Everything You May Have Wanted to Know About Ethical/Whitehat Hackers

Sep 11, 2020
6 min read

What is an ethical hacker?

As the term suggests, an ethical hacker is an information security expert, also known as a white-hat hacker who shares explicit knowledge about penetration testing, hacking computer systems, and cracking the security of the digital modes. These professionals perform vicious penetration testing and exploitation techniques on any computer-based resources. It is done to discover potential vulnerabilities in these IT resources that can be exploited by hackers or likely cybercriminals. An ethical hackers' primary job is to pinpoint such instances so these can be taken care of before a major cybersecurity event occurs.

Types of white hat hackers

There are following types of white hat hackers;

  1. Bug bounty program

Many third-party organizations are working with HackerOne to award the white hat hackers for each vulnerability they discover. Many organizations leave their bounty open or access them when a white hat hacker gets in touch. Bug bounty hackers only make their living by testing various security programs and detecting flaws in its code or overall working.

  1. Penetration testers

This is a somewhat more common type of ethical hackers. These professionals work by stress-testing the security interface of an organization by launching a controlled cyber-attack. After the attack has been launched, they will then test the response of the company's cybersecurity practices, such as what processes kick in and stimulate a shielding response under the attack that has been commenced.

  1. Back-Hacks

These professionals come handy after a cybersecurity breach has happened. They work by retracting the attack path and then determining what specific path hackers took to commence the attack. Thus, tracing the attack back to its source while proving a big help to the cybersecurity professionals and incident response personnel on board.

  1. Red team and blue team exercise

This is similar to a military exercise where one team, such as red, would try to infiltrate a security infrastructure defense while the blue team is acting as the defense to nullify the attackers' illicit tries. This exercise works graciously well in building the professional expertise required by a cybersecurity professional or ethical hacker when a true cyber anomaly persists.

How does one become an ethical hacker?

The journey to becoming an ethical hacker is determined by your current position in the IT field. If you are nowhere near an IT career or have any such skill, then it is recommended that you first start with enrolling yourself in studying IT and acquiring related skills. After this, when you think that you have the entry-level skills needed to become an ethical hacker, you must enroll yourself in a dedicated certification to become a white hat hacker. The following are the details that you must keep an eye on to become an ethical hacker.

Educational requirements

Employers look for various competitive certifications such as Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), Global Information Assurance Certification Penetration Tester (GIAC), and Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP). Other than that, a viable experience in the field is also appreciated. All these certifications cover different areas of expertise, such as manipulating secured networking systems, performing penetration testing to understand vulnerabilities, and testing potential security systems in an offensive way.

Although it is not necessary to have a master's degree, it can increase the prospects of you landing a pretty decent job.

Must-have training and certifications

To improve your chances of getting hired, you must have some general training or some decent certification to verify your skillset. Many professionals, when starting with this career, obtain certified information systems security professional or CISSP. It can be acquired after completing your bachelor's. Although if you want to become a severe professional, then obtaining a certified ethical hacker (CEH) certificate is a must-have. It comes with a five-day intensive cybersecurity training period in which you will get around all the latest cybersecurity threats in an updated fashion.

Required skills for an ethical hacker

On a general note, a professional, ethical hacker must pay keen attention to the details to seek out any potential problem with the computer or data storage systems. Problem-solving skills and excellent analytical skills are also necessary to solve problems associated with the network's security and for reviewing data from the hacking attempts on an IT-intensive system. Communication skills are also required, as you would often have to collaborate with multiple personnel on-board when trying to solve a technical problem.

Although, according to a statistic, in the year 2021 there will be approximately 3.5 million unfilled vacancies regarding cybersecurity. Previously this number was only halted at 1 million at the end of the year 2014. A significant number of vacancies can be seen in management-level jobs such as chief information security officers, security managers, and others. Various CISO believe that a skilled cybersecurity team's availability would be limited due to insufficient skill set among new cybersecurity talent.

How common is it to hire ethical hackers?

Ethical hackers are seriously in demand, especially by organizations with extensive IT infrastructure for their operations. There is a need to manage these overstretched IT assets and find out any vulnerabilities that exist. Many organizations hire ethical hackers permanently and instate them as an active part of their cybersecurity team; this way, they can have 24/7 availability of such professionals to make sure that everything is running smoothly.

Many organizations, such as US Air Force and even IRS (International Revenue Service), hire professional ethical hackers from time to time to test their security systems. IRS has even outsourced a $2 million contract to the Synack government to provide pentesting by their potential ethical hackers while giving no such activity to the IRS.

Synack is also working with the Air Force on the same engagement to test their security systems and point out vulnerabilities where they exist. This will induce a higher ROI (return on investment) by disabling the need to change the Air Force's security interface consistently.

Other than that, many ethical hackers work as freelancers, other than those who are employed as corporate employees. The main reason is that many organizations are a start-up and can't afford to have a permanent ethical hacker on board, and there are budget cuts. That is why they hire ethical hackers temporarily.

Common techniques used by ethical hackers

Penetration testing

It is the most common technique used by an ethical hacker to penetrate a potential security system. They can use any tools they have at their disposal to crack the security interface, bypass every firewall there is, and gain control of the system by acquiring authorized access. Penetration testing is a technique that every cyber-security professional must know, and extensive training is required to master the art.

Social engineering

Social engineering is a trait of black hat hackers, but ethical hackers should also have enough exposure to this technique. At its heart, social engineering involves manipulating people in such a way that they become willing to share confidential information or credentials to the manipulator. Hackers usually approach their target with a sense of great urgency with a critical trigger involved, so they can't say "No" to them at all.


Sniffing is the act of spying on the data packets leaving and entering a secured networking facility. This is how many illicit hackers keep an eye on the companies' current operational and security-wise stats. Ethical hackers must also know how to do that to stay ahead in the game and unwinding the black hat hackers' plots and treacherous schemes.

Bug Bounty

Other than that, many ethical hackers can engage in bug bounty practices. This specifically means that they can get compensation and recognition from various organizations and software developers by reporting bugs in their interface or programs. These bugs could lead to a potential cyber-security exploit and other vulnerabilities. By reporting such unprotected events, the ethical hackers will get validation in return, lending them greater projects in the upcoming years regarding cyber-security.

Bug bounty opportunities continue to persist where the companies and organizations continually hire ethical hackers to nullify their security interface of any known bugs and security errors.

Have ethical hackers gone rogue?

Many people use the term "cyber-security bad actors" when initially their reference points towards the ethical hackers who, for some reason, chose the dark side. Being termed as a "Hacker" is a generic term that might include both black and white hat hackers, but the intentions of both can't be predicted puling the analysis strings from behind the shadows. According to stats from recent years, there are many examples of people turning to the bad side, and such notorious cyber-security bad actors are termed as follows;


These have been more prominent in the past couple of years. A hacktivist is originally a hacker acting alone or in numbers such as Anonymous group or Wiki Leaks to spread terror and exploit serious information to accomplish their own political gains.

Insider threats

This has become a more common cyber-attack narrative among various organizations in which rogue employees work with illicit attention in mind. They work by dismantling the organization's security interface and allowing their fellow hackers to attack by exploiting the vulnerability created by the rogue insiders.