What is Ethical Hacking?

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According to a report recently published by Accenture, the cost of hacking is estimated at $11.45 million dollars yearly per organization. Because of the threat constantly posed by these malicious actors, the term “hacking” has long held a negative connotation tied to the criminal nature of their actions.

But the truth is, hacking can be performed in a variety of contexts, with a wide range of intentions. The most commonly known types of hacking are: “Black Hat Hacking”, “White Hat Hacking” and “Grey Hat Hacking”. Here are some definitions for each type of hacking and where they fit in today’s modern world:

White hat hacking

White hat hacking, also known as “ethical hacking” or “penetration testing”, is an authorized attempt to hack a technology according to a pre-determined scope. This type of hacking attempts to identify opportunities that a hacker could exploit a given technology for malicious purposes. Ethical hacking is a service offered to companies that provide technical solutions to fix their cybersecurity vulnerabilities that could be leveraged by attackers while prioritizing these security gaps by likeliness that they are exploited and their level of severity.

Black hat hacking

This type of hacking attempts to exploit technical vulnerabilities within your technologies with malicious intentions such as encrypting your files with ransomware to demand a ransom, stealing sensitive data to sell it on the Dark Web or simply disrupting business operations. Another type of black hat hacking, commonly known as “Hacktivism”, has been growing a lot as of late. “Hacktivism” is a targeted, politically motivated attack that often aims to deny access to a service, a website, an application […] in order to send a political message or to disclose sensitive information publicly.

Grey hat hacking

Grey hat hacking is a less known type that consolidates both ethical and criminal hacking. A grey hat hacker attempts to identify and exploit vulnerabilities within technology to see what they could find without any prior authorization. This type of hacking, while still criminal, is not performed with any malicious intent other than curiosity.

The importance of Ethical Hacking

No computer, software, network, device, infrastructure, or application can be developed with built-in security that is permanently proof against hackers. The reason is that new technologies are built faster than vulnerabilities can be secured and hackers are constantly evolving to circumvent these new security measures. Today’s state of the art security is not tomorrow’s state of the art security.

Ethical hacking is still the best defense to counter criminal hacking, as they will systematically identify vulnerabilities that attackers could potentially leverage while providing technical solutions to prevent these attacks. The best white hats professionals represent the state of the art now, today, and expose where yesterday’s hardware, software, or network has become vulnerable.

Not a single algorithm or scanner can test computer security with the comprehensiveness and thoroughness that an ethical hacker can, which is why they are crucial today for the cybersecurity of modern organizations. (Learn more about the main differences between penetration testing and vulnerability scanners)

The tools known and used by the ethical hacker are the same as those used by the criminal hacker, which means they will reveal every opportunity that a hacker would have to perform an attack within your technologies, thus making them essential to protect your organization from black hat hackers.

Types of Ethical Hacking

Another consideration for any company, IT staff, or ethical hacker is the range of types of computer networks, systems, and applications that might be targeted by criminal hackers. Ethical hacking can be performed in various technological contexts to identify vulnerabilities, such as:

Network Ethical Hacking

Network ethical hacking seeks vulnerabilities in the components, configurations and devices within a network that a black hat could discover and exploit. These assessments can be performed externally, targeting networks that connect to the public internet (Such as the network used by your public website) to validate that a hacker cannot, for instance, gain access to administrative features. It can also be performed on internal networks (such as the wireless network on which your workstations connect) to validate that your sensitive data cannot be accessed by malicious employees or business partners who connect to your network internally.

Cloud Ethical Hacking

Cloud ethical hacking, also known as a cloud security assessment, aims to test the security of cloud infrastructure, as well as applications hosted on the cloud. Are its security controls (for instance, user privileges) configured optimally, or can a user escalate its own privilege to become an administrator? Can a user access a supposedly secure database without appropriate privileges?

Application Ethical Hacking

This type of ethical hacking is used to assess the security of Web applications, mobile applications and websites. It is slightly more complex and time-consuming, as it also attempts to identify complicated logic flaws in the way that an application handles data and processes a given action. This type of hacking aims to answer the following questions and much more: Can the app’s features be manipulated by a malicious user? Can a feature used on a website or application be bypassed? How is sensitive payment data, once submitted, treated? Can the payment system be bypassed?

SCADA / ICS & Industrial Ethical Hacking 

Seeks to validate the security of industrial networks and connected equipment within an automated production line. This type of hacking is performed internally, since it generally cannot be accessed by the public internet and tries to ensure that industrial networks have been segmented properly to contain any possible cyberattack, which otherwise might infect an entire factory and disrupt entire productions lines. It also attempts to validate that administrative features cannot be hijacked by malicious actors internally to cause any harm.

Final thoughts

Although the term “hacking” is often used in a negative light, there are various types of hacking to be aware of, some of which can be critical to help your company identify its most prominent risks and to fix them before malicious actors take advantage of them.

Need the help of a Certified Ethical Hacker to assess your cybersecurity risks? Reach out to a specialist to find out how we can help you fix your vulnerabilities. We are here to answer your questions, concerns and discuss the next steps appropriate for your company, needs, and objectives.

A penetration test is a simulated hacking attempt that identifies opportunities for real hackers to break through your defences and perform various malicious acts. It generally leverages tools used by hackers and various professional methodologies to replicate the steps that modern hackers would take to intrude into your IT systems.

A pentest attempts to exploit your vulnerabilities to determine their potential impact, should they be used in a real hacking scenario. They provide a list of vulnerabilities with their respective level of severity, as well as technical recommendations to help your team apply corrective measures and focus on the most critical vulnerabilities.

These services allow your organization to answer the following questions, among several others:

  • Can a hacker gain access to any sensitive information?
  • Can a hacker hijack my technologies for any malicious acts?
  • Could a malware infection spread through the network?
  • Can an attacker escalate access to an administrative user?

Learn more about penetration testing →

There are many contexts in which a penetration test should be performed.

Here are some common use cases for a pentest:

  • As part of the development cycle of an application. (To test the security of a new feature/app)
  • To comply with security requirements. (3rd-parties, PCI, ISO27001, etc.)
  • To secure sensitive data from exfiltration.
  • To prevent infections by malware. (Ransomware, spyware, etc.)
  • To prevent disruptive cyberattacks. (Such as denial of service)
  • As part of a cybersecurity risk management strategy.

All businesses are advised to conduct a penetration test at least once a year, as well as after any significant upgrades or modifications to the company network. Given the rapid rate at which new exploits are discovered, we generally recommend that quarterly tests are performed.

Various steps are taken over the course of the project to prevent the potential impact of our tests on the stability of your technological environment and the continuity of your business operations.

For this reason, a communication plan will be put in place at the beginning of the project to prevent and mitigate any potential impact. A representative of your organization will be identified to act as the main point of contact to ensure rapid communication in the event of a situation directly impacting the conduct of your daily operations, or if any critical vulnerabilities are identified, for which  corrective measures need to be implemented quickly.

While we use a simple 4 levels risk rating approach (Critical, High, Moderate, Low), our risk assessment is actually based on the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) standard. Two main criteria are considered when  assessing the risk level of each vulnerability:

  • Potential impact: The potential impact of an attack based on a vulnerability, combined with its  potential effect on the availability of the system, as well as the confidentiality and integrity of  the data.
  • Exploitability: The potential exploitability of a vulnerability; a vulnerability that is easier to  exploit increases the number of potential attackers and thus the likelihood of an attack.  Different factors are considered when evaluating the exploitability potential of a vulnerability  (e.g.: access vector, authentication, operational complexity, etc.)

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