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What Is a White Hat Hacker?

Egle Grasys
Content Writer

Did you know that not all hackers are bad? Most people associate the term “hackers” with cybercriminals who seek to steal data from people or companies. Make no mistake: these criminals are very real and dangerous. They’re also the ones who get the most media attention, so it’s no surprise that they’re the first ones to come to mind.

Well, believe it or not, hacking can sometimes be perfectly legal and ethical. To differentiate between the good hackers and cybercriminals, there are three so-called “hacker hats”: white hats, gray hats, and black hats.

White hat hacker definition

Have you ever watched those videos where people do drop tests on their phones or companies do crash tests on their cars? It’s important to know a product’s vulnerabilities, and the only way to do this is by putting it through the worst possible scenario. In the case of a business and its data, the equivalent would be a hack test, which is where white hat hacking comes in.

A white hat hacker (or ethical hacker) is someone who a company hires to test for security vulnerabilities. To do this, they perform penetration testing or pen testing in short. Pen testing refers to the simulation of repeated cyber attacks on a business’s systems. To represent real-life cyber threats as accurately as possible, pen testing should involve the same hacking methods that cybercriminals use (such as social engineering, viruses, worms, DDoS attacks, etc.).

So what are unethical hackers called?

Surely not all hackers are ethical. There are two other “hats” that refer to unethical hackers:

  • Black hat hackers. These are the ones who most people think of when they hear the term “hacker”. Black hat hackers are cybercriminals who hack into a system illegally with the goal of harming an individual or organization.

  • Gray hat hackers. These hack into systems illegally, but they generally don’t leak any data. They simply let the company know that their system is weak and that they should fix it. Gray hat hackers like to portray themselves as heroes because they’re helping companies improve their security. However, they act illegally and put company data at risk, making their heroic intentions questionable.

What are the main goals of hiring a white hat hacker?

So what is the point of ethical hacking? White hat hackers are hired by companies that want to enhance their cybersecurity and detect gaps in their systems. Here are the main goals that companies have when they hire ethical hackers:

  • Put themselves in the shoes of black hat hackers - a good white hack hacker will have the same expertise as many black hat hackers. This allows them to perform the same actions that a black hat hacker would if they were to attack a business.

  • Detect vulnerabilities in a company’s network - ethical hackers try out various hacking methods on a company’s network. When (and if) they’re successful, they report this to the company and let them know which vulnerabilities should be fixed.

  • Check how easy employees are to fool - white hat hackers might send fake phishing emails to employees to see how they react and whether they fall for them. This is a good way to see which employees need a refresh on their cybersecurity knowledge.

  • Help a business improve its cybersecurity - this is the ultimate goal of a white hat hacker. By detecting vulnerabilities in a company’s security, the ethical hacker can then make recommendations as to which areas should be improved.

  • Educate individuals and encourage them to boost their own security online - ethical hackers can help individuals understand the risks of weak cybersecurity and learn the most common mistakes people make. For example, NordPass has partnered up with independent white hat hackers who performed research for the top 200 passwords used by individuals worldwide.. This research aims to educate people on the worst passwords people use and the estimated time to crack them.

How to become a white hat hacker?

So who are these white hats exactly, and how does one become an ethical hacker? Obviously, you need to be a cybersecurity expert. This often means getting a degree in computer science, computer hardware engineering, database management, or similar fields.

Next, you should work in this field for a few years to get some practical experience. Then you can get an ethical hacker certification and start working as a white hat hacker.

Bottom line

White hat hackers can be an invaluable asset to a business. They help understand the main risks and vulnerabilities that a company faces and help businesses conquer the threat of their not-so-ethical counterparts: black hat hackers.

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