What’s an Ethical Hacker and Should You Become One?

05/28/2021

The term “hacker” is usually perceived negatively, often summoning images of people in dark hoodies trying to destroy the world as we know it. But not all hackers are created equal. As you’re about to find out, some choose to use their powers for ethical hacking good and operate entirely above board— getting paid by companies and governments who want to test if their security systems are up to par.

You don’t need superhuman powers to become an ethical hacker, just a love of problem-solving and fantastic research skills. Whether becoming a white hat hacker is a good career move for you depends on your background, experience, and aspirations. Penetration testing is a skill you can acquire as part of your cybersecurity career journey, and we are here to help you figure out if it’s something that makes sense for you and, if so, how to get into the field.

What is Ethical Hacking?

One of the generally accepted truths about cybersecurity and hacking is that “ almost all systems can be hacked, somehow,” according to Dan Kaminsky, former computer researcher and Chief Scientist at WhiteOps. “It is a less spoken of secret that such hacking has actually gone quite mainstream.” 

To strengthen their security systems, companies and governments often engage the services of white hat hackers, or pen testers, to try and break into their systems. If the hacker succeeds, their vulnerability is now exposed and can be fixed before cybercriminals come knocking; if the white hat attack is unsuccessful, the client is still happy that their system proved resilient enough to withstand hacking. So it’s a professional win-win situation.

It’s important to understand that, even though ethical hacking is, by definition, sanctioned by the target, pen testers use the same methods a malicious attacker would use, making their work essential when checking for weaknesses and entry points in a network, infrastructure, and web application security.

What Do Ethical Hackers Do?

Ethical hackers spend their days trying to infiltrate a company’s system to reveal any vulnerabilities. However, every organization is different. Some might have specific security concerns or parts of their systems they want to test, so there isn’t one simple answer to what ethical hackers do on a daily basis.

In general, white hat hackers spend a fair amount of time doing research on their clients, trying to figure out how best to attack them. They often look for IP addresses, OS platforms, applications, advertised network ports, users, patch levels, and anything else they might be able to leverage into an exploit.

After that, pen testers break into the client’s system and gain unauthorized access—all while documenting exactly how they managed a successful attack. If they’ve done a thorough enough job researching their targets, the attack phase shouldn’t be all that difficult. Contrary to popular belief, discipline and systematic thoroughness will get you further in ethical hacking than being some sort of computer genius.

Plus, if you were dreaming of becoming a hacker, this line of work will give you the same thrill of illegally infiltrating computer systems, but without the risk of the FBI showing up at your doorstep. Kevin Mitnik is a shining example of this. Once a black hat hacker, he is now a computer security consultant and cybersecurity author: “I'm still a hacker. I get paid for it now. I never received any monetary gain from the hacking I did before. The main difference in what I do now compared to what I did then is that I now do it with authorization.”

How to Learn Ethical Hacking

Depending on what stage of your professional cybersecurity journey your are on, there are a couple of different ways you can specialize in ethical hacking. If you are already working in information security, or have a working knowledge of cybersecurity tactics, you know that the industry standard is to take the EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) exam. 

To pass the exam successfully, you’ll need a basic knowledge of programming languages, servers, and networking. Plus, by studying the related course materials, you’ll learn the latest hacking tools, techniques, and methodologies used by actual hackers and information security professionals to lawfully infiltrate an organization.

On the other hand, if you are just getting started in your cybersecurity career, you need to first build a solid foundation across network security, Microsoft and Linux security, the basics of Python programming, and many other essential cybersecurity subjects before specializing in ethical hacking. 

The University of Central Florida offers a Cyber Defense Professional Certificate Program that will help you gain the skills to get started in the exciting field of cybersecurity whether you come from a tech background or not. 

Here is how it works: you can register for online or in-person classes, and either way you will take 2 sessions on weeknights and one on Saturdays. The whole program is a total of 400 hours of in-depth cybersecurity instruction and takes about 10-11 months to finish, depending on holidays.

You will learn from accomplished cybersecurity professionals who bring their expertise and everyday experience directly into the classroom while practicing your new skills through cyber labs that mimick real-world cybersecurity scenarios. In our proprietary platform, called CyWar, every course you take has a corresponding set of online resources, including study guides and additional hands-on exercises you can use to further hone your skills. 

The program dedicates 50 hours across 12 lessons to Ethical Hacking specifically, giving you the broad foundations to pursue a career trajectory in this field, while helping you prepare for the CEH exam*. After taking this course, you will be able to describe and engage in ethical hacking processes and procedures, identify common techniques and attack methodologies, and perform common cyberattack methods.

While this class alone wouldn’t be enough to lay the foundation to a thriving career in ethical hacking, it can help you succeed in cybersecurity and set you on a course to specialize as a pen tester. What’s more, the UCF Cyber Defense Professional Certificate program has dedicated career services professionals who can help guide you along your ethical hacking journey. They start working with learners early on, helping you with a professional resume, a polished LinkedIn account, and access to our extensive network of hiring partners—so you can jumpstart your job search even before you complete the program. 

New cohorts start on a rolling basis, so to know when the next opportunity to enroll will be you can reach out to our admissions advisors at 407-605-0575. They can answer any questions you have about pursuing a career in ethical hacking and help you decide if it’s a path that makes sense for your unique professional journey.

*While the curriculum provides the knowledge needed to perform well on industry exams, this is not a test-preparation program, where the primary focus is the students’ performance on the exam. Certification exams are not conducted as part of the program and require additional costs not included in tuition.

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