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What is Ethical Hacking? A Beginner's Guide

Hacking. It's a term that conjures up a distinct image. One of the shadowy characters — hooded recluses, furiously clacking away at their keyboards, navigating endless lines of vertically-scrolling green code. Criminals, members of the secretive cyber-elite. Misunderstood geniuses gone rogue, effortlessly penetrating the mainframe (or whatever it is they're supposed to be doing…).

Sadly, this is quite removed from reality. The vast majority of hackers share more in common with petty thieves than they do the likes of Neo (from The Matrix) or Edward Snowden (from, you know, real life). Nevertheless, the havoc they continue to wreak is far from fantasy. It's estimated that worldwide, cyber crimes will cost $10.5 trillion annually by 2025.

Surely then, cybersecurity should be somewhere near the very top of any business owner's list of priorities? But therein lies the problem. How can one be sure that their defense systems are functioning correctly without putting them to the test first?

Enter the ethical hacker. Never heard the term? Read on, as we discuss what an ethical hacker does, and why you should consider hiring one!

The history of ethical hacking

Truthfully, the history of ethical hacking is really just the history of hacking. The practice can be traced back to the 1970s when the first computer systems and networks were being developed. At that time, the concept of "hacking" had not yet taken on the negative connotations it has today, and many early hackers were simply people who were curious about the capabilities of these new machines.

However, in the 1980s and 1990s, as the use of computer systems became more widespread and the potential risks associated with unauthorized access to these systems became more apparent, the need for ethical hacking began to emerge. Organizations started to hire security professionals to identify vulnerabilities in their systems and to test the effectiveness of their security measures.

In the early 2000s, ethical hacking began to gain more mainstream attention, as high-profile hacking incidents and security breaches became more frequent. These include:

  • The Mafiaboy Attacks (2000): a 15-year-old hacker going by the handle MafiaBoy managed to take down some of the biggest sites on the web: CNN, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, Dell, and eTrade. The motive? To impress the wider hacking community. He served 8 months in a youth group home and now works as an ethical hacker.
  • The Iceman Hacks (2006): Max Butler (also known by the online name Iceman) hacks several carder forums — illegal online marketplaces where users buy credit card details, fake IDs, and stolen data. All in all, these hacks resulted in almost $87 million in fraudulent charges. Max served 13 years — the second-longest prison sentence ever issued for hacking.
  • The iCloud Celebrity Hacks/The Fappening (2014): In 2014, several accounts, including those of high-profile celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, were breached on the Apple cloud storage platform. The hackers employed a combination of brute-force guessing and phishing tactics to gain unauthorized access. Private nude photos and videos were leaked online over a few weeks. Multiple people were investigated, and at least two were convicted in late 2016 and early 2017 for their involvement in the hack, receiving sentences of 9-18 months.

As a result of these high-profile cases, governments, corporations, and other organizations quickly began to take hacking more seriously. The solution? Hire ethical hackers, also known as 'white hat' hackers, to use the same methods as their black hat counterparts. By identifying weak points, they can provide feedback and develop solutions to strengthen the system, thereby eliminating any vulnerabilities.

Today, ethical hacking is an established and respected profession, with organizations worldwide employing ethical hackers to test their security measures and keep their systems safe from cyber threats. The practice is so commonplace that it's even possible to become a certified ethical hacker. The practice of ethical hacking continues to evolve as new technologies and security threats emerge, and it remains a vital component of the ongoing effort to keep computer systems and networks secure.

How can ethical hacking help your business?

Now that we've established the purpose of an ethical (or white hat) hacker, let's discuss, in broad terms, how one may help your business.

When dealing with cybersecurity, businesses typically adopt one of two strategies: reactive or proactive. Our advice is to avoid the reactive approach of waiting for a potential cyber attack to expose any weaknesses — this isn't a sound way for any business to handle the issue. Instead, a proactive approach is recommended. Ethical hackers can facilitate proactivity by performing penetration tests and identifying any vulnerabilities before they're exploited by bad actors.

Ethical hackers can test any part of your company's IT infrastructure. Let's take a look at a few examples of the kind of tests they can perform:

  • Network penetration tests: to identify any issues with the design, implementation, or maintenance of your company's servers, workstations, or network services. These tests are usually given priority — unsurprising, given how many businesses now rely on cloud or VPS hosting environments to store sensitive data or run critical applications (for more information on this subject, we'd recommend Cloudways' guide on cloud vs VPS hosting).
  • Wireless penetration tests: the ethical hacker uses specialized tools and techniques to scan the wireless network for potential vulnerabilities, such as weak passwords, outdated software, or misconfigured network settings. They might also attempt to intercept and decode wireless transmissions, or launch attacks against wireless devices or access points.
  • Social engineering: Social engineering is a technique used by attackers to manipulate individuals into revealing confidential information or performing actions that compromise the security of an organization. In other words, it's a way of tricking people into giving up sensitive information or access to systems or data. For example, an ethical hacker might send a convincing-looking email that appears to be from a trusted source, such as a manager or colleague, asking the recipient to click on a link or provide login credentials. Alternatively, they may call an employee pretending to be a technical support representative and ask for access to their computer or network.

Manual testing vs automated testing

Hackers are devious, cunning criminals, and mounting your defenses against these slippery characters can be tricky. This is why ethical hackers are so useful — the best way to beat a hacker is to draft with the help of somebody who thinks like one!

However, ethical hackers aren't the only way to perform penetration tests. For businesses on a budget, there are specialized software packages that can automatically scan and probe a system for vulnerabilities. While this type of testing is generally faster and more cost-effective than manual (human-performed) testing, it may also generate false positives or miss certain vulnerabilities that a human tester would easily identify. Even the best pen-testing software will prove useless if improperly configured.

The recommended practice in cybersecurity is to use both techniques. In fact, if you do hire an ethical hacker, they are likely to use automated software alongside their manual tests.

Why hire an ethical hacker?

Before we wrap up, let's examine some of the key reasons why a business might choose to use ethical hackers to perform penetration tests on their systems.

  • To identify vulnerabilities: Ethical hackers can help businesses identify weaknesses in their systems and networks by using the same techniques that malicious hackers use. By doing so, they can help businesses to strengthen their defenses and reduce the risk of future cyber attacks.
  • To prevent data breaches: By identifying and addressing vulnerabilities, ethical hackers can help businesses to prevent data breaches. This can help to protect sensitive information, such as customer data, intellectual property, and financial information.
  • To improve compliance: Many businesses are subject to regulations that require them to maintain certain levels of security. The use of ethical hackers allows businesses to identify and address vulnerabilities that could lead to non-compliance, thereby reducing penalties and fines.
  • To enhance customer trust: Hiring an ethical hacker is a fantastic way to demonstrate your company's ongoing commitment to security, improve brand reputation, attract new customers, and inspire loyalty among existing ones.
  • For third-party assessments: Businesses may use ethical hackers to assess the security of third-party vendors and partners with whom they share sensitive information. This can help ensure that these partners have adequate security controls.
  • To improve security awareness: Working with ethical hackers can help to improve security awareness among employees and other stakeholders, as they learn about the types of attacks that can be used against their systems and how to prevent them.


So, there you have it — ethical hacking is a critical component of modern cybersecurity and a worthwhile expense for any business. By hiring skilled professionals to identify vulnerabilities in their systems, businesses can proactively reduce their risk of security incidents and protect sensitive data from malicious actors.

As technology evolves, we think it's a safe bet that ethical hacking will remain an essential tool in the ongoing battle to protect against cyber threats. For more on cyber security, check out our guide to AWS penetration testing, and our guide to protecting yourself online.

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