Skip to content Skip to Live Chat
Close Nav

Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

August 16, 2019

Information Technology

Ethical hacking and how it fits with cybersecurity.

Computer code close up

Cyber hackers. These are black hat criminals that are a continual cyber security threat, as they find ways to hack into business and personal networks to steal your information and use it for all kinds of crimes. They can sell the information, hold it against you as ransom, commit identity fraud, or simply use it to steal your money or assets. While black hat forms of hacking are a common cyber security threat, experts who can hack are also a countermeasure against it.

White hat hacking or ethical hacking is an effective way to combat cyber attacks, and help organizations and professionals understand the vulnerabilities in a network. If ethical hackers are able to get in, chances are that cyber criminals could as well. Utilizing white hat hackers or ethical hackers can help organizations strengthen their applications. Assessments and attacks done by white hat hackers exploit issues with an application, and these hackers can then use their skills to help an organization improve. Black hat hackers, on the other hand, are just doing their black hat work for personal gain.

Ethical hackers don’t get jobs by simply deciding to hack into a company to exploit issues in the application, then going to that company and explaining how they got in. These white hat hackers need training, and degrees and certifications are important elements to becoming an expert at how to hack, and overall information security. There are specific certification courses that help train ethical hackers, but most of these professionals need a degree to help them learn and understand the basics of cyber security, computer coding and assessments, social engineering, and network security. 

What do ethical hackers do?

White hat hackers or ethical hackers are actual computer hackers. However, they differ from black hat cyber criminals because they are qualified and legally able to hack in specific contexts. Ethical hackers are well versed in current ways to hack, information security, and social engineering, and need to stay on top of how black hat attackers are breaking into networks. Ethical hackers use their knowledge to hack into an organization’s network and learn about the vulnerabilities. They help explain to clients where their vulnerabilities are, and give options for the best ways to strengthen the security of their system.

Ethical hackers can find jobs in many places. There are many software organizations that compile teams of hackers, and these hackers are hired by organizations to help with their security. Many hackers are hired by governmental agencies for cyber security purposes because they can see what a cyber attacker would do, from how they would access the information to what they would do their information. Businesses also need cybersecurity professionals to help with their sensitive information. Ethical hackers can then help their clients fix vulnerabilities and provide further protection for their system. They offer a variety of software and manual options to help organizations increase their security and avoid issues with black hat hackers in the future. 

Computer screens in dark room

Different types of hackers.

There are three different, general types of computer hackers and it’s really important to make the distinction between the three. Black hat, gray hat, and white hat hacking are the three kinds. When people talk about hacking, it can be easy to automatically assume they are talking about criminal hackers. But there are ethical, legal, good hackers out there and it’s crucial to understand what separates the types of hackers.

  • White Hat Hacking. White hat hackers practice ethical ways to hack. These computer hackers work for a reputable company or have proper training and education, and act as freelancers. These hackers use their knowledge for good, and don’t want to uncover vulnerabilities simply for gain. They want to help the organization be stronger. The vital thing that sets white hat hackers apart is that they have permission from the system owners to hack into a system. System owners have hired the hackers to find vulnerabilities and then help them create more security. These hackers use penetration testing or pen testing to help perform assessments to exploit weaknesses in applications and prevent attacks.

  • Black Hat Hacking. Those who hack in a black hat way are called cyber attackers. These black hat hackers use and write malware, and utilize their knowledge to gain access into systems without permission. Black hat cyber attackers steal data, hold it for ransom, or use it for identity fraud. The people who utilize black hat forms of hacking are doing so illegally, and are a huge threat to data security. Some of these black hat cyber criminals learn hacking from other black hat criminals, and there are usually groups of black hat cyber attackers working together and splitting the profits. Some black hat cyber hackers work alone. Regardless of how they operate, black hat criminals are considered "bad guys" and only want to bring down a company or organization, usually for their own gain. Black hat security breaches can expose personal data of thousands or millions of people, the sensitive data of an organization itself, and more. Black hat methods of hacking get more sophisticated every year, as technology advances and black hat criminals work to find new ways to exploit weaknesses in systems. Black hat data breaches can ruin organizations by leaving them with information exposed, or needing to pay fees to get information back.

  • Gray Hat Hacking. Gray hat hacking is a mix of white hat and black hat forms of breaking in (obviously.) This looks like hackers who look for vulnerabilities without permission, but will then report them to the system owner and ask for a fee to fix the issue. While not as malicious as black hat, gray hat hackers aren't considered good guys. Gray hat hacking can get really nasty, because site owners can say they don’t want to pay the fee to fix the issue. This leaves hackers with the information needed to exploit the organization. System owners can be backed into a corner by grey hat hacking and either face paying huge fees or having their system exposed. Hacktivism falls under this category. Hacktivism is when hackers say they are doing good by trying to help organizations become stronger, or hacking “bad” people, but they are still accessing information illegally and without permission. 

Ethical hacking and cyber security.

Ethical, white hat hackers are perhaps the best cyber security measure against malicious hacking. There is a high demand across industries and organizations for white hat hackers, especially as more system administrators consider ethical hacking as their top security measure. An ethical hacker utilizes their knowledge and education, ability to think like a hacker, and their willingness to use their skills for good to help organizations. There are many cyber security measures that ethical hackers utilize to help an organization increase their security.

Man sitting at desk with laptop

Penetration testing.

Penetration testing, also called pen testing, involves experts testing a computer or network system to find the security vulnerabilities. Penetration testing can be automated through software, or performed manually. Either way, the penetration testing will identify possible entry points, ways that systems can be broken into, and more. Penetration testing will often analyze software and network systems, as well as employee security and their understanding of safe computer practices through these penetration tests. Those who want to hack using black hat methods will sometimes utilize their own forms of penetration testing, so white hat hackers who also utilize penetration testing can be doing some of the exact same methods, but ethical pentesting will result in good results for everyone.

Vulnerability assessments.

Vulnerability assessments define, identify, classify, and prioritize the vulnerabilities in a network system. The experts can then offer the organization the options of how to help prevent and fix these kinds of vulnerabilities. Vulnerability assessments usually use a mix of manual and automated systems, and can be done regularly to ensure no new vulnerabilities have come up as upgrades to software happen. 

Both vulnerability assessments and penetration testing will scan for weaknesses, test entry points, prioritize targets, develop strategies, and ultimately come up with a plan to defend network systems.

How to become an ethical hacker.

If you’re interested in learning how to hack, but want to avoid black hat forms of hacking, and do your hacking legally and for the good of organizations, ethical hacking could be the perfect fit for you. A degree in cybersecurity is a great place to start in learning about network systems, security measures, and hacking techniques. Many ethical hackers will regularly attend conferences and get more certifications to stay up-to-date on hacking techniques. WGU offers a degree with certifications that can help you be prepared and a great contender for jobs in ethical hacking. If you’re ready to learn how to do interesting and exciting work, and for the good of government agencies and organizations, get started in ethical hacking today.

Share this:

One online university. Four colleges. Flexible degrees.

Our focus on your success starts with our focus on four high-demand fields: K–12 teaching and education, nursing and healthcare, information technology, and business. Every degree program at WGU is tied to a high-growth, highly rewarding career path. Which college fits you?

Want to see all the degrees WGU has to offer? View all degrees