When Getting Hacked Helps
What comes to mind when you hear the word “hacker”? If you’ve seen a lot of movies, you might think of some un-showered criminal in a hoodie typing away in a basement full of wires, or something of the like. But did you know that thousands of hackers work openly and professionally for legitimate companies and institutions?
This type of hacker, also known as a “white hat” hacker, engages in ethical hacking – a practice in which an organization authorizes a security expert to attempt to gain unauthorized access to its data system or network. The goal of this attempted intrusion is to uncover potential vulnerabilities in the system and subsequently amend them to protect against malicious hackers, also known as “black hat” hackers.
As companies face increasing cyber-security threats, ethical hacking has become progressively important to safe and smart IT procedures. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an increase of 41k new jobs in information security (infosec) by 2029, much of which is being fueled by the need for ethical hacking.
In this article, we’ll review the importance of appreciating modern cyber threats and how ethical hacking serves as a diligent method of protecting against them.
Understanding Cyber-Security Risks
A cyber-security attack refers to any intentionally hostile effort to breach the informational system of a person or organization, usually for the benefit of the breaching party and to the detriment of the breached party. Just during COVID-19 alone, cybercrime has risen by 600%, and cyberattacks are expected to double worldwide by 2025. Even worse, the rate of prosecution for these attacks is expected to remain below half a percent.
With minimal follow-through on prosecution, the name of the game is prevention and containment – and it pays. Successful cyberattacks cost organizations both immediately and longitudinally by disrupting assets, productivity, reputation, legal liability, and continuity of business. Companies that can contain a breach within 30 days can save millions in losses, and those that prevent it can avoid these financial consequences altogether.
Common Vulnerabilities Exploited by Hackers
Given the complexity of informational systems, there are a variety of entry ways – often called vectors – for cyber attackers to exploit. These vulnerabilities include:
- Structured Query Language (SQL) injections, or attacks in which a hacker inserts malicious code into an application to gain unauthorized access to said application, disclose confidential information, delete information, and/or modify information;
- Broken authentication attacks, in which a malicious hacker gains control of an account through compromised passwords or other account information;
- Security misconfiguration, or failed/erroneous implementation of security safeguards for an application;
- Use of components with known vulnerabilities;
- System lockdown resulting from ransomware
Thankfully, ethical hacking can successfully identify channels that are susceptible to intrusion, enabling IT engineers to resolve them before being exploited by a cybercriminal.
How Does Ethical Hacking Work?
Ethical hackers assist organizations with cyber security protocol in several ways. As discussed earlier, their work largely involves exposing the aforementioned system vulnerabilities to remedy any weak points. Some methods to accomplish this are:
- Port-scanning tools, which survey a company’s system for any open ports and the relative threat-level of each;
- Reviewing patch installation to make sure updated software doesn’t create any new vulnerabilities;
- Monitoring network traffic and “sniffing” for suspicious activity;
- Finding ways to bypass intrusion prevention and detection systems, such as honeypots and firewalls;
- Testing detection of SQL injections;
- Social engineering techniques, which involve manipulation of end-users through phishing scams or other efforts of information solicitation
By using these methods, ethical hackers mimic the various strategies that black hat hackers use to gain access to an organization’s systems. As such, ethical hacking can teach an organization’s security professionals how malicious hackers think and operate, helping them to anticipate future threats.
Unlike malicious hackers, however, ethical hackers may still operate under certain restrictions as dictated by their clients. For instance, organizations may implement parameters for an attack when testing its safeguards, such as limiting those testing methods that could crash servers.
In researching ethical hacking, you may encounter the term “penetration testing” or “pen testing”. These terms refer to a process of system testing similar to that performed by ethical hackers, even encapsulated by it. However, it should be noted that penetration testing typically focuses on assessing specific aspects of a system or assessing on a specific schedule, whereas ethical hacking generally encompasses holistic ongoing security vigilance.
Protocol for Ethical Hackers
As ethical operators, white hat hackers should abide by protocol to protect the integrity of their clients. For instance, ethical hackers should always:
- Obtain proper legal permission before executing a security assessment;
- Confirm the scope of their assessment so as not to breach the boundaries of their client;
- Disclose any discovered vulnerabilities from their client, and provide remedial advice about them;
- Establish an understanding of an organization’s data sensitivity to prevent unintentional data leaks from their efforts
Any hacker that violates these guidelines cannot claim the title of “ethical”. Though their intent may not be sinister, they may end up doing more harm than good by ignoring these considerations.
Who are Ethical Hackers?
Ethical hackers are an eclectic bunch, ranging from college graduates to self-taught professionals. That said, any legitimate ethical hacker should be well-versed in a variety of computer skills and knowledge, including scripting languages, operating systems, networking, and general principles of information security. Specialization in one or more of these hacking domains is common for this line of work and can be verified through industry certifications.
The Best Choice for Ethical Hacking
Given their eclectic nature, finding a reliable ethical hacker may feel daunting. That’s why those seeking ethical hacking services should turn to a Managed Security Service Provider – a professional organization of infosec specialists that will supervise and manage network and system security. Outsourcing to an MSSP offers a multitude of benefits, among them:
- Flexible Assistance – MSSPs can supplement current security resources (such as when security teams have vacancies) or act as a turnkey solution for the entirety of security needs
- Verified Expertise – MSSPs typically maintain professional standards for hiring personnel to ensure their teams are qualified to offer assistance
- 24/7 Protection – Given the specialization of their services, most MSSPs can provide full and continual attention to the monitoring system, round-the-clock
- Mature Security Solutions – The most common targets for cybercriminals are small to medium-sized businesses, which often lack adequate protection and security resources; MSSPs can help to scale security measures rapidly in these instances
- Lower Overhead Costs – MSSPs often service multiple clients, allowing them to spread their costs across their client base and pass along the resulting savings; similarly, by contracting with MSSPs, organizations can avoid costs of in-house infrastructure and personnel
- Compliance Monitoring – Given the volatile regulatory environment of the data world, keeping up with the latest cybersecurity and data laws is complicated, but less so with the assistance of an MSSP
Essentially, the upside of MSSPs is threefold: you’ll get the help of dedicated experts, you’ll save money, and ideally, you’ll find protection suitable for the size and needs of your operation.
Considerations for Choosing an MSSP
While trusting your security needs with an MSSP is your best bet, there’s still the matter of choosing which MSSP is right for you and your organization. There is a range of factors that you should consider, as with any substantial decision.
First, and most obviously, examining the reputation of an MSSP is essential. How long has this particular MSSP operated? How successful have they been? Do they have references?
Second, it’s important to question the logistical fit between your organization and an MSSP. Does these MSSP service clients similar to your enterprise, or does your enterprise differ from their other clients in size or other criteria? The latter may indicate that this MSSP is inexperienced in handling the needs of firms like yours.
Third, ensure the MSSP operates with transparency, especially about their policies and methods for handling sensitive data. After all, you don’t want to hire a security company that’s just as shady as the criminals you’re trying to protect against.
As mentioned, this list of considerations is not exhaustive but certainly essential to the decision process. For suggestions, you can find a grouping of top-recommended MSSPs here.
Time for an Ethical Hackin’
Phew, that was a lot, but informing yourself is the first step to creating better cyber-security for you and those you represent.
Just remember: cybercriminals need only be successful at their job once, whereas security teams need to be successful every time. With this in mind, and cybercrime on a dramatic rise, ensuring proper security for information systems is more vital now than ever. Finding a proper security provider is more vital now than ever.
Ethical hacking is more vital now than ever.