ethical hacking

What is Ethical Hacking? A Beginner’s Guide

The digital landscape is a battlefield. Cyber threats lurk everywhere, constantly evolving to exploit weaknesses in our networks and systems. Data breaches, malware attacks, and identity theft are just a few of the dangers that loom large in today’s interconnected world. Cybersecurity professionals wield a powerful weapon to combat these threats: ethical hacking.

Also known as white hat hacking or pen testing, ethical hacking involves using hacking techniques by friendly parties to identify and fix security vulnerabilities in a network or computer system. It’s a proactive approach to cybersecurity, essentially acting like a digital security drill. Ethical hacking aims to detect and resolve security vulnerabilities before malicious actors can exploit them. According to a recent analysis, cybercrime inflicted a financial toll exceeding £30.5 billion on UK companies in 2023, affecting more than 25 percent of firms nationwide. 

Ethical hackers enhance an organization’s security resilience by identifying system weaknesses and potential data leaks in a controlled environment. These hackers can legitimately probe and repeatedly challenge the IT infrastructure using known vulnerabilities to evaluate the organisation’s security resilience. This guide delves into the world of ethical hacking, offering valuable insights for both seasoned security professionals and those embarking on their cybersecurity journey 

Ethical hackers: The good guys of cybersecurity 

Ethical hackers employ many of the same methods and tactics as malicious hackers to access sensitive information and systems. However, they operate strictly within legal boundaries and with the explicit consent of their employer or client.  

Their extensive expertise in information security enables them to conduct comprehensive system assessments to identify potential attack vectors that may jeopardize critical business and operational data. Ethical hackers typically possess a blend of practical experience and industry-recognized certifications, such as the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) or the Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP). Additionally, some ethical hackers hold academic credentials in computer science, information technology, or related fields. This comprehensive skillset empowers them to mitigate risks, prevent costly breaches, and ultimately strengthen an organization’s cybersecurity posture. 

The five phases of ethical hacking 

Ethical hacking follows a structured approach, typically divided into five key phases: 

Reconnaissance: In the reconnaissance phase, ethical hackers gather information about the target system or network. They act like detectives, using various techniques to collect data, such as the target’s digital presence, identifying open ports, determining the software and hardware in use, and mapping out potential vulnerabilities. By gathering all this intel, the hacker gets a clear picture of the system’s structure and potential ways to get in.  

Scanning: Armed with the information from reconnaissance, the ethical hacker delves deeper using automated vulnerability tools to look for vulnerabilities like outdated software or settings that aren’t configured securely. It’s like using a metal detector to find hidden weaknesses that malicious hackers could exploit to break in. The goal is to identify these potential entry points before anyone else does. 

Gaining Access: Now comes the simulation of an actual attack. Ethical hackers utilize the discovered vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to the system. They might use tricks like cracking passwords, injecting malicious code (SQL injection), or exploiting those unpatched weaknesses. The objective is to infiltrate the system in a controlled way that does not cause harm. 

Maintaining Access: Once inside the system, the ethical hacker establishes a foothold to maintain access for further exploration. This may include setting up backdoors, enabling remote access, or sustaining a presence within the system for persistent access. By acting like a persistent attacker, they can test the system’s defences against long-term threats. This phase helps identify weaknesses in monitoring and responding to ongoing attacks. 

Covering Tracks: The final phase involves cleaning up after the ethical hacking exercise. This includes erasing any traces of their presence in the system and ensuring no backdoors or vulnerabilities linger after the simulated attack. Additionally, a comprehensive report detailing all vulnerabilities and suggesting fixes is generated, giving the IT team a clear path to improving their security defences. 

Ethical hackers vs malicious hackers 

Ethical hackers and malicious hackers are on opposite sides of the digital battlefield. Both have the skills to navigate computer systems, but their goals and methods differ vastly.  

Ethical hackers, also known as “white hat” hackers, are hired by organizations to improve their security and resilience. They identify vulnerabilities and provide recommendations to strengthen defences. In contrast, malicious or “black hat” hackers are driven by personal gain, financial incentives, or a desire to cause harm. They exploit vulnerabilities to steal data, disrupt operations, or extort the organization, disregarding the law and ethics. 

Ethical hackers operate within the law and adhere to a strict code of ethics, working collaboratively with organizations to address security issues. On the other hand, malicious hackers disregard the law, violating security measures without permission, and their illegal actions potentially lead to severe legal consequences. 

Malicious hackers make money by blackmailing targets, stealing sensitive information, and selling it to competitors or on the dark web. On the other hand, ethical hackers receive payment from companies, governments, or individuals to protect their digital infrastructure and improve cybersecurity. 


Not everything related to hacking is inherently bad. When wielded responsibly and with the right intentions, hacking can be a powerful force for good, helping to safeguard digital assets and protect against malicious actors. Understanding and appreciating ethical hacking can empower security professionals to build a more secure and resilient digital future for everyone. 

Nidhi Singh