What Is Ethical Hacking? Exploring the Ideal Career in IT

Sai Digbijay Patnaik
Sai Digbijay Patnaik  |  May 29, 2019

The digital age is littered with malicious data breaches. How exactly are people working towards preventing future attacks? The answer is ethical hacking.

Ethical hacking is a popular career choice for many people that are either thinking about a cybersecurity job for the first time, looking for a career change, or are already in a professional IT setting. Consequently, businesses are employing more and more ethical hackers and there is a rising trend for people that want professional, ethical hacking training.

If you want to start or build your career in ethical hacking, here is everything that you need to know that will help you along this path.

Understanding ethical hacking

The drive behind ethical hacking is to improve security systems and to eliminate or mitigate potential attacks. Some of the critical rules that must be obeyed for hacking to be deemed as ethical include:

  • Written or express permission to examine a network with the intent of identifying potential risk
  • Respect for the organization or individual that is being probed
  • Informing the organization, hardware manufacturer, and software developer of any vulnerabilities or weaknesses found
  • Closing out any vulnerabilities or weaknesses that can be exploited by someone else
ethical hacking process

Why is Ethical Hacking needed?

The demand for ethical hacking is higher than ever before and is predicted to keep rising for the foreseeable future due to the following reasons:

Improving the sophistication of ransomware

The number of attacks and the complexity of cyber-attacks is on the rise. In 2016, businesses fell victim to ransomware attacks every 40 seconds. In 2019, this number reduced to 14 seconds. By 2021, the attacks will increase in a shorter time-span of 11 seconds according to Cybersecurity Ventures. The loss and damage caused by ransomware in 2017 were at $5 billion which was a 15X increase from 2015. In 2019, it is now at $11.5 billion, and it is predicted to increase to $20 billion by 2021.

These numbers demonstrate the dire need companies face to protect themselves from hacking and cyber-attacks. The need can be fulfilled by having access to ethical hacking talents to counter attacks, mitigate attacks, and prevent any damage from ever taking place.

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Inconsistent security patching and the increased adoption of cloud computing

As companies increasingly adopt cloud computing due to its numerous benefits, so does the potential for security threats also increase. The technology is growing with a rapid pace of innovation to the extent that current security experts cannot keep pace with the innovation. As a result, security patching is inconsistent at best, and at worst, never done at all. The massive and consistent change means that the number of ways to exploit cloud computing services is growing. Ethical hacking, so far, is the best response to these threats since it allows experts with the same mindset as malicious hackers to protect organizations and individuals.

Preparedness for attacks

Even with the best security compliance, companies still face consistent attacks. In fact, according to Accenture, companies should not rely on compliance alone and should additionally enhance their security profile by undertaking extreme pressure testing to identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities in their systems. The best bet for organizations today is to rely on both security compliance measures as well as a strong cybersecurity foundation built on a team of ethical hackers to reduce the impact of cybercrime. Additionally, investing in breakthrough innovations, including artificial intelligence and analytics, to enhance the scale and the effectiveness of cybersecurity, is crucial.'

Related: Expand your knowledge, and your vocabulary, with our list of 70+ must-know cyber security terms and their definitions! 

Roles and responsibilities of an Ethical Hacker

Some of the different roles and responsibilities of an ethical hacker according to the various ethical hacking personas are as follows:

Defender

Responsibility

To maintain, support, and administer the security of networks, data, and systems.

Proficiencies
  • Threat mindset
  • Judgment
  • Collaboration
Skills and knowledge
  • Security architecture
  • Security tools administration
  • Infrastructure security
  • Security risk management
Typical roles
  • Security administrator
  • Systems security analyst

Firefighter

Responsibility

To identify, analyze, and mitigate threats to data, networks and internal systems.

Proficiencies
  • Threat mindset
  • Critical thinking
  • Judgment
  • Agility
Skills and knowledge
  • Infrastructure security
  • Security incident management
  • IT administration
  • Security tools administration
Typical roles
  • Security operations center manager
  • Cyber incident responder
  • Cyber-analyst
  • Vulnerability analyst
  • Security engineer

Hacker

Responsibility
  • To conduct specialized deception and threat detection activities.
  • To identify and mitigate cybersecurity risks
Proficiencies
  • Critical thinking
  • Threat mindset
  • Ethical impact
  • Creativity
Skills and knowledge Typical roles
  • Threat hunter
  • Cyber operator

Sleuth

Responsibility

Investigates cybersecurity events or crimes related to systems, networks, and digital evidence

Proficiencies
  • Critical thinking
  • Threat mindset
  • Ethical impact
  • Social awareness
Skills and knowledge
  • Security incident management
  • Computer forensics
Typical roles
  • Cyber forensics analyst

Scientist

Responsibility

To perform specialized analysis of security information, cryptographic, and threat intelligence, and to improve security posture

Proficiencies
  • Threat mindset
  • Critical thinking
  • Quantitative
Skills and knowledge
  • Data science
  • Intelligence analysis
  • Cryptography
Typical roles
  • Cyber analytics manager
  • Threat intelligence analyst

Advisor

Responsibility

To advise on the concept, design, and building of secure networks and systems

Proficiencies
  • Communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Influence
  • Quantitative
Skills and knowledge
  • Security risk management
  • Policy, legal, regulatory
  • Business acumen
  • Security architecture
Typical roles
  • Security risk analyst
  • Security architect
  • Application security analyst

The Strategist

Responsibility

To provide cybersecurity direction, advocacy, and management.

Proficiencies
  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Influence
  • Ethical impact
Skills and knowledge
  • Security architecture
  • Security risk management
  • Policy, legal, regulatory
  • Business acumen
Typical roles
  • Cyber communications analyst
  • Cyber policy analyst
  • Cyber strategy analyst
  • Chief information security officer
  • Cyber program/product manager

How to become an Ethical Hacker

There isn’t a single path to becoming an ethical hacker. Several factors including personal preferences, current skill set, character traits, current job, and rank, etc. all factor in a person’s own path towards becoming an ethical hacker.

However, it is recommended that certain skills be at the forefront of anyone’s training towards becoming an ethical hacker or cybersecurity expert. These skills include:

  • Advanced malware prevention
  • Intrusion detection
  • Incident handling and response
  • Cloud computing/virtualization
  • Security information and event management (SIEM)
  • Application security development
  • Audit and compliance
  • Access/identity management
  • Firewall/IDS/IPS skills
  • Analytics and intelligence
  • Social skills

If you are in a specific industry that requires ethical hacking skills, some domain knowledge of the industry will also be quite useful. Some of the industries that commonly hire ethical hackers include:

  • Government (Defense and Non-defense)
  • Consulting/Professional Services
  • Banking/Finance/Insurance
  • Information Technology/Management

These industries constantly have to deal with sensitive information and consequently have to protect themselves by hiring ethical hackers to fend off any security threats.

Considering all of the above, a recommended path towards becoming an ethical hacker is as follows:

  1. Understand the different hacking personas.
  2. Zero-in on a particular industry that interests you.
  3. Analyze the necessary requirements to become an ethical hacker in that industry
  4. Evaluate your strengths, weaknesses, and interests and gain some programming skills
  5. Learn the UNIX operating system as well as Windows and Mac OS.
  6. Take a professional course and get certified
  7. Do some personal computer lab experimentation to understand hacking in real environments
  8. Read and consume news and information about hacking
  9. Decide on a specific location you prefer to work and a few alternatives as well.
  10. Network with the hacker community by sharing technical ideas and information

Salary prospects

The average salary of penetration ethical hackers varies across countries, cities, companies, roles, and years of experience. Those with credentials such as the CEH Certification or Certified Ethical Hacker qualification will tend to get better salaries than those without any certification. Furthermore, trends show that the wages are set to increase in the foreseeable future as more and more companies seek to employ or hire the services of an ethical hacker.  

With that said, here is a sample of the salaries that you can expect in the United States of America.

Average CEH salary: $90K

By employer
  • Booz, Allen, and Hamilton: $67,470 - $101,389
  • U.S. Army: $32,133 - $86,327
  • U.S. Air Force (USAF): $49,029 - $81,490
  • General Dynamics Information Technology Inc: $59,045 - $104,805
  • Lockheed Martin Corp: $69,043 - $113,000
By city
  • Washington, District of Columbia: $67,000 - $126,121
  • New York, New York: $50,143 - $124,608
  • San Antonio, Texas: $51,456 - $90,999
  • Atlanta, Georgia: $49,550 - $110,936
  • San Diego, California: $76,754 - $121,694

Becoming an ethical hacker is an excellent career path for anyone that is thinking about a long-term career in cybersecurity and the IT industry. There is a lot of demand for ethical hackers and cybersecurity experts which means that employers are ready to pay handsomely any individual with the right skills and certifications. If you are thinking of such a career path, go ahead boldly because there is nothing for you to lose.

Interested in learning more about cybersecurity? Check out these cybersecurity trends of 2019!

Sai Digbijay Patnaik
Author

Sai Digbijay Patnaik

SEO content writer, Simplilearn