Not all hackers are bad, especially white hat hackers. In the hackers’ world, the hat they wear changes their stance in cyberspace, their goals, their intentions, and how they interact with us.
We all know very well that the Internet is not always a safe environment. Every day we come into contact with personalities with very different intentions on the World Wide Web without realizing it. While these can be malicious hackers who are after our sensitive data, they can also be white hat hackers who ensure our security by monitoring us from a distance.
The term “white hat” to describe a hacker’s intention originated from the old Western movies, where the “good guy” would wear a white hat and the “bad guy” would wear a black hat. This convention was used to help audience members quickly understand the characters’ motivations and allegiances.
In the context of computer security, the terms “white hat” and “black hat” were adopted to distinguish between hackers who use their skills for ethical purposes (white hat) and those who use them for malicious or illegal activities (black hat).
So what are the hats worn by these hackers and how do they change their methods and goals? How safe is it to leave our cyber security in the hands of a hacker? Let’s get to know the hackers with a hat closely.
Who are white hat hackers?
White hat hackers, also known as ethical hackers or security researchers, are individuals who use their computer programming and networking skills to help organizations protect themselves from cyber threats. These individuals use the same techniques as malicious hackers, but instead of using them for nefarious purposes, they use them to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in an organization’s systems, networks, and applications. They then work with the organization to fix these vulnerabilities and improve their overall security posture.
White hat hackers play a crucial role in the cybersecurity industry, as they help organizations stay one step ahead of cybercriminals. They use their expertise to simulate attacks on systems, networks, and applications, and then provide recommendations for how to fix any identified vulnerabilities. This helps organizations prevent cyberattacks and protect sensitive data from falling into the wrong hands.
It’s important to note that white hat hackers operate within legal boundaries and with the permission of the organization they are working with. They must adhere to a strict code of ethics and comply with all relevant laws and regulations. They cannot use their skills for personal gain or to harm others.
Many organizations employ white hat hackers as part of their security teams, while others hire them as contractors or consultants. These individuals are often highly skilled and have a deep understanding of computer systems, networks, and cybersecurity principles. They may hold certifications such as Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) or Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP).
The rabbit out of a hat
Of course, a white hat hacker is not the only hacker you can encounter in the cyber environment. Along with these hackers who are responsible for ensuring your security, there are also grey and black hat hackers.
To further explain the differences between white hat, grey hat, and black hat hackers, let’s define each group and their characteristics.
Grey hat hackers
Grey hat hackers are a mix of white hat and black hat hackers. They possess skills similar to white hat hackers but may not always follow ethical guidelines. Grey hat hackers may engage in activities that are legally questionable, such as hacking into systems without permission or using their skills for personal gain.
However, they may also work with organizations to help them improve their security, like white hat hackers. Grey hat hackers often walk a fine line between ethical and unethical behavior.
Black hat hackers (Malicious Hackers)
Black hat hackers, also known as malicious hackers, are individuals who use their computer programming and networking skills to exploit vulnerabilities in systems, networks, and applications for personal gain or malicious purposes.
They may steal sensitive data, disrupt systems, or engage in other illicit activities. Black hat hackers operate outside legal boundaries and do not adhere to ethical standards. Their actions can cause significant harm to organizations and individuals.
White hat hackers:
- Use their skills to help organizations improve security
- Conduct penetration testing and vulnerability assessments
- Work with the organization to fix identified vulnerabilities
- Legal and ethical
Black hat hackers:
- Malicious hackers who exploit vulnerabilities for personal gain
- Responsible for most high-profile data breaches and cyber attacks
- Illegal and unethical
Gray hat hackers:
- Combination of white and black hat hackers
- May use skills for personal gain or to expose vulnerabilities
- May work outside the law
- Motivations can vary, but are often driven by financial gain, ego, or desire to expose vulnerabilities
How does white hat hacking work?
As we mentioned before, white hat hacking, also known as penetration testing or ethical hacking, is a cybersecurity assessment where a trained security professional simulates a cyber attack on an organization’s computer systems and networks to test their defenses and identify vulnerabilities.
A white hat hacker follows a specific workflow and it usually looks like this:
- Planning and preparation
- Information gathering
- Vulnerability identification
- Post-exploitation assessment
- Reporting and remediation
- Follow-up testing
Planning and preparation
The white hat hacker (also called a “penetration tester”) and the organization’s security team collaborate to define the scope of the assessment, including the systems, networks, and applications that will be tested. The white hat hacker also explains the methodology and tools they will use during the assessment.
The white hat hacker begins by gathering information about the target systems, networks, and applications. This includes network scans, system enumeration, and data collection from public sources (e.g., social media, DNS records). The goal is to identify potential entry points and vulnerabilities.
The white hat hacker uses various tools and techniques to identify potential vulnerabilities in the target systems, networks, and applications. This may include static code analysis, dynamic code analysis, fuzz testing, and other methods to find weaknesses.
Once potential vulnerabilities are identified, the white hat hacker attempts to exploit them using various techniques, such as privilege escalation, SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), or other attack vectors. The goal is to demonstrate the impact of a successful attack and determine the extent of access an attacker could gain.
After successfully exploiting a vulnerability, the white hat hacker may attempt to maintain access to the compromised system, network, or application. This involves using tools like backdoors, rootkits, or persistence mechanisms to simulate a long-term breach.
Reporting and remediation
The white hat hacker documents all findings, including any vulnerabilities discovered and exploited, and provides recommendations for remediation. The organization’s security team then works to implement these recommendations, which may involve patching software, configuring firewalls, or implementing additional security controls.
After remediation, the white hat hacker may perform follow-up tests to ensure that the identified vulnerabilities have been properly addressed and that the organization’s defenses have improved.
To give an example of a white hack hacker’s workflow, let’s say that a company called “TechCorp” has hired a white hat hacker named Sarah to test their web application’s security. TechCorp develops a popular online project management tool that thousands of businesses use. The company wants to ensure that their application is secure before they launch a major marketing campaign.
Sarah, our white hack hacker, starts by reviewing the project’s scope with TechCorp’s security team. She explains her methodology, tools, and deliverables. The team discusses potential vulnerabilities, risk factors, and compliance requirements. They also agree on a timeline, communication channels, and reporting formats.
Sarah then begins by gathering information about TechCorp’s web application. She uses publicly available sources like social media, DNS records, and search engines to identify potential entry points and weaknesses. She also reviews the application’s documentation, source code, and system configurations.
Afterward, using various tools and techniques, Sarah identifies potential vulnerabilities in the application. She discovers SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and cross-site request forgery (CSRF) weaknesses. She prioritizes these findings based on their severity and ease of exploitation.
Sarah then attempts to exploit the identified vulnerabilities to gauge their impact and assess the likelihood of an attacker exploiting them. She uses proof-of-concept code or off-the-shelf exploits to demonstrate the potential damage. For example, she demonstrates how an attacker could inject malicious SQL code to extract sensitive data or manipulate user accounts.
After that, Sarah documents all her findings, including evidence of successful exploitation, and provides recommendations for remediation. She reports the highest-risk vulnerabilities first, along with step-by-step instructions for reproducing and fixing them. The TechCorp security team receives the report and starts addressing the issues immediately. They work with Sarah to ensure that all vulnerabilities are properly patched and the application is secure before launching their marketing campaign.
After TechCorp implements the recommended fixes, Sarah performs follow-up tests to verify the effectiveness of the remediation measures. She re-executes a subset of her original attacks to confirm that the vulnerabilities have been properly closed. If any new vulnerabilities are discovered during this process, the cycle repeats itself until the application’s security meets industry standards.
As part of the engagement, Sarah also reviews TechCorp’s incident response plan. She assesses its effectiveness and recommends improvements, such as establishing clear communication channels, assigning incident response roles, and developing a comprehensive incident handling process. This helps TechCorp prepare for potential future security incidents.
Finally, Sarah delivers a training session for TechCorp’s development team on secure coding practices and web application security principles. She also raises awareness among employees about the importance of security and the role they play in protecting sensitive data.
So, this scenario demonstrates how a white hat hacker like Sarah can help organizations strengthen their security posture by identifying vulnerabilities, providing actionable recommendations, and contributing to incident response planning and awareness.
Legal aspects and limitations of white hat hacking
While the goal of white hat hacking is to improve the security of computer systems, it is important to note that there are legal aspects and limitations to this practice.
Legal aspects of white hacking
- Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA): CFAA federal law makes it illegal to access a computer without authorization or to exceed authorized access. While the CFAA does not specifically address white hat hacking, it has been used to prosecute individuals who have accessed computers without permission, even if their intent was to help the owner of the computer
- Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA): ECPA federal law makes it illegal to intercept electronic communications, such as emails or text messages, without the consent of the sender or recipient. White hat hackers must be careful not to intercept any electronic communications while conducting their tests
- Stored Communications Act (SCA): SCA federal law allows law enforcement to obtain stored electronic communications from service providers without a warrant, as long as the communications have been stored for less than 180 days. White hat hackers should be aware of this law and take steps to ensure that any data they collect is not subject to the SCA
- Copyright law: White hat hackers must be careful not to violate copyright law when conducting their tests. They should only use tools and techniques that are necessary to identify vulnerabilities and should not distribute or reproduce copyrighted material without permission
- State laws: In addition to federal laws, there may be state laws that apply to white hat hacking. For example, some states have laws that make it illegal to access a computer without authorization, while others may have laws that require notification to the owner of a computer before accessing it
Limitations of white hacking
- Permission: White hat hackers must obtain permission from the owner of the computer system or network before conducting any tests. This can limit the scope of the test, as the hacker may only be able to test certain parts of the system
- Scope: The scope of the test must be carefully defined to avoid overstepping boundaries. The hacker should only test the systems and networks that they have been authorized to test and should avoid testing any systems or networks that are not within the agreed-upon scope
- Methodology: White hat hackers must use appropriate methodologies and tools to conduct their tests. They should avoid using methods that could cause harm to the system or network being tested, such as exploiting vulnerabilities in a way that could crash the system
- Reporting: After identifying vulnerabilities, white hat hackers must report their findings to the organization that hired them. They should provide detailed information about the vulnerabilities and recommendations for how to fix them
- Liability: While white hat hackers are generally not liable for any damage caused during the course of their work, they could still face legal action if they fail to follow ethical guidelines or exceed the scope of their authorization. It is important for white hat hackers to carry liability insurance to protect themselves in case of unforeseen events
- Privacy: White hat hackers must protect the privacy of the organizations they work with. They should not disclose any confidential information or data that they come across during the course of their work
How to become a white hat hacker?
To become a white hat hacker, you need to have a strong understanding of computer security and networking. You should also be able to think like a black hat hacker, so that you can identify and exploit vulnerabilities before criminals do.
Here are some steps to help you get started:
Learn the basics of computer programming and networking
Understanding how computers and networks work is essential for any aspiring white hat hacker. Start by learning programming languages like Python, C++, Java, and Ruby, and study network protocols such as TCP/IP.
Familiarize yourself with operating systems
Get comfortable with different operating systems, including Windows, macOS, and Linux. Learn how to use command-line interfaces (CLIs) and understand how to navigate different operating systems.
Study security protocols and technologies
Learn about security protocols such as SSL/TLS, HTTPS, and SSH. Familiarize yourself with security technologies like firewalls, intrusion detection systems (IDS), and encryption algorithms.
Participate in online communities
Join online forums and communities like Reddit’s netsec community, Stack Overflow’s security community, and the Ethical Hacking subreddit. These communities provide valuable resources, tutorials, and networking opportunities.
Take online courses and certifications
There are many online courses and certifications available that teach ethical hacking and penetration testing. Some popular options include Udemy, Coursera, Offensive Security, and CompTIA Security+.
Practice and build your skills
Set up a lab environment to practice what you’ve learned. Use virtual machines or cloud services like AWS or Google Cloud to create a safe environment for testing and experimentation. Participate in hacking challenges and capture the flag (CTF) exercises to improve your skills.
Consider a degree program
While not mandatory, earning a degree in computer science, cybersecurity, or a related field can help you gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter and increase your chances of getting hired as a white hat hacker.
Network and collaborate
Attend security conferences and meetups, and connect with other security professionals on LinkedIn. Collaborate with others in the industry to share knowledge, tools, and resources.
Consider obtaining certifications like the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) or Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP). These certifications demonstrate your expertise and commitment to ethical hacking.
Remember, becoming a successful white hat hacker requires dedication, persistence, and continuous learning. Stay up-to-date with the latest technologies, techniques, and threats, and always follow ethical guidelines when conducting any type of hacking or penetration testing.
Featured image credit: Kerem Gulen/Midjourney.