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In an online world infested with hackers, we need more ethical hackers. But all around the world, hackers have long been portrayed by the media and pop culture as the bad guys. Society is taught to see them as cyber-criminals and outliers who seek to destroy systems, steal data, and take down anything that gets in their way.

There is no shortage of news, stories, movies, and television shows that outright villainize the hacker. From the 1995 movie Hackers, to the more recent Blackhat, hackers are often portrayed as outsiders who use their computer skills to inflict harm and commit crime.

Read this: Did you know hackers could hijack aeroplane systems by spoofing radio signals?

While there have been real-world, damaging events created by cyber-criminals that serve as the inspiration for this negative messaging, it is important to understand that this is only one side of the story.

The truth is that while there are plenty of criminals with top-notch hacking and coding skills, there is also a growing and largely overlooked community of ethical (commonly known as white-hat) hackers who work endlessly to help make the online world a better and safer place. To put it lightly, these folks use their cyber superpowers for good, not evil.

For example, Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux was a hacker, as was Tim Berners-Lee, the man behind the World Wide Web. The list is long for the same reason the list of hackers turned coders is long – they all saw better ways of doing things.

What is ethical hacking?

According to the EC-Council, an ethical hacker is “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.”

Listen: We discuss what it means to be a hacker with Adrian Pruteanu [Podcast]

The role of an ethical hacker is important since the bad guys will always be there, trying to find cracks, backdoors, and other secret ways to access data they shouldn’t. Ethical hackers not only help expose flaws in systems, but they assist in repairing them before criminals even have a shot at exploiting said vulnerabilities. They are an essential part of the cybersecurity ecosystem and can often unearth serious unknown vulnerabilities in systems better than any security solution ever could. Certified ethical hackers make an average annual income of $99,000, according to Indeed.com. The average starting salary for a certified ethical hacker is $95,000, according to EC-Council senior director Steven Graham.

Ways ethical hacking benefits the software industry

Nowadays, ethical hacking has become increasingly mainstream and multinational tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Mozilla, IBM, etc employ hackers or teams of hackers in order to keep their systems secure.

And as a result of the success hackers have shown at discovering critical vulnerabilities, in the last year itself there has been a 26% increase in organizations running bug bounty programs, where they bolster their security defenses with hackers. Other than this there are a number of benefits that ethical hacking has provided to organizations majorly in the software industry.

Carry out adequate preventive measures to avoid systems security breach

An ethical hacker takes preventive measures to avoid security breaches, for example, they use port scanning tools like Nmap or Nessus to scan one’s own systems and find open ports. The vulnerabilities with each of the ports is studied, and remedial measures are taken by them.

An ethical hacker will examine patch installations and make sure that they cannot be exploited.

They also engage in social engineering concepts like dumpster diving—rummaging through trash bins for passwords, charts, sticky notes, or anything with crucial information that can be used to generate an attack.

They also attempt to evade IDS (Intrusion Detection Systems), IPS (Intrusion Prevention systems), honeypots, and firewalls. They carry out actions like bypassing and cracking wireless encryption, and hijacking web servers and web applications.

Perform penetration tests on networks at regular intervals

One of the best ways to prevent illegal hacking is to test the network for weak links on a regular basis. Ethical hackers help clean and update systems by discovering new vulnerabilities on an on-going basis. Going a step ahead, ethical hackers also explore the scope of damage that can occur due to the identified vulnerability. This particular process is known as pen testing, which is used to identify network vulnerabilities that an attacker can target. There are many methods of pen testing. The organization may use different methods depending on its requirements. Any of the below pen testing methods can be carried out by an ethical hacker:

  • Targeted testing which involves the organization’s people and the hacker. The organization staff will be aware of the hacking being performed.
  • External testing penetrates all externally exposed systems such as web servers and DNS.
  • Internal testing uncovers vulnerabilities open to internal users with access privileges.
  • Blind testing simulates real attacks from hackers.

Testers are given limited information about the target, which requires them to perform reconnaissance prior to the attack. Pen testing is the strongest case for hiring ethical hackers.

Ethical hackers have built computers and programs for software industry

Going back to the early days of the personal computer, many of the members in the Silicon Valley would have been considered hackers in modern terms, that they pulled things apart and put them back together in new and interesting ways. This desire to explore systems and networks to find how it worked made many of the proto-hackers more knowledgeable about the different technologies and it can be safeguarded from malicious attacks.

Just as many of the early computer enthusiasts turned out to be great at designing new computers and programs, many people who identify themselves as hackers are also amazing programmers. This trend of the hacker as the innovator has continued with the open-source software movement. Much of the open-source code is produced, tested and improved by hackers – usually during collaborative computer programming events, which are affectionately referred to as “hackathons.” Even if you never touch a piece of open-source software, you still benefit from the elegant solutions that hackers come up with that inspire or are outright copied by proprietary software companies.

Ethical hackers help safeguard customer information by preventing data breaches

The personal information of consumers is the new oil of the digital world. Everything runs on data. But while businesses that collect and process consumer data have become increasingly valuable and powerful, recent events prove that even the world’s biggest brands are vulnerable when they violate their customers’ trust. Hence, it is of utmost importance for software businesses to gain the trust of customers by ensuring the security of their data.

With high-profile data breaches seemingly in the news every day, “protecting businesses from hackers” has traditionally dominated the data privacy conversation.

Read this: StockX confirms a data breach impacting 6.8 million customers

In such a scenario, ethical hackers will prepare you for the worst, they will work in conjunction with the IT-response plan to ensure data security and in patching breaches when they do happen. Otherwise, you risk a disjointed, inconsistent and delayed response to issues or crises. It is also imperative to align how your organization will communicate with stakeholders. This will reduce the need for real-time decision-making in an actual crisis, as well as help limit inappropriate responses. They may also help in running a cybersecurity crisis simulation to identify flaws and gaps in your process, and better prepare your teams for such a pressure-cooker situation when it hits.

Information security plan to create security awareness at all levels

No matter how large or small your company is, you need to have a plan to ensure the security of your information assets. Such a plan is called a security program which is framed by information security professionals.

Primarily the IT security team devises the security program but if done in coordination with the ethical hackers, they can provide the framework for keeping the company at a desired security level. Additionally by assessing the risks the company faces, they can decide how to mitigate them, and plan for how to keep the program and security practices up to date.

To summarize…

Many white hat hackers, gray hat and reformed black hat hackers have made significant contributions to the advancement of technology and the internet. In truth, hackers are almost in the same situation as motorcycle enthusiasts in that the existence of a few motorcycle gangs with real criminal operations tarnishes the image of the entire subculture. You don’t need to go out and hug the next hacker you meet, but it might be worth remembering that the word hacker doesn’t equal criminal, at least not all the time. Our online ecosystem is made safer, better and more robust by ethical hackers. As Keren Elazari, an ethical hacker herself, put it:

“We need hackers, and in fact, they just might be the immune system for the information age. Sometimes they make us sick, but they also find those hidden threats in our world, and they make us fix it.

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Being a Senior Content Marketing Editor at Packt Publishing, I handle vast array of content in the tech space ranging from Data science, Web development, Programming, Cloud & Networking, IoT, Security and Game development. With prior experience and understanding of Marketing I aspire to grow leaps and bounds in the Content & Digital Marketing field. On the personal front I am an ambivert and love to read inspiring articles and books on life and in general.