Becoming a certified ethical hacker is a popular goal among information security professionals. Here are your best options for reaching it.
What is ethical hacking?
Ethical hacking, also known as penetration testing or pen testing, is legally breaking into computers and devices to test an organization’s defenses. It’s among the most exciting IT jobs any person can be involved in. You are literally getting paid to keep up with the latest technology and get to break into computers without the threat of being arrested.
Companies engage ethical hackers to identify vulnerabilities in their systems. From the penetration tester’s point of view, there is no downside: If you hack in past the current defenses, you’ve given the client a chance to close the hole before an attacker discovers it. If you don’t find anything, your client is even happier because they now get to declare their systems “secure enough that even paid hackers couldn’t break into it.” Win-win!
I’ve been in computer security for over 30 years, and no job has been more challenging and fun than professional penetration testing. You not only get to do something fun, but pen testers often are seen with an aura of extra coolness that comes from everyone knowing they could break into almost any computer at will. Although now long turned legit, the world’s former most notorious uber hacker, Kevin Mitnick, told me that he gets the exact same emotional thrill out of being paid to legally break into places as he did for all those years of illegal hacking. Mitnick said, the only difference “is the report writing.”
- What do ethical hackers do?
- How to become an ethical hacker
- 5 top ethical hacking courses and certifications
- Ethical hacking tools
- Ethical hacking jobs: How the role is evolving
What do ethical hackers do?
Scope and goal setting
It is essential for any professional pen tester to document agreed upon scope and goals. These are the kinds of questions regarding scope you need to ask:
- What computer assets are in scope for the test?
- Does it include all computers, just a certain application or service, certain OS platforms, or mobile devices and cloud services?
- Does the scope include just a certain type of computer asset, such as web servers, SQL servers, all computers at a host OS level, and are network devices included?
- Can the pen testing include automated vulnerability scanning?
- Is social engineering allowed, and if so, what methods?
- What dates will pen testing be allowed on?
- Are there any days or hours when penetration testing should not be tried (to avoid any unintentional outages or service interruptions)?
- Should testers try their best to avoid causing service interruptions or is causing any sort of problem a real attacker can do, including service interruptions, a crucial part of the test?
- Will the penetration testing be blackbox (meaning the pen tester has little to no internal details of the involved systems or applications) or whitebox (meaning they have internal knowledge of the attacked systems, possibly up and involving relevant source code)?
- Will computer security defenders be told about the pen test or will part of the test be to see if the defenders notice?
- Should the professional attackers (e.g., red team) try to break-in without being detected by the defenders (e.g., blue team), or should they use normal methods that real intruders might use to see if it sets off existing detection and prevention defenses?
Ask these questions regarding the goals of the penetration test.
- Is it simply to show that you can break into a computer or device?
- Is denial-of-service considered an in-scope goal?
- Is accessing a particular computer or exfiltrating data part of the goal, or is simply gaining privileged access enough?
- What should be submitted as part of documentation upon the conclusion of the test? Should it include all failed and successful hacking methods, or just the most important hacks? How much detail is needed, every keystroke and mouse-click, or just summary descriptions? Do the hacks need to be captured on video or screenshots?
It’s important that the scope and goals be described in detail, and agreed upon, prior to any penetration testing attempts.
Discovery: Learn about your target
Every ethical hacker begins their asset hacking (excluding social engineering techniques for this discussion) by learning as much about the pen test targets as they can. They want to know IP addresses, OS platforms, applications, version numbers, patch levels, advertised network ports, users, and anything else that can lead to an exploit. It is a rarity that an ethical hacker won’t see an obvious potential vulnerability by spending just a few minutes looking at an asset. At the very least, even if they don’t see something obvious, they can use the information learned in discovery for continued analysis and attack tries.
Exploitation: Break into the target asset
This is what the ethical hacker is being paid for – the “break-in.” Using the information learned in the discovery phase, the pen tester needs to exploit a vulnerability to gain unauthorized access (or denial of service, if that is the goal). If the hacker can’t break-in to a particular asset, then they must try other in-scope assets. Personally,
if I’ve done a thorough discovery job, then I’ve always found an exploit. I don’t even know of a professional penetration tester that has not broken into an asset they were hired to break into, at least initially, before their delivered report allowed the defender to close all the found holes. I’m sure there are penetration testers that don’t always find exploits and accomplish their hacking goals, but if you do the discovery process thoroughly enough, the exploitation part isn’t as difficult as many people believe. Being a good penetration tester or hacker is less about being a genius and more about patience and thoroughness.
Depending on the vulnerability and exploit, the now gained access may require “privilege escalation” to turn a normal user’s access into higher administrative access. This can require a second exploit to be used, but only if the initial exploit didn’t already give the attacker privileged access.
Depending on what is in scope, the vulnerability discovery can be automated using exploitation or vulnerability scanning software. The latter software type usually finds vulnerabilities,but does not exploit them to gain unauthorized access.
Next, the pen tester either performs the agreed upon goal action if they are in their ultimate destination, or they use the currently exploited computer to gain access closer to their eventual destination. Pen testers and defenders call this “horizontal” or “vertical” movement, depending on whether the attacker moves within the same class of system or outward to non-related systems. Sometimes the goal of the ethical hacker must be proven as attained (such as revealing system secrets or confidential data) or the mere documentation of how it could have been successfully accomplished is enough.
Document the pen-test effort
Lastly, the professional penetration tester must write up and present the agreed upon report, including findings and conclusions.
How to become an ethical hacker
Any hacker must take some common steps to become an ethical hacker, the bare minimum of which is to make sure you have documented permission from the right people before breaking into something. Not breaking the law is paramount to being an ethical hacker. All professional penetration testers should follow a code of ethics to guide everything they do. The EC-Council, creators of the Certificated Ethical Hacker (CEH) exam, have one of the best public code of ethics available.
Most ethical hackers become professional penetration testers one of two ways. Either they learn hacking skills on their own or they take formal education classes. Many, like me, did both. Although sometimes mocked by self-learners, ethical hacking courses and certifications are often the gateway to a good paying job as a full-time penetration tester.
Today’s IT security education curriculum is full of courses and certifications that teach someone how to be an ethical hacker. For most of the certification exams you can self-study and bring your own experience to the testing center or take an approved education course. While you don’t need an ethical hacking certification to get employed as professional penetration tester, it can’t hurt.
As CBT Nuggets trainer, Keith Barker said, “I think the opportunity to have ‘certified ethical anything’ on your resume can only be a good thing, but it’s more of an entry way into more study. Plus, if companies see that you are certified in ethical hacking, they know you have seen and agreed to a particular code of ethics. If an employer is looking at resumes and they see someone who has an ethical hacking certification and someone that didn’t, it’s got to help.”
Even though they teach the same skill every ethical hacking course and certification is different. Do a little research to find the right one for you.