What is a White Hat Hacker?

Read time 4 mins

Written April 2021

What is a White Hat Hacker?

When the Lone Ranger first rode onto U.S. screens in 1938, viewers immediately knew he was the hero because the hat he wore was white. Fast-forward over 80 years, and this symbolism of the good guy that was commonplace in old Western films and TV shows is being used in Cyberspace to define a “hacker’s” intentions.

The word hacker immediately conjures up images of Cybercriminals busy committing malicious activities on digital systems or networks in a bid to steal sensitive data for financial gain. But did you know that there’s a band of metaphorical white hat-wearing crusaders out there, whose job it is to make life difficult for their nefarious online contemporaries? Known as “white hat hackers”, they are the good guys in the wild-west landscape that is the internet.

According to Technopedia, a white hat hacker is classed as “a computer security specialist who breaks into protected systems and networks to test and assess their security. White hat hackers use their skills to improve security by exposing vulnerabilities before malicious hackers (known as black hat hackers) can detect and exploit them.”

White hats use similar or identical tools and methods to those deployed by malicious hackers – but there is one big difference: they have permission to use them against the organisation that has hired them, making the process entirely legal.

What do White Hats do?

Many business leaders are employing white hats to bolster their digital defences to execute penetration testing activities against their organisation. These champions of Cybersecurity set about ethically hacking into their client’s networks to identify how attacks might happen and the potential damage they would cause. In some cases, they will be instructed to attack specific assets, such as private networks, applications, and endpoints. Alternatively, they may be given a broad mandate to uncover security gaps, wherever they may lurk, and it’s their job to identify and uncover them.

The types of attacks they might execute to identify vulnerabilities in an organisation’s network security include:

  • Web application hacking: by testing the durability of web applications and services such as APIs and websites, the network’s ability to protect valuable data can be gauged.
  • Web server hacking: this tests for various security issues, including the misconfiguration of software present on the targeted server, common or unchanged default passwords, and outdated software in need of updating or patching.
  • Wireless network hacking: two types of vulnerabilities can be found in the Wireless LAN: poor configuration and poor encryption.
  • Social engineering: white hat hackers can also reveal gaps in security awareness by simulating social engineering attacks, such as phishing emails, a positive and proactive security awareness process that helps staff members safeguard the organisation’s infrastructure and data.

Other types of hackers

Black hat hackers

For every law-abiding white hat-wearing cowboy in the old Western movies, there was someone with a black Stetson perched on his head lurking around the corner – and they weren’t to be trusted. Cyberspace is also home to an army of unscrupulous individuals that have been named after these villains of the silver screen: “black hat hackers”. According to Technopedia a black hat hacker is “a person who attempts to find computer security vulnerabilities and exploit them for personal financial gain or other malicious reasons.”

Unlike white hats, who are employed to use ethical hacking methods to stop these Cybercriminals in their tracks, black hats can inflict major damage on organisations. This is typically caused by stealing personal financial information, compromising systems, or disrupting websites and networks’ function.

Grey hat hackers

Things are not always black and white in the murky world of Cybercrime. In between white and black hat hackers sit Grey hat hackers – a blend of both activities, good and bad. Again, according to Technopedia, a grey hat hacker is “someone who may violate ethical standards or principles, but without the malicious intent ascribed to black hat hackers.”

They typically look for vulnerabilities in a network without the necessary consent. If issues are discovered, they will report them to the network’s owner, sometimes requesting a fee to address the problem. If the owner fails to respond or comply, they sometimes post the newly found exploit online. While these types of hackers are not inherently malicious, their activities are still considered illegal because they did not receive permission to attack the network, and they are still using it as a form of ransom in some way.

How to become a White Hat hacker

Anyone can become a white hat hacker provided they have the necessary skills and qualifications. The first step is to become proficient in networking, programming, databases, and operating systems (Linux and Windows). Once you have a strong knowledge of IT fundamentals, you can learn how to break some of the underlying vulnerabilities within computer architecture.

The right qualification provides official evidence of your hacking expertise and ties you to moral standards when breaking into vendors’ systems – an essential requirement when it comes to third-party contracts. The Electronic Commerce Council (EC-Council) – the world’s largest Cybersecurity technical certification body – has defined a standard accreditation for the role: Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH). CEH certification enables information security professionals to become recognised white hat hackers who are legally and morally able to carry out ethical hacking.

Don’t leave your organisation’s back door open to black hat hackers by assuming your network is completely secure. Channel your inner horse-riding hero from the old Westerns and employ the services of white hat hackers to be one step ahead. Their proactive support will help to keep the door tightly shut by creating better, stronger, and more resilient networks, making life for a black hat hacker incessantly more difficult. This, combined with a robust Cyber Security strategy, are sure-fire ways to ensure your business data stays safe.

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