How does ethical hacking work?
Many ethical hackers work as contractors, and there are a number of qualifications and certifications to prove their credentials, with one of the most well-recognized being the EC-Council's Certified Ethical Hacker.
Because they’re independent of the organization, they’ll have no preconceived notions of its strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to take a more objective approach and review the entirety of a firm's defenses for vulnerabilities.
Once engaged to attack a business, an ethical hacker will usually follow a common procedure when looking to break into a network. This will involve a range of tactics, from passive reconnaissance of a system in order to identify any weaknesses, to a range of direct attacks.
4 key ethical hacking techniques
Ethical hackers use a wide range of techniques to conduct their work and find security vulnerabilities. Among the most common are:
- Web application hacking: This seeks to exploit security vulnerabilities within web apps, using techniques such as SQL Injection attacks, Cross Site Scripting (XSS) and Cross Site Request Forgeries (CSRF).
- Wireless hacking: Taking advantage of insecure networks such as Wi-Fi can offer a useful entry point for hackers, especially as remote working and the use of mobile devices becomes more popular.
- Social engineering: Employees remain the number one weakness in many firms, and ethical hackers can look to exploit this in ways security teams may not think of, from traditional tactics such as phishing to physically 'tailgating' them to gain unauthorized access to secure server rooms.
- System hacking: Hacking directly into critical business systems, for instance by stealing passwords, can give hackers access to some of a firm's most valuable and confidential material.
Why you need ethical hackers
Ethical hackers use the same techniques as criminals to try and gain access to your operating systems - except they won't steal any data and they'll tell you what you're doing wrong.
Many firms commission ethical hackers directly, but they can also be recruited via 'bug bounty' programs that incentivize independent hackers and security researchers to look for weaknesses.
The major benefit of ethical hacking is that it subjects your system to the same kind of attack that a genuine criminal would employ. Black hat hackers are always looking for new techniques and think outside the box in order to bypass defenses, and they’ll more than likely come up with ideas that internal security teams haven't thought of.
Indeed, because the people building the defenses are often too close to the project, it can be difficult to get a complete picture of how it functions in the real world. They may make assumptions about what paths criminals will take to gain unauthorized access that can be completely disproven by an ethical hacker. Taking an attacker's point of view gives great perspective on where security vulnerabilities lie, as what may be an immediately obvious weakness to an outsider can be easily overlooked by those within the business.
There are a number of common vulnerabilities that can be detected by ethical hackers, including:
- Poorly configured services
- Broken or weak authentication processes
- Input validation errors that can be used for injection attacks or even social engineering weaknesses, where employees are tricked into giving up access credentials
Their findings can then be used to close any security holes and avoid potentially costly data breaches.
5 times ethical hackers have saved the day
If you're still unsure, take a look at these real-world cases, where ethical hackers have uncovered security vulnerabilities and saved businesses from potentially serious repercussions.
1. Taking over social accounts
Vulnerabilities that can leak personal info need to be treated with the utmost seriousness - but they're not always where you might expect. For example, in 2019 a security researcher discovered a vulnerability in a popular WordPress plugin that shares content on social media. The hacker found it stored access tokens, allowing anyone to take over a user's Twitter feed and view their personal details.
2. Accessing cameras
Video services have become increasingly popular in recent years, and one of the most popular offerings is Zoom. However, it's had its share of security issues, including one vulnerability reported by an ethical hacker in 2019 that meant the service's Mac client could be used to initiate a user's camera and forcibly join a call without their permission.
At the time, around 750,000 companies used Zoom to manage meetings, though its popularity has risen amid the coronavirus pandemic and the need to work from home. Fortunately, Apple was able to quickly patch the issue once alerted.
3. Hacking the air force
Military organizations possess some of the world's most sensitive digital assets, but they don't take kindly to hackers poking about uninvited, so they regularly host sanctioned bug bounty events where hackers can search for weaknesses in a controlled environment.
In one of their most recent events, the United States Air Force handed out a total of $290,000 to security researchers who had uncovered more than 460 vulnerabilities in one of its platforms.
4. Bypassing payment limits
According to Mastercard more than half of all people in the US now use contactless payments. To ensure its security when authentication isn't required, these systems typically have spending limits, but two security researchers from Positive Technologies have identified how these can be bypassed.
They explained how flaws in Visa cards can allow users to go over the UK's spending limit without the need for further verification, regardless of the terminal or issuer. Given that £8.4 million was lost to contactless fraud in the UK in the first half of 2018 alone, any weaknesses in the safeguards for these solutions need to be fixed quickly.
5. Keeping connected cars secure
Internet of Things (IoT) technologies now control many parts of our lives, and one of the most common uses for the technology is in connected cars. Hackers have demonstrated on numerous occasions how it's possible for these systems to be taken over. One of the most notable was the vulnerability in Jeep's Uconnect onboard entertainment system, which hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek used to access the car's central computer and take control of its steering, brakes and engine.
Clearly, the potential for danger in these settings is high, so Jeep's owner Fiat Chrysler had to recall 1.4 million Cherokees and issue a patch to close the vulnerability; the first time any company has made a major recall of a physical product due to a software issue.
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