to meet. 

With companies prioritising their cyber security posture, ethical hacking is fast becoming a core component of any solid cyber security strategy. As a result, ethical hackers are in high demand. 

While you’ll struggle to find a role dedicated to ethical hacking alone, Penetration Testers spend a large proportion of their time planning and orchestrating ethical hacks. The average annual salary for a Penetration Tester is extremely high at $125,103.  As long as there’s cyber crime (and there always will be), there will be a strong demand for Penetration Testers, meaning it’s a career with superb long-term prospects. 

Skills need to become an ethical hacker

You’ll need a range of skills to succeed in the competitive world of cyber security as an ethical hacker. The most important skills include:

  • Knowledge of programming – This one almost goes without saying. Programming skills are essential to becoming an ethical hacker. Your hacking will involve writing code in various programming languages, and you’ll need to be fluent in several languages to mimic the methods used by the real criminals. 
  • Network skills – A prerequisite for any ethical hacker is having a detailed understanding of computer networks. This includes being able to work hands-on with network models, internet protocols, and IP addresses. You should also be familiar with routers, servers, clients, transmission media, access points, shared data and network interface cards. 
  • Scripting skills Programming skills are essential for ethical hacking, because they allow hackers to automate tasks and create their own custom tools to test systems for vulnerabilities. Without scripting skills, hackers would be limited to using only the tools that are available to them.
  • Understanding databases – To protect your company’s data, it’s vital that you’re able to fine-tune a Database Management Systems (or DBMS) and ultimately make it as close to hack-proof as possible. To help a company create a robust DBMS, an ethical hacker must understand the various database engines and data schemes inside-out.

How to get into Cyber Security

Completing practical, hands-on training in cyber security is a great way to get a foothold in the industry. Whether you’re already an IT professional seeking to upskill, or keen to launch a tech career from scratch, ensuring you have all the fundamental skills under your belt is a must. 

Our Cyber Security Engineering: Transform course will give you technical skills and strategic mindset that today’s Cyber Security Professional needs, taking you from beginner to job-ready and also offering access to a Career Support Program that helps 97% of graduates straight into the industry. 

If you have any questions, our experienced team is here to discuss your training options. Speak to a course advisor today and take the first steps in your Cyber Security journey.