The term “hacker” is broadly used to describe anyone with advanced computer technology skills who’s able to deceive organizations or bypass security and infiltrate networks without proper authorization. Some hackers use their skills to commit fraud, theft, or other nefarious acts, while some simply enjoy the challenge. Whatever the motivation, cybercrime is expected to cost the world $6 trillion by 2021, with one business falling victim to ransomware every 11 seconds. 

Recovering from a cyberattack costs time and money, and there’s no guarantee a hacked organization will recover at all. Cybercrime, particularly data breaches, can damage a company’s reputation with customers and clients, and can even lead to legal action. That’s why ethical hacking skills are so vital to any business with a substantial digital footprint.

Yes, you heard that right. Ethical, or “white hat” hackers are able to think like the bad actors their organizations are trying to stop. By stress-testing an organization’s networks and procedures, they can spot weak points and better anticipate cyber attacks before it’s too late.

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What Does it Mean to be an Ethical Hacker?

In many ways, an ethical hacker is not unlike a secret shopper who visits retail stores incognito in order to spot problems and provide feedback on needed improvements. Secret shoppers may even stage shoplifting incidents to test a store’s security. Similarly, ethical hacking skills—which are nearly identical to those employed by cyber criminals—are invaluable to organizations that want to spot weaknesses and fortify their networks and improve their processes.

While companies often employ penetration testers to focus on one or a few potential vulnerabilities in the network, ethical hackers have a much broader role. In addition to penetration testing, they also may attempt to trick employees into revealing sensitive data, test whether laptops and mobile devices are being properly stored and protected, and explore all possible ways a “black hat” hacker may try to wreak havoc.

The EC-Council, the leading cyber security professional certification organization, defines an ethical hacker as “an individual who is usually employed with an organization and who can be trusted to undertake an attempt to penetrate networks and/or computer systems using the same methods and techniques as a malicious hacker.” Sometimes ethical hackers come from the “dark side” after repaying their debt to society, but you can also learn ethical hacking skills in a classroom setting and become certified.

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Ethical Hacking Skills and the Role of a White Hat Hacker

Simply put, an ethical hacker’s job is to approach an organization as if they were a cyber criminal, to replicate a malicious hacker at work but stop short of actually following through on an attack. Instead, they will report any vulnerabilities or concerns and seek countermeasures to shore up the system’s defenses. 

An ethical hacker might employ all or some of these strategies to penetrate a system or spot vulnerabilities:

  • Using port scanning tools like Nmap or Nessus to scan an organization’s systems and find open ports. The vulnerabilities with each of these ports can be studied and remedial measures can be taken.
  • Examining security patch installations and making sure that they can’t be exploited.
  • Engaging in social engineering concepts such as dumpster diving—literally rummaging through trash cans for passwords, charts, sticky notes, or anything with crucial information that can be used to generate an attack. 
  • Employing other social engineering techniques like shoulder surfing to gain access to crucial information or playing the kindness card to trick employees to part with their passwords.
  • Making attempts to evade IDS (Intrusion Detection systems), IPS (Intrusion Prevention systems), honeypots, and firewalls.
  • Sniffing networks, bypassing and cracking wireless encryption, and hijacking web servers and web applications.
  • Investigating issues related to laptop theft and employee fraud.

Ethical hackers are legally required to report any issues they find during the course of their work, since this is privileged information that (in theory, at least) could be used for illegal purposes. Of course, even the most sophisticated ethical hacking skills are wasted if the organization fails to adequately respond to any of the problems or weak spots that are found and reported.

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What it Takes to Become an Ethical Hacker 

If you’re a former “bad hacker” who has decided to replace your black hat with a white one, then you’re most likely familiar with the tricks of the trade. However, you also should realize that ethical hacking skills (as with unethical hacking skills) are constantly evolving. Since the good guys are always trying to keep up with the latest schemes, it’s important to maintain your edge by keeping an ear to the ground.

As with any profession, passion for the industry is one of the key aspects of success. This, combined with a solid knowledge of networking and programming, will help a professional succeed in the ethical hacking field. Knowing how to think like a black hat hacker is central to developing one’s ethical hacking skills, but you also need to have a clear concept of your ultimate goal to enhance your employer’s (or client’s) security.

As with other computer and network security roles, ethical hackers are in high demand, and this demand is only increasing as the severity and cost of cyber attacks continues to surge. As you might expect, organizations that desperately need skilled and certified ethical hackers are willing to pay a premium. In the United States, the average annual salary for a certified ethical hacker is $90,000, but salaries typically go well beyond the $120,000 range for experienced professionals.

For security professionals, forensic analysts, intrusion analysts, and most importantly—people aspiring to hone their ethical hacking skills and enter these fields—the CEH (v11) certification is an obvious choice. In fact, many IT companies have made CEH certification a required qualification for security-related positions. Regardless, having the latest CEH certification will help open doors to a lucrative and rewarding career.

Simplilearn’s CEH (v11) - Certified Ethical Hacking course training informs its students of the finer nuances of trojans, backdoors, and countermeasures, providing a better understanding of IDS, firewalls, honeypots, and wireless hacking, among other, more advanced focuses. 

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Get Trained and Get Ahead in Your Career

Simply getting a bachelor’s degree won’t cut it for today’s most demanding technology professions. If you want to master the latest ethical hacking skills, tools, and techniques—and leverage them into a satisfying and challenging career—it’s more important than ever to update your skills regularly. Simplilearn’s unique applied learning approach gives students (including working professionals) a proven platform to learn from the best, interact with peers, work on industry-aligned projects, and be career-ready upon completion. If you want to learn more about how you can become a certified ethical hacker, check out our CEH (v11) - Certified Ethical Hacker Course. If you’re ready to take your cyber security career to a whole new level, our Post Graduate Program in Cyber Security, with modules from MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and EC-Council will give you comprehensive training in all things cyber security. What are you waiting for?

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Simplilearn is one of the world’s leading providers of online training for Digital Marketing, Cloud Computing, Project Management, Data Science, IT, Software Development, and many other emerging technologies.

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