The phrase “white hat hacker” conjures up memories of Gandalf the White in my mind as a lifelong Lord of the Rings fan. In the face of evil or malice, Gandalf represents all that is good. He still tries to do the right thing and acts as a guiding light (in some situations, literally with the help of his trusty staff) to show others the way.
White hat hackers, also known as ethical hackers or white hats, are similar to black hat hackers. In the digital world, they’re the equivalent of Gandalf (although likely without the epic beard). But what exactly does it mean to be a white hat hacker (and what does it mean to be a white hat hacker)? What are these people attempting to achieve? And what qualifications or training are needed to become one?
What Is a White Hat Hacker (Ethical Hacker)? Defining White Hats
White hat hackers are the good guys who battle to keep the bad guys at bay in a world where the cost of cybercrime topped $3.5 billion in 2019.
However, if you’re looking for an official description of a white hat hacker, you won’t find one. White hat hackers, in essence, are those that hack networks with the owner’s permission. They do so in order to assist the owner in securing or improving their scheme. Black hat hackers, on the other hand, hack without authorization, most often to cause harm for their own malicious purposes.
White hat hackers are the “good guys,” in a nutshell. They’re a group of hackers, tech experts, and penetration testers who discover and patch exploitable security flaws (such as zero-day attacks) before the bad guys do.
White hats often look for vulnerabilities in:
- Operating systems
- Software and hardware
- Websites and web applications
- Physical defenses
- Human assets (employees and other authorized users)
They’re Not Who You Think They Are…
When most people think of the word “hacker,” they envision a stereotypical dark figure wearing a hoodie and typing furiously on a keyboard in their mother’s basement. Although this may be true for the elusive hacker, it is not the case for the vast majority of people who go by that moniker.
White hat hackers are essentially cyber-superheroes. They apply their computer skills to make the world (wide web) a better place for both companies and consumers. Instead of donning a cape and wearing spandex, you’ll find them working in IT and cybersecurity teams or consulting with companies all over the world. They may also be someone you know, like Jim from your IT department.
When Bad Guys Become the Good Guys…
Any white hat hackers are former black hat hackers and cybercriminals who have changed their ways. Often white hat hackers use the same tactics and practise in the same arenas as less ethical hackers. The main difference is that they chose to use their abilities for good rather than bad, and they do so with the approval of the company they are attempting to hack.
Many well-known white hat hackers have defected to the dark side:
- Kevin Mitnick
- Jeff Moss
- Mark Abene
We’ll cover these and other well-known white hat hackers in a future post (stay tuned.) But, for the time being, let us return to our original subject.
What Do White Hat Hackers Do?
Simply put, white hats are offensive security analysts that assist businesses and organisations in improving their security and cybersecurity posture. They do so by assisting organisations in identifying ways to strengthen their defences by:
- Learning new knowledge, skills, strategies, and programming languages on a regular basis.
- Keeping up with trends in the market and technical advancements.
- Obtaining information about the company, its IT infrastructure, and its employees.
- Using a variety of legal and authorised digital and physical infiltration methods.
- Bugs, vulnerabilities, and other flaws are discovered and recorded (sometimes through bug bounty programs).
- Code for programmes, applications, rootkits, and honeypots is written or created.
- A number of cyber and social engineering assaults are being simulated.
- Based on their results and industry best practises, they are recommending security enhancements.
White Hat vs Grey Hat vs Black Hat: What’s with the Colors?
The philosophy behind the various coloured hacker “hats” — white hat, grey hat, and black hat — is to distinguish hackers based on their intentions (good, evil, or a mix of the two). Originally, hackers were divided into three categories: white, black, and grey caps.
Black Hat Hackers
Black hats are the digital world’s never-good-doers. They enjoy causing chaos and panic to further some kind of agenda. The following are characteristics of black hats:
- Taking money or other valuable knowledge to sell or use,
- Acts of vengeance, harming the reputations of others (people, corporations, governments, and other organisations), political or social problems, or simply making mischief for the sake of it.
Grey Hat Hackers
A grey hat hacker (or grey hat for short) is someone who isn’t entirely good or evil; they fall somewhere in the middle of the good-to-evil continuum. (In that way, they’re similar to tofu or some forms of pickles.) They’re the kind who enjoy dipping their toes into both the white and black hat baths. Basically, they follow the direction of the most lucrative wind at any given time.
Although grey hats generally seem to want to do good, they may not always do so in the most ethical or legal manner. They really enjoy making money from their hobbies (often times engaging in bug bounties). Although a grey hacker does not have malicious intentions (unlike their black hat counterparts), they may use unauthorised or illegal networks or methods to accomplish their objectives.
Unlike their grey or black hat equivalent, white hat hackers still use official networks. They will have authorization from the organisations or agencies they are attempting to hack. A black hat hacker is someone who would go to any length to make money or accomplish a mission.
Feeling Left Out?
But, wait, aren’t there just hackers who wear green, blue, or red hats? Depending on who you ask, there are. Within the industry, there is controversy about whether these other styles of hackers should have their own classifications or should simply be lumped in with black hats.
However, for the purposes of this article series, we’ll just look at the three most well-known forms of hackers (white, grey, and black hats). In a future article about the various forms of hackers, we’ll go over the other groups.
What Tactics and Skills Do White Hat Hackers Use?
Select your poison. White hats will hone their talents and practise their craft in a variety of ways. They employ a range of tools and techniques to identify both human and technological-based security flaws in your company’s network and other IT infrastructure.
Indeed, many of their tricks are similar to those used by black hat hackers; the only difference is that white hats use these methods with the permission of their target. Yes, I’m referring to organisations or businesses giving them permission to try to break into their business through virtual or physical means.
The following are some examples of traditional white hat hacker techniques and skills:
- White hat hackers often use social engineering (also known as “people hacking”) to find flaws in an organization’s “human” defences. Tricking and manipulating victims into doing something they shouldn’t is what social engineering is all about (making wire transfers, sharing login credentials, etc.).
- Penetration testing is the bread and butter of white hat methodologies, and there are a variety of different varieties, as we discussed earlier. The aim is to find bugs and weaknesses in all of your defences and endpoints so that they can be addressed.
- Reconnaissance and testing — Investigating the company to find weaknesses in the physical and IT infrastructure. The aim is to gather enough data to find legal ways to circumvent security controls and mechanisms without causing damage or breaking anything.
- Programming — White hat hackers build honeypots, which function as decoys for cybercriminals, luring them in and allowing them to obtain useful information about the attackers.
- Using a wide range of digital and physical tools — This includes hardware and software that enable penetration testers to select or bypass physical locks, clone ID access cards, gain visibility and recognise physical security blind spots, instal bots and other malware, and gain access to the network or servers, among other things.
Drilling Down on the Different Types of Ethical Hackers (By Roles and Responsibilities)
The word “ethical hacker” is a bit of a catch-all. When it comes to classifying hackers, white hats appear to fall into one of a few camps based on their unique skill sets or specialisations. White hat hackers will work as security engineers, software developers, and software testers in a variety of IT and cybersecurity positions. However, the most important takeaway is that they are still in high demand due to the value they offer.
Now, I’m not going to list these various positions in any sort of “importance” order because, quite frankly, they’re all significant. Each type of white hat hacker contributes in some way to the public good of their company or organisation (and, by extension, their customers or users). With that in mind, I’m going to take the quick route and simply list them alphabetically.
Cybersecurity researchers are similar to researchers in other fields in that they must know where to look for information, analyse it, and know how to put it to use. These researchers typically fall into one of two categories:
They’re either researchers who spend their lives studying and writing about cybersecurity, or device and operating system experts who enjoy getting their hands dirty. They investigate and analyse stuff (operating systems, applications, malware, and so on) in order to understand how they function and find exploitable flaws.
Penetration Testers (Pentester)
Penetration testing is a rewarding career that necessitates a great deal of practical experience and knowledge. It’s the perfect example of taking hacker skills that could be used for bad and putting them to good use instead.
The primary responsibility of a pentester is to find exploitable security vulnerabilities and other security flaws (ideally before any black hats do). They can do so by attempting to break through your existing security defences or by testing new software and applications. In addition to systematically looking for flaws, they are also in charge of:
Providing written reports to communicate these flaws, as well as plans and suggestions on how to fix them.
Providing reviews on current security technologies and solutions that the company already employs.
Information Security Analysts
Information security analysts are computer and information technology professionals who prepare and implement security measures, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These information security experts are in charge of inspecting the company’s network infrastructure and other IT processes.
Their duties also include monitoring your processes and investigating any possible violations. They may manage or supervise a team of penetration testers, or they may perform pentesting themselves as part of their responsibilities. In this case, they use the knowledge they have about the security flaws and vulnerabilities to determine the best course of action.
Information security analyst positions and data security contractor jobs have a lot in common. These consultants also specialise in network, device, and application security research and evaluations. Their mission is to assist their clients in identifying and mitigating exploitable flaws. The work description is the most significant distinction between them.
What Is a Certified Ethical Hacker?
The word “certified ethical hacker” refers to a type of information security certification programme. The purpose of this training is to equip you with the skills, tools, and resources you’ll need to protect a business. In fact, it’s one of the standard certifications recognised by intelligence agencies in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries. To maintain their status, CEH certificate holders must recertify every three years.
You may also complete other forms of certifications and courses, such as:
- Computer Hacking and Forensic Investigator (CHFI)
- Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
- Certified Register of Ethical Security Testers (CREST)
- Offensive Security Certified Expert (OSCE)
- Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)
Anyone who successfully completes the training is technically referred to as a trained ethical hacker. While some accredited ethical hackers are white hat hackers, not all CEHs are white hats. This is a crucial distinction to make.
Last Words on White Hat Hackers
A lot of the time, the term “white hat hacker” doesn’t do them justice. White hat hackers, to put it simply, are critical to the protection of organisations, companies, and governments. They assist those entities in identifying and addressing exploitable flaws before the bad guys do. These are the types of people we need more of in the world, as shown by the growing number of organisations that are hacked or experience cyber breaches on a daily basis.