What is Ethical Hacking?


Innovations in technology and software engineering have made the internet a basic necessity . Almost every machine requires an Internet connection to function. Businesses rely on the Internet to complete their transactions and keep their operations running smoothly. Private individuals store their data in digital clouds. Even top government bodies use the Internet to store sensitive and confidential data. However, this reliance provided hackers with the opportunity to profit. It gave rise to a new form of crime, exclusive to the Internet.

The hackers breach cybersecurity and retrieve data to use for their benefit. They use various methods from social engineering to direct system hacking to achieve their goals. To combat this, organizations have started hiring white-hat hackers. These white-hat hackers practice ethical hacking to help protect private and government data. Organizations hire them as cybersecurity experts that ethically hack systems to find weak points and potential threats. Ethical hacking is the act of deterring unethical hackers and securing the integrity of a cybersecurity network.

What is Ethical Hacking?

Ethical hacking is an authorized form of hacking. Ethical hackers or white-hat hackers perform ethical hacking to test cybersecurity. Individuals often refer to ethical hacking as penetration testing since it involves penetrating the cybersecurity of a system [1]. Since most businesses and organizations utilize the Internet and  computer networks to store data, ethical hacking has become an in-demand skill for cybersecurity experts [2]. Cybersecurity professionals can earn an ethical hacking certification by attending training programs and courses [2]. These programs ensure that the individuals who are learning how to hack do not use their knowledge for ill intentions.

White-Hat Hackers

Experts divide hackers into three categories— the white hats, the gray hats, and the black hats. The white-hat hackers are the ethical hackers while the black-hat hackers are cybercriminals. Gray-hat hackers are individuals whose intentions are between good and bad [3]. White-hat hackers are professionals that perform ethical hacking. Their activities are similar to black-hat hackers except that they only hack with the consent of a victim [3]. White-hat hackers are knowledgeable in breaching cybersecurity and even manipulating individuals to gain vital information. They are also highly intelligent with great critical thinking skills which allows them to find solutions to complex problems.

White-hat hackers can be any individual who has the skills and knowledge to hack a system. An organization often has its own unique requirements when hiring a white-hat hacker [4]. Software engineers, former military intelligence, and former black-hat hackers are great candidates for a white-hat hacker position. Organizations also prefer applicants to have a Certified Ethical Hacker certification from the EC-Council [4]. The certification guarantees organizations that the applicant is trustworthy and capable of ethical hacking. There are also other curriculums that white-hat hackers can complete to strengthen their portfolios.

The main responsibility of a white-hat hacker is to find vulnerable points in a system or network. They hack into the network of their clients to find vulnerabilities. They can find viruses and malware that are infecting a system. They test firewalls and honeynets to find holes in the infrastructure. They then report their finding to cybersecurity experts that will try to address the issues. In certain situations, the white-hat hacker may also help in the development of cybersecurity software [3]. As stated above, these tasks are similar to what black-hat hackers will do. White-hat hackers perform these similar methods to protect data from black-hat hackers.

While breaching in a network, clients expect white-hat hackers to demonstrate responsibility. A white-hat hacker’s job is to mimic a black-hat hacker attack [3], however, they should avoid damaging the system. Black-hat hackers ignore the damages they inflict in a system as long as they achieve their goals. Knowles [3] stated that when he shows his findings to a client, he avoids any action that could risk compromising data. This show of responsibility is essential for any white-hat hacker as it differentiates them from the destructive black hats.

Ethical Hacking Issues

Ethical hacking requires a white-hat hacker to penetrate the cybersecurity of the client. This will involve the white-hat hacker committing actions that authorities would otherwise deem illegal. A white-hat hacker will only be able to perform their duties under the consent of their client. Despite this, authorities have arrested white-hat hackers for felonies while doing ethical hacking [5]. The arrests are due to many reasons from a client’s exploitation to the white-hat hacker attacking a wrong IP address.

Wrongful Accusation

White-hat hackers need to be aware of the temperament of their clients. Their clients may accuse them of criminal activity if they find something incriminating in the system. An example of this is the case of Stefan Puffer. Puffer worked for Harris County in 2002 where he discovered how easy it was to hack into the court’s system [6]. He also found pornography in one of the computers [5]. When Puffer reported his findings, the County charged him with unauthorized access to computer systems [6]. This was the County’s attempt to blame Puffer instead of admitting to the findings. The court quickly acquitted Puffer as they were aware of his employment and that the County was putting the blame on the white-hat hacker.

Third Parties

Aside from client accusations, third parties can sue a white-hat hacker. This can happen when a client hires a white-hat hacker to penetrate a network that another entity owns. For example, a cloud customer may hire a white hacker to test the security of the cloud network. Despite the customer’s authorization, the white-hat hacker does not have the consent of the cloud provider [5]. The cloud provider will be liable to make legal actions against the hacker. Another example would be if a client accidentally provides the wrong IP address for the white-hat hacker to attack [5]. The hacker could face serious repercussions if the wrong IP address they attack is government-owned.

Ethical Dilemma

Another issue in ethical hacking is the discovery of incriminating information. When a white-hat hacker gains access to a system, they may find incriminating information. This can be a vulnerable security system that can potentially release customers’ private information. It can even be a business practice that subtly harms the customers. A white-hat hacker may be unable to report these findings to authorities due to a disclosure agreement. They may face an ethical dilemma where they have to choose whether to ignore unethical practices or report them to authorities and the customers.

Ethical Hacking Agreement

To address the various ethical hacking issues, white-hat hackers should sign a binding agreement with the client. The agreement should contain the scope of the responsibility and liability of the white-hat hacker. It is also a good practice to engage in responsible disclosure. This is a disclosure agreement where the white-hat hacker can publicize a vulnerability or issue regarding the client’s system after a certain period [7]. This forces clients to work on the issue before the white-hat hacker is legally able to publicize the problem.

To avoid wrongful accusations and third-party issues, the white-hat hacker should create a detailed agreement that will ensure their safety. However, they should make sure that they also address the needs of their clients. They should let the client understand their work and how they will operate during the duration of the agreement. Some companies may be unaware that white-hat hackers replicate black-hat hacker attacks and press charges once they discover a breach in their system. An extensive agreement will allow a white-hat hacker to work without worrying about client issues.


The Internet and computer networks have made ethical hacking a necessary security element. It is the act of deterring unethical hackers and securing the integrity of a cybersecurity network. Any company that deals with digital networks hire white-hat hackers to test their systems and discover vulnerabilities. Despite the high demand for white-hat hackers, professionals still face various issues in their work. They may face hostile clients and discover information that can harm certain individuals. Still, they can address these issues through binding agreements. As black-hat hackers continue to develop ways to attack their victims, ethical hacking will be a necessary tool for companies and institutions.

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[1]    Ethical Hacking and Morality: The Gray Area. Maryville University. https://online.maryville.edu/blog/ethical-hacking-and-morality-the-gray-area/ (Accessed July 28, 2021).

[2]    What Is Ethical Hacking? LeTourneau University. https://www.letu.edu/trending/content/what-ethical-hacking (Accessed July 28, 2021).

[3]    A. Knowles. How Black Hats and White Hats Collaborate to be Successful. SecurityIntellignence.com. https://securityintelligence.com/how-black-hats-and-white-hats-collaborate-to-be-successful/ Accessed July 28, 2021).

[4]    E. Tittel & E. Follis. How to Become a White Hat Hacker. Business News Daily. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/10713-white-hat-hacker-career.html (Accessed July 28, 2021).

[5]    M. Rasch. Legal Issues in Penetration Testing. Security Current. https://securitycurrent.com/legal-issues-in-penetration-testing/ (Accessed July 28, 2021).

[6]    J. Leyden. Ethical Wireless Hacker is Innocent. The Register. https://www.theregister.com/2003/02/24/ethical_wireless_hacker_is_innocent/ (Accessed July 28, 2021).

[7]    D. Zimmer. The Challenges of Ethical Hacking - A Minefield of Legal and Ethical Woes. Privateinternetaccess.com. https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/blog/the-challenges-of-ethical-hacking-a-minefield-of-legal-and-ethical-woes/ (Accessed July 28, 2021).

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