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.
Famous white hat hackers
Some of the most famous white hat hackers have made significant contributions to the field of cybersecurity and have become household names. Here are a few examples:
Kevin Mitnick - Mitnick is perhaps one of the most well-known white hat hackers in history. In the 1980s and 1990s, he gained notoriety for hacking into the computer systems of major corporations and government agencies. After serving five years in prison, Mitnick turned his life around and became a successful security consultant. His book “The Art of Deception” is a must-read for anyone interested in social engineering.
Tsutomu Shimomura - Shimomura is a renowned computer security expert who gained national attention in 1995 for helping the FBI track down and capture Kevin Mitnick. He also created the first intrusion detection system, which is still used today to protect networks from unauthorized access.
Dan Kaminsky - Kaminsky is a cybersecurity researcher who is best known for discovering a major vulnerability in the Domain Name System (DNS) in 2008. The flaw, which could have allowed attackers to redirect internet traffic to malicious websites, affected virtually all internet users. Kaminsky worked with major tech companies to fix the issue before it could be exploited.
Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek - Miller and Valasek are a duo of white hat hackers who made headlines in 2015 for hacking into a Jeep Cherokee and taking control of its steering, brakes, and other critical systems. Their research led to a recall of 1.4 million vehicles and sparked a national conversation about the security of internet-connected cars.
These are just a few examples of the many white hat hackers who have made significant contributions to the field of cybersecurity. By using their skills for good, they have helped to make the digital world a safer place for all of us.
What’s the difference between a white hat hacker and a black hat hacker
The primary difference between a white hat hacker and a black hat hacker is their intent and motivation. While white hat hackers use their technical skills to identify and fix security vulnerabilities, black hat hackers use those same skills to exploit and manipulate systems for their own gain.
White hat hackers are often hired by organizations to test the security of their networks and systems. Black hat hackers, on the other hand, operate outside the law and use their skills to gain unauthorized access to computer systems and networks. Their motives can range from financial gain to personal amusement or political activism.
It's also worth noting that there is a gray area between white hat and black hat hacking, known as “gray hat” hacking. Gray hat hackers may identify vulnerabilities in systems without permission, but they do not have malicious intent and may disclose their findings to the affected organization. While their actions are technically illegal, they are generally seen as less harmful than those of black hat hackers.
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.