The word “hacker” has a tainted reputation. In the early part of the 21st century it became synonymous with shady individuals hunched over computers in darkened rooms, anonymously stealing our data – but it wasn’t always like that. If we rewind to the 1950s and 60s, when the original hackers emerged, we learnt that they were students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – bright sparks who loved nothing better than finding an inspired solution to a techy problem.
For those early pioneers, a hack was simply a feat of programming prowess and over time the word became linked with the burgeoning computer scene at the university and beyond. Despite its modern association with nefarious online activities, a new band of morally sound computer techies have arisen from the digital ether. Rather than terrorising the internet, they use their sought-after skills to hack for the common good – and they go by the name of ethical hackers.
What is ethical hacking?
Ethical hacking can be defined as: “the exploitation of an IT system with the permission of its owner to determine its vulnerabilities and weak points”.
Essentially, it is an authorised attempt to gain unauthorised access to a computer system, application, or its data – the complete opposite of the type of hacking we have come to associate the word with. An ethical hacker’s M.O. is to duplicate the strategies and actions of malicious hackers. This copycat approach allows them to identify security vulnerabilities within an IT infrastructure so they can be resolved before a Cybercriminal can exploit them.
The words exciting and IT jobs do not tend to find themselves in the same sentence, but ethical hacking is an exception to the rule. Also known as “white hats” – in a nod to the old spaghetti westerns where the good guy wears a white hat – the proactive work of these security experts helps to strengthen an organisation’s Cybersecurity and improves its technology by pretending to be the bad guy.
Ethical hacking typically comprises five stages:
- Planning/reconnaissance: goals are defined and intelligence gathered
- Scanning: tools are deployed to understand the target’s response
- Gaining access: web application attacks are executed to identify vulnerabilities
- Maintaining access: sophisticated techniques are imitated to ascertain whether a vulnerability can be exploited to maintain access
- Analysis: results are used to improve network and cyber security
Why is ethical hacking important?
On the face of it, hacking into somebody’s account or service doesn’t seem very ethical. However, with the exponential growth of Cybercrime in recent years, it’s made this a sought-after skill and a vital layer in protecting a business’s major asset: data.
The rapid evolution of digital technologies helps make businesses more efficient, but it can also open the door to Cybercriminals who attempt to exploit them by developing sophisticated attacks to fit new trends, while tweaking existing attacks to avoid detection. The subsequent proliferation of worms, viruses, trojan horses, spyware, adware, and ransomware has magnified the need to safeguard networks by beating Cybercriminals at their own game – enter the ethical hacker.
We only need to look at the growth of high-profile attacks in recent years to highlight the scale of the problem. Gone are the days when a breach that compromises the data of a couple of million people is big news. Things have escalated far beyond that: around 3.5 billion people saw their personal data stolen in the top two biggest breaches of this century alone. However, we must not forget that organisations of all sizes are at risk of data breaches – 43 per cent of attacks are aimed at small businesses, many of which lack the resources to recover once compromised.
Effective network security ensures digital assets that are client or public-facing – like websites, account portals and payment pages – are reliable, compliant and safe to use. Get this right and you can prevent operational disruption and financial loss – and keep your reputation intact. Get it wrong, and it could jeopardise the entire business.
To mitigate the impact of cyber-attacks that target your network, ethical hackers use their technical skills to identify how they might happen and the potential damage. Here are some of the attacks they might execute to shore up your network security:
- Web application hacking: these hacks address issues surrounding the security of web applications and services such as APIs and websites. By testing their durability, you can ensure your network is secure enough to protect valuable data and prevent disruptions.
- Web server hacking: Ethical hackers typically target the exploits in the software to gain unauthorised entry to the server.
- Wireless network hacking: wireless networks offer flexibility but present security issues. A hacker can sniff – a technical term for a programme that intercepts and logs traffic that passes over a computer network – network packets without having to be in the same building the network is located in.
- System hacking: various techniques can be used to hack your IT system: footprinting, scanning, enumeration, and vulnerability analysis.
- Social engineering: as well as testing your IT infrastructure, ethical hackers can reveal gaps in security awareness amongst your staff by simulating social engineering attacks – such as phishing emails.
Why you should consider ethical hacking for your business?
The benefits of working with ethical hackers are compelling:
- They know how the bad guys think: it takes a hacker to beat a hacker. They may be ethical in their actions, but they understand what makes their unscrupulous rivals tick – and use this knowledge of how malicious hackers operate to protect your network from intrusion.
- They know where to look: IT networks are made up of a labyrinth of interconnected computers and mobile devices. Knowing where to look when assessing this complex Cybersecurity landscape can be a real challenge – not for an ethical hacker.
- They can highlight weak spots you have overlooked: businesses like yours often fall into the trap of assuming their network is secure, before finding out the hard way that it has hidden weak spots. Those weaknesses may be invisible to you, but an experienced ethical hacker will see these open ports, back doors, and other entry points into your network from a mile off.
It is time to welcome hackers into your business with open arms – thankfully, you know we are not going mad. We mean the kind that can help you identify weak points in your Cyber defences, provide valuable insights into the actions of their malicious counterparts and create better, stronger, and more resilient networks – we mean, the ethical hacker. With their proactive support, you can stay one step ahead of the enemy and protect your business from something that is somewhat inevitable.