The term ‘Hacker’ was coined in the 1960s as a way to describe experts using their skills to re-develop mainframe systems, which would increase their efficiency and allow them to multitask. Today, the term is used to describe malicious actors who use their skills to exploit computer system weaknesses or vulnerabilities in order to gain unauthorized access. When used with ill intent, a hacker’s abilities can disrupt network services and interrupt business processes. However, ethical hackers use the same skill sets to strengthen a business’s security posture.
What is Ethical Hacking?
Ethical hacking is by definition an authorized process of bypassing system firewalls and security to identify potential vulnerabilities that can be exploited in order to threaten a network. Where black hat hackers are focused on acquiring sensitive data and causing damage, ethical hackers are focused on using their knowledge to improve network security overall.
Cybercrime is the 2nd most reported economic crime affecting 32% of organizations. According to Varonis, hackers attack somewhere in the world every 39 seconds with the average cost of a breach being $3.92 million. If malicious hackers gain unauthorized access they can control or alter company websites, crash or lock down backend servers with malware, and steal personal employee details.
In addition to the damage a single breach can bring, another concern is that the exploits that black hat hackers used in a successful breach may go undocumented and unresolved.
Ethical hacking is synonymous with penetration testing as both provide solutions by taking similar actions with company authorization in order to identify and document vulnerabilities before they are exploited. The final stage of any ethical hacking process should result in detailed documentation of identified vulnerabilities and potential remediation actions, and white hat hackers can re-test and ensure security gaps are resolved.
To be effective in their roles, ethical hackers must study the mindset and techniques of black hat hackers and testers to learn how to identify and resolve vulnerabilities within the network. The range of skills required in order to act as an ethical hacker is vast, as it requires a master of processes, components, or programming languages that make up a network. White hat hackers will often specialize as subject matter experts (SME) in a focus area and operate in teams to ensure a holistic assessment of potential exploits.
Key differentiators between unethical and ethical hacking are that experts follow four key protocols:
- Actions Performed Legally / with Authorization: Ethical hackers obtain organization approval before performing a security assessment and attempting to achieve network access.
- Predetermined Scope: Assessment type and scope are decided beforehand so that the ethical hacker’s work remains legal and falls within approved boundaries.
- Vulnerability Documentation and Reports: When an assessment is completed, the organization is notified and given a report detailing all vulnerabilities discovered along with remediation advice to resolve vulnerabilities.
- Observance of Data Sensitivity: Depending on the scope of an assessment, ethical hackers may need to sign a non-disclosure agreement or other required terms and conditions in order to protect sensitive data.
Furthermore, ethical hacking is a known and documented field of study. There are recognized organizations that offer courses to become certified ethical hackers to validate credentials and skill quality. Some well-known and ethical courses to become certified ethical hackers include:
- EC Council: Certified Ethical Hacking Certification
- Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) Certification
- CompTIA Security+
- Cisco’s CCNA Security
- SANS GIAC
Types of Ethical Hacking
Depending on the agreed scope of ethical hacking efforts, pen testing methods will follow strict guidelines. Failure to plan correctly for ethical hacking attempts can result in disruptions to business operations. Setting strict parameters helps avoid these missteps while ensuring that vulnerabilities are evaluated properly.
Here are some examples of ethical penetration testing methods:
- External: In this method, hackers attempt to gain entry and extract sensitive data from by attacking online company assets that can be seen online. This can include websites, web applications, emails, or domain name servers (DNS).
- Internal: Using permissions common to standard users, internal tests mimic an attack by a user with credentials that allow access behind the company firewall. This sort of attack is possible when user credentials are stolen.
- Blind: Hackers attempt to gain access to the network with only the name of the targeted company. This is perhaps most similar to hacking attempts by malicious actors and provides a real-time view of how black hat hackers would attempt an actual application assault.
- Double-Blind: Security personnel are given no notice of penetration efforts as hackers attempt to gain access to the targeted network. This method serves to test network defenses, existing security protocols, and the length of time taken to respond to a breach attempt.
- Targeted: Security personnel and authorized white hats operate in tandem, keeping each other informed on real-time actions. This enables security personnel to see how attacks occur from the hacker’s perspective, preparing them to anticipate the next steps in a real attack.
These penetration testing methods all serve to prepare network defenses against a variety of attack types. However, it can also be useful to enact ethical hacking assessments can enact specific attack methods in order to test system responses.
Injection attacks are one of the oldest attack types yet remain they remain one of the most dangerous. This involves a broad class of attack vectors where the hacker supplies untrusted input into a program. This is processed by an interpreter as part of a command or query which then alters the course of execution actions within the program.
Hackers will continuously monitor a target system looking for changes in security settings and tracking responsive security measures for different activities. Disparities in security protocols can often be exploited by hackers who attempt to gain access from multiple points at once.
Whether from user negligence or from more direct discovery attacks like phishing, compromised credentials and cloud configuration errors are responsible for 19% of breaches. Hackers look for the exposure of sensitive data and then utilize acquired credentials or information to gain entry to the target network.
In the case of website attacks, hackers will attempt to create a breach in authentication protocols by interrupting communications between the website and the browser. Hackers use this to identify exposures where a breach can be performed or to seize authentication functions.
If a hacker has been able to successfully scan the features, ports, and vulnerabilities in a system, components used in the system or network can be used as access points. This can result in attacks on multiple ports at once in order to strengthen the chance of a successful breach.
Phases of Ethical Hacking
The phases of ethical hacking will follow similar procedures seen in penetration testing. The scale and variety of actions taken in this phase will depend on the predetermined testing agreement. The phases of ethical hacking are as follows:
- Planning & Reconnaissance: In this phase hackers will collect as much information about the targeted system as possible, using information available online to build target profiles. Depending on the goal of an assessment
- Scanning: Using technical knowledge of the target system, hackers use scanning tools to collect data on how an operating system will respond to various intrusion attempts. Scanning methods can provide static analysis that scans application code top-to-bottom to track response actions or dynamic analysis that provides a real-time view of performance data.
- Gaining Network Access: Hackers use the information collected in phase 1 and phase 2 and attempt to exploit weaknesses and gain unauthorized access to the targeted network with the goal of acquiring as much sensitive data as possible. While hackers might attempt to exploit multiple vulnerabilities they are more likely to focus on exploits that offer the highest chance of entry. This phase may follow a technical approach where data acquired from port and scanner tools is leveraged to gain entry into a system and escalate their privileges to access sensitive data. Alternatively, hackers can use a social engineering strategy, or a human approach, that targets employees by compiling information collected from open source search engines or social media and then attempt malware attacks or device breaches that then provide system access.
- Maintain Access: In this phase, hackers attempt to maintain a persistent presence within the target network while continuing to acquire valuable data. It can take over 200 days to recognize and contain a data breach, and for ethical hacking purposes, this phase is a key indicator of how security personnel will respond when a system has been compromised.
- Analysis and WAF Configuration: In this final phase, hackers attempt to remove any evidence of the data breach or their actions within the network. Authorized testers will use this phase to document their methods, results, identified vulnerabilities, and remediation actions. This information is vital for security personnel when developing application patches and configuring web application firewall (WAF).
When performed properly, the findings of penetration testing processes can create a robust awareness of vulnerabilities within a network. However, this process is not without limitations. In particular, ethical hackers cannot take actions beyond the limited scope defined in their initial authorization agreement and cannot account for vulnerabilities present outside of the testing focus.
Similarly, ethical hackers are typically given clear time constraints in which to attempt breaching efforts and may not be allowed to enact test cases that could result in a server crash like a denial of service (DoS) attack.
Malicious attackers have unlimited time and no ethical constraints guiding their actions and thus could still potentially discover vulnerabilities not seen in the testing process. However, every vulnerability resolved as a result of ethical hacking efforts is one less option for a bad actor.
Benefits of Ethical Hacking
The most obvious benefit of learning ethical hacking is its potential to secure systems by informing and improving corporate network defenses. The primary threat to any organization’s information security is a hacker, and secure simulations are never going to compare to the sophistication and variety of attack strategies a person can utilize. Understanding how hackers operate and amending network defenses to accommodate for their strategies can help security personnel in prioritizing potential risks and standardizing remediate best practices.
The simulations ethical hackers perform serve to identify and eliminate vulnerabilities before they result in full-scale breach scenarios. Similarly, ethical hacking efforts can show if security controls like firewalls or data loss protection protocols are operating effectively and whether new protocols need to be implemented. This can also serve as an excellent tool during software development to secure new applications before they are implemented across a company.
While security personnel can recommend the best cyber defense best practices, it can be difficult to see the gaps in a system from the inside. Ethical hackers are able to prove whether security gaps exist and if they can be exploited. Consequently, it is highly recommended that ethical hacking efforts be a regular feature of a cybersecurity strategy.
Ethical Hacking – White Hats & Black Hats
The key difference between ethical hacking and its malicious counterpart is intent. Black hat hackers use their skills to penetrate network defenses, gain unauthorized access, and acquire sensitive data for financial gain or for mischief. The methods used by unethical hackers to exploit weaknesses can range from using bugs to breach computer networks, creating algorithms to crack passwords, using programming knowledge to overload system commands, and more.
Contrarily, ethical or white hat hackers use the same skillsets and mindset to discover and close vulnerabilities before they are exploited, ultimately serving to strengthen network defenses. Where malicious hackers are more interested in damaging the target system, white hats are interested in identifying weaknesses in system defense without disrupting business operations
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