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What is Ethical Hacking?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Ethical hacking, often performed by white hats or skilled computer experts, is the use of programming skills to determine vulnerabilities in computer systems. While the non-ethical hacker or black hat exploits these vulnerabilities for mischief, personal gain or other reasons, the ethical hacker evaluates them, points them out, and may suggest changes to systems that make them less likely to be penetrated by black hats. White hats can work in a variety of ways. Many companies utilize ethical hacking services from consultants or full-time employees to keep their systems and information as secure as possible.

The work of ethical hacking is still considered hacking because it uses knowledge of computer systems in an attempt to in some way penetrate them or crash them. This work is ethical because it is performed to increase the safety of the computer systems. It’s reasoned that if a white hat can somehow break the security protocols of a system, so can a black hat. Thus, the goal of ethical hacking is to determine how to break in or create mischief with the present programs running, but only at the request of the company that owns the system and specifically to prevent others from attacking it.

People enter the field of ethical hacking in a variety of ways. Many people are very computer savvy and many, but not all, have an educational background in computer science. In some instances, the white hat has gained his or her experience by first being a black hat.

If black hat hacking was at a sufficiently criminal level, the black hat turned white hat may have served jail time before resuming a career in a more productive and positive way as an ethical hacker. The computer world is peopled with former black hats, who now hold ethical hacking jobs. Conversely, some white hats, such as Steve Wozniak, never committed any illegal acts, but simply possess the know-how and skills to analyze problems with any computer system.

With increasing use of the Internet and concerns about its security, especially when it comes to things like consumer information or private medical details, there is considerable need for computer experts to work in ethical hacking. Even sites owned by organizations like the US government have been hacked in the past, and concern about information theft remains incredibly high. Designing impenetrable systems or identifying the current weaknesses of a system are vital parts of keeping the Internet safe and information private, and even with the present legion of ethical hackers that perform this work, there is still more work to do.

Those with interest in the field of ethical hacking often acquire a lot of their skills on their own, and many have particular talent with and affinity for computers. Some knowledge can also be acquired through formal education in computer programming. This work requires creativity, and the ethical hacker must be able to think outside of the box, coming up with as many possible ways as he or she can derive, a system might be encroached upon by black hats.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a EasyTechJunkie contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon926026 — On Jan 15, 2014

Sorry, correction - I meant to quote Qohe 1 et, not ShadowGenius.

By anon926025 — On Jan 15, 2014

ShadowGenius is right, there are those that want the deliberate destruction of information stopped. I don't buy into the..."we need bad guys to keep the good guys in business" which is complete BS. My opinion, what we need is to advance our space travels to propel all these criminals into outer darkness where they belong. See ya! Don't wanna be ya!

By anon297822 — On Oct 17, 2012

I think that there is a third kind of hacker: one who hacks for no reason at all other than for entertainment.

By anon265491 — On May 02, 2012

@ShadowGenius: Well, let's just see here. You say police and laws exist because criminals do. OK, granted. But would you also say criminals exist because the police and the laws do? No? Well, your logic only goes one way then. The supposed symbiosis isn't there.

By arod2b42 — On Jan 15, 2011

Doesn't ethical hacking provide incentive to learn how to become a hacker, which often leads people to hack for personal unethical reasons?

By BioNerd — On Jan 13, 2011

Hacking requires an intimate knowledge of multiple computer codes and an innovative mathematical capacity to recognize various patterns in encryption and complicated codes. It is sort of like a mental exercise for smart people who have been trained extensively in computer science. Their need to prove their own intelligence and laugh at people who are not so enlightened extends to the point where they are willing to cause damage to other people's property via creating viruses and accessing private data. Luckily these people are relatively few.

By Qohe1et — On Jan 12, 2011

@ShadowGenius

I think this is true to some extent, but we should remember that there are people who are genuinely working hard for ethical reasons and want to see these things end.

By ShadowGenius — On Jan 11, 2011

Ethical hackers and non-ethical hackers are keeping each other in business. There is a symbiotic existence in the relationship between those who design viruses and those who design anti-virus software. If there were no criminals there would be no need for a police force or for laws, and heroes would be non-existent. Think of how boring the world would be without problems!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a EasyTechJunkie contributor, Tricia...
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