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Ethical hacking: can hacking be good?

date: 7 September 2020
reading time: 9 min

The word ‘hacker’ is rarely associated with something positive. It instantly makes us think of someone who wants to steal our data and/or money, destroy our software, and wreak havoc within large public or private organisations.

When can hacking be a good thing?

However, before we write off all hackers as cyber villains, perhaps we should reconsider our first impression and dig a little deeper. When can hacking be a good thing?

This might be difficult to imagine, especially given that the media has been feeding us images of the ever-malicious hacker for most of our lives. Nevertheless, even the Oxford Dictionary defines a ‘hacker’ as both:

  • someone who uses computers to gain unauthorised access to data,

  • an enthusiastic and skillful computer programmer or user.

White hat hackers vs grey hat hackers vs black hat hackers

And today, I would like to focus on the latter. Throughout the years, the profile of a hacker has changed, and the term has evolved.

Currently, we can distinguish between three types of hackers:

  • white-hat hackers – focused on helping organisations and individuals strengthen their cybersecurity solutions,

  • grey-hat hackers – conflicted hackers that waver between doing good deeds and bad deeds,

  • black-hat hackers – the most well-known and dangerous type of hacker responsible for cyberattacks.

What is a white-hat hacker?

Many white-hat hackers are like security testers who help keep data and information safe.

Such a hacker is an ethical computer expert who helps companies find security vulnerabilities in their computer systems and networks. They do this with the permission of the organisation and follow a code of ethics. Instead of using their skills for personal gain or harm, they report their findings to improve their computer system defences.  

What is a grey-hat hacker?

Grey hat hackers lie between black-hat hackers (who act maliciously) and white-hat hackers (who work ethically to improve data security).

While they look for security vulnerabilities and their actions can be helpful, some grey-hat hackers may ask for financial gain or rewards (bug bounty programs), making their ethics questionable. Their motivations vary, but their main goal is to explore and improve security measures.

What is a black-hat hacker?

These hackers’ primary motive is to make money and cause digital chaos by stealing data, infecting systems with harmful software, launching DDoS attacks, and exposing personal information.

Their actions fueled by malicious intent lead to financial losses. It’s important to understand that black-hat hacking is illegal and unethical, and it’s different from ethical hacking, which focuses on improving cybersecurity.

The cost of (the lack of) cybersecurity

Nearly half of all businesses in the United States fell victim to cyberattacks in some capacity. The average overall expense associated with data breaches in 2022 amounted to $4.35 million.

See how illegal activity can harm your business:

  • Financial losses – the loss of sensitive data can result in legal consequences and damage to a company’s reputation, leading to significant financial setbacks.

  • Data breaches and privacy concerns – when personal information is stolen from the computer system, it can be used for fraudulent activities and identity theft.

  • Intellectual property theft – it undermines innovation and market position by giving competitors access to valuable proprietary information.

  • Damage to reputation – compromised valuable information can erode trust and loyalty, damaging businesses’ reputations, making it difficult to retain customers and attract new ones.

  • National security risks – attacks on critical infrastructure and defence networks pose serious threats to national security, potentially compromising essential systems and disrupting government operations.

To mitigate costs, prioritise cyber security, implement robust measures, find security vulnerabilities and promote awareness.

4 Cancer Central

The benefits of ethical hacking

Top companies hire ethical hackers to stay ahead of cyber threats, fight against cyber terrorism, and maintain the integrity of their networks and systems.

Here are the top benefits of ethical hacking: 

  • Provides assessment of the system’s defences – companies receive valuable feedback and recommendations to improve cyber resilience.

  • Prevents exploitation of vulnerabilities – businesses can proactively strengthen their cybersecurity and fix any weaknesses before malicious hackers exploit them.

  • Raises awareness of cyber threats – with the help of a good hacker, you can educate clients and staff about the latest methods cybercriminals use. This increases their understanding of cybersecurity risks.

  • Ensures compliance with legal requirements – thanks to the help of ethical hackers, businesses meet cybersecurity standards, such as GDPR and ISO 27001 Risk Assesment. This prevents them from facing penalties for non-compliance. 

  • Helps combat terrorism and national security threats – ethical hacking is crucial in preventing cyberattacks and protecting critical infrastructure of banks, government and other institutions. 

As you can see, hacking can be a good thing and can even help us solve complex problems. But do you know how? Let’s find out.

3 ways hacking can be used for good

A good ethical hacker can be a great addition to your security system, especially if you have encountered problems with cybersecurity in the past.

And there are three main reasons for this:

1. Ethical hackers are invaluable in terms of security

Firstly, they know all the tricks that a black-hat hacker knows, so they can give you useful tips on how to protect yourself against cyberattacks.

Since they are part of the hacker community, they will recognise any shortcuts and security threats that might have been taken on your system and foresee how they may be taken advantage of in the future. 

Approaching your system vulnerabilities from a white-hat hacker’s perspective is highly beneficial for your company. Black-hat hackers often strive to make their attacks as complicated and inexplicable as possible, and this is exactly why knowledge of those very tactics can come in handy. 

The best way to make sure that your software is hacker-proof is by conducting a simulated cyberattack.

This is called a penetration test, pen test or, in other words, ethical hacking, and it is a vital part of any security audit. It reveals how hard (or easy!) it may be for any unauthorised party to breach the security of your system. Pen tests aim to identify system weaknesses, as well as strengths, in order to estimate the level of vulnerability and come up with a risk mitigation strategy to plug in any security gaps quickly.  

And no one is as good at running penetration test services as white-hat hackers: they know exactly how to bypass protocols or system’s defenses and override fail-safes. 

Read more about penetration testing and cybersecurity:

2. Ethical hackers are often educated, skilled in many technologies and always stay up-to-date on the latest hacking trends and tools

Secondly, ethical hackers have the freshest insights and tend to keep up with the latest technologies. This makes it extremely hard to catch them by surprise. So, their security patches can be quickly applied, especially in situations where timing counts.

Ethical hackers are skilled in:

  • DoS (Denial-of-Service) attacks – making a service unavailable to its intended group of users by overloading it with a flood of traffic or through any other activities that could cause a system to crash.

  • Reverse engineering – understanding how a system works, even without access to its source code. It should never be easy for a potential hacker to break down a working product and see exactly how to orchestrate a successful cyberattack.

  • Vulnerability research – the process of analysing a product or algorithm for weaknesses. This usually finishes with a detailed report so that a software development team can precisely handle any vulnerability and information security issues in order of importance.

  • Social engineering tactics – this targets “bugs in human hardware” and tricks employees into performing unsafe actions that may be potentially harmful to the company. These types of authorised actions should always be highly confidential and proceed in consultation with a closed group of C-level executives only so that people behave naturally.

  • Network security – meaning the entire configurations of both software and hardware technologies designed to protect network infrastructures.

  • Disk forensics – the extraction of information from any piece of hardware, such as hard drives, CDs, USB devices, and mobile phones, etc.

  • Memory forensics – the analysis of volatile data in order to identify malicious behaviours that leave behind tracks which are very hard to detect.

  • Security scanners – tools that were designed to test networks and apps against vulnerabilities, such as Nessus, Intruder, BurpSuite, or AlienVault USM.

  • Cybersecurity standards and IT security frameworks – created to help specialists protect corporate data with greater efficiency.

  • Penetration testing – Certified ethical hacker use their knowledge and skills to help find out potential system vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Then try to penetrate the organisation’s network or exposed system.

Although it’s hard to define the best educational criteria for hiring white-hat hackers, some sort of academic degree always provides a solid foundation for the skills mentioned above. Having either a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in computer engineering, IT security, or mathematics is pretty common among the hacker community. However, some hackers do not possess any college degree and still excel at what they do.

3. Ethical hacker can increase system efficiency and save the company money

And last but not least, not only do white-hat hackers make your system more secure but also more efficient. Due to their vast knowledge, they pay attention to the little things that may be easily overlooked during a typical security audit and are able to quickly fix any issues, making your system run better.

Plus, working with hackers is cost-effective: they prevent both bigger and smaller security breaches, devastating PR crises and, in turn, loss of users and money. 

Especially now, when a GDPR violation can create a huge hole in a company’s budget. The EU’s Data Protection Authorities can issue fines of up to €20 million, or 4% of an organisation’s annual turnover, for a single violation.

Read more about cybersecurity changes in the EU and US:

Fortunately, white-hat hackers are increasingly getting more recognition. As the “good guys” fighting the “bad guys”, they use their superpowers to help organisations protect their systems and sensitive user data. Cyberspace isn’t naturally secure. 

However, with a little help from the experts, it can become a space that is more secure for both you and your customers.

The Indispensable role of ethical hacking in a secure digital future

There is a growing demand for protection of our digital assets from criminals as our reliance on technology increases.

White-hat hackers patrol the internet looking for security flaws in order to protect users from harm. With an increased understanding of ethical hacking and its benefits, more organisations feel encouraged to take preventative measures regarding cybersecurity by creating a culture of vigilance and constant improvement.

Read more on our blog

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