The further we advance into the digital world, the better cybercriminals become at taking advantage of you and your business. Many articles have been written about how to maintain cybersecurity and thwart hackers. But there’s one strategy you might not know about, which also involves hackers — who do good. They’re known as ethical hackers, and they help by testing how the bad guys could potentially penetrate your network.
Large companies and governments employ teams of ethical hackers to ensure their systems remain secure. Ethical hackers work by attempting to break into the network of their employer or client, testing its resilience, and developing solutions for improving security — all with the permission of the network owner, which is one big differentiator from their unethical counterparts. The work of ethical hackers is sometimes known as penetration testing.
Hiring an ethical hacker is worth looking into if you rely on trade secrets, sensitive customer data, or research, the loss of which would be highly problematic. The goal of ethical hackers is to find weak points in your network and then strengthen them to ensure the highest possible level of security.
Here we spell out the benefits of engaging an ethical hacker, what concerns you should be aware of, and how to find a truly ethical hacker.
What Defines an Ethical Hacker?
In our culture, the most commonly known hackers are considered Black Hat, meaning they perform their work for personal gain or to advance the goals of a criminal organization. These are the cybercriminals most likely to be behind any malware that gets into your network and to be the beneficiaries of the sensitive data they get access to as a result. In other words, Black Hat hackers are the bad guys.
A Gray Hat hacker is someone who might use similar skills for purposes that are somewhat less malign. For example, they might seek to find vulnerabilities in a company system, then approach the company requesting payment for their knowledge. They might even work as a White Hat hacker for their day job and perform questionable activities (such as helping a “hacktivist” organization like Anonymous) on their own time.
Finally, White Hat hackers are the good guys, and the people you want to seek out to help evaluate your network. Commonly known as penetration testers, they use their skills to discover security flaws within security firms and companies, as described above. The work of these professionals is backed up by certifications and the desire to be helpful rather than harmful. The best way to hire a hacker of this kind is to approach a penetration testing company.
The following video further explains black, gray, and White Hat hackers:
Benefits of Ethical Hacking
The benefits of ethical hacking become obvious in what doesn’t happen. Ethical hacking can help you avoid many of the common tactics threatening businesses today, including email phishing, device theft, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, and unsecured networks.
At its best, ethical hacking serves to shore up your network, improve the process you use to detect threats, and train your internal security team to be aware of the methods malicious hackers use.
However, the benefits of ethical hacking don’t work after the fact. In other words, ethical hacking is a measure you must take proactively before the bad guys strike. If you are the victim of a cyberattack and you bring in an ethical hacker who explains how the Black Hats penetrated your network, it’s too late, the damage has already been done. That’s not to say that, in such a situation, you shouldn’t get advice to help you avoid a subsequent incident. But so much the better if there’s no first incident either.
Ethical Hacking Concerns
Given the negative connotations of the term “hacker,” it’s natural to wonder if a hacker of any kind is a safe person to hire for your business. To keep your network secure, put those doubts aside and start thinking of the term “hacking” a bit differently. The word really just means to break into a system. The differences between ethical and unethical hackers lie in the reason they do it and the permissions they have to do so.
Another concern might be that — no matter how ethical someone might appear to be — they still get access to your sensitive data and infrastructure. That’s a valid concern, which is why it’s important to thoroughly vet any individual or penetration testing company you want to hire. While there is currently no licensing needed to be an ethical hacker, the EC-Council and the Sans Institute both offer certifications around it.
No matter what you do, there is a risk. Generally, the risk of not making your systems as secure as possible is higher than that of hiring an unethical ethical hacker.
Add Ethical Hacking to Your Cybersecurity Plan
In today’s business environment, one cybercrime incident can cost your company countless hours and dollars as well as imply lost revenue due to a tarnished reputation. That’s why it’s critical to do everything you can to keep your business data safe. While you might be doing many of the right things, adding ethical hacking to your cybersecurity plan will give you peace of mind, knowing that your network is as impenetrable as it can be.
Remember, though, that even the most robust testing and repair of vulnerabilities isn’t a guarantee of safety. So much of a company’s cybersecurity relies on employees. They must be trained on appropriate cyber hygiene, such as creating powerful passwords, keeping devices updated, and identifying suspicious email messages. With these practices along with other network hardening and the seal of approval from an ethical hacker, your system will be as close as it can get to penetration-proof.