Cybersecurity is far from being just one thing. To do security well, you need an ecosystem of integrated technologies, procedures, and practices. As technologies like 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) become more prominent, cybersecurity will also become more complex. The biggest problems facing those who hold data today aren’t necessarily the issues they can see, but rather it’s what’s outside their scope that can be their biggest vulnerabilities.
Whether you are a public, private, or government entity, you need to acknowledge that locking your door (i.e., using a comprehensive security suite) no longer ensures your security. You need to be proactively looking for entry points and weaknesses that a hacker can exploit to gain access to your systems. But how do you find those weaknesses?
Tech companies, as well as other large organizations, use a practice called ethical hacking to identify their vulnerabilities. Because hacking takes a certain set of skills, they turn to real hackers to get the job done. What is ethical hacking, and can you trust it? As it turns out, there are real benefits to this practice.
What is Ethical Hacking?
Ethical hacking is a process used to test system security from the outside. In a process similar to penetration testing, it attempts to breach a system’s internal and external perimeters to identify vulnerabilities that are hiding either in the nuances of code or in plain sight.
Those who perform these tasks tell you:
- What vulnerabilities outsiders see.
- What is the most valuable system or information to a hacker.
- How quickly you notice an attempted breach.
- How to fix the problems resulting in breaches.
- What hackers can do with data once they have it.
In most cases, ethical hackers are sourced from the white label hacker community—not from within the company looking for help. These hackers report vulnerabilities to the company so that they can be resolve. It is a method used both before a product is rolled out and during its lifespan.
Most people relate ethical hacking to protecting against external attacks, like DDoS attacks. However, ethical hackers can also test a company’s limits through social engineering. This kind of hacking is incredibly important because as more organizations shore up their security systems, black hat hackers target human vulnerabilities over vulnerabilities in an organization’s code or security plan. Social engineering tests are increasingly important as companies rely more on business traveling, remote work, and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies that cause employees to work outside the protection of their company’s firewall.
What Rules Do Ethical Hackers Follow?
One of the most famous ethical hackers is Kevin Mitnick, who was once arrested by the FBI for cybercrime. Mitnick started hacking when he was 13 and ran all kinds of schemes, from breaking into Pacific Bell voicemail computers to stealing software. Today, he’s a security consultant and high-profile author. But stories like Mitnick’s ask the question: can you trust ethical hackers? After all, the successful ones prove they have the skills to bring your company to its knees, if only temporarily.
It’s important to remember that so many of the leaps and bounds made in cybersecurity are the product of black hat hackers turned good. James Forshaw is a great example of why hackers are so important to cybersecurity. He is one of the most prominent bounty hunters, and his skills give him the ability to think up new types of attacks.
Even still, ethical hackers do follow rules. While there’s no standard education provided, they can and do seek out IT certifications like the Certified Ethical Hacker 9CEH from the EC-Council and Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) from the ISACA.
Some companies choose to hire hackers to perform testing and offer bounties for bugs. Microsoft does just that: contributions from hackers identify novel vulnerabilities and require the hacker to commit to destroying data or harming privacy during their tests. But some ethical hackers don’t require a bug bounty program; they provide their services without solicitation (and may or may not seek payment).
Are There Alternatives to Ethical Hacking?
True-to-form penetration testing is the only real alternative to ethical hacking. While it was effective 10 or 20 years ago, it simply doesn’t offer those benefits today. The only real alternative is the practice’s cousin, penetration testing. Although they both constitute “offensive security,” there are real differences between the two practices. Perhaps the biggest difference is that penetration testing, unlike ethical hacking, never includes a harmful attempt at breaching the system’s defenses. There’s no threat to the data or privacy contained within, and the testing only applies to one area.
A hacker, however, has free rein of your systems, and this is what can make ethical hacking such a useful tool. The creativity and relative freedom an ethical hacker has can lead them to find more vulnerabilities and better future-proof your systems from black hat hackers (the ones trying to damage your system). Ultimately, you need some type of testing performed by a specialist with hacking skills to test your systems. Data breaches are too common and too costly to go without. Whether you choose ethical hacking or a different route, it will always cost less time, money, and worry to prevent an attack than to stop one.