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What is ethical hacking? A beginner’s guide

What is ethical hacking? A beginner’s guide

What is the definition of ethical hacking, why is it important, and how do you become an ethical hacker? Find out in our useful beginners guide.

Search the term “hacker” on the internet, and what image comes up?

Hooded figures with shadowy faces, sitting in dark rooms while leaning over bright screens filled with mysterious code.

The typical image of a hacker may give us the perception of criminals conducting sketchy online activity, perhaps hacking into government databases or stealing money.

But hacking is not always the devious deed portrayed to us. In fact, it can have a hugely beneficial and positive impact on people, businesses and organisations around the globe.

It’s called ethical hacking, and it’s the cyber security super-skill that can help keep industries and businesses safe in a world where cyber attacks are on the rise.

Read on to learn more about the fascinating topic of ethical hacking and even discover how you can try it for yourself for free!

Check out the CyberStart challenge walkthrough
at the end of this blog!

What is hacking?

Before defining ethical hacking, it’s first necessary to determine what hacking is.

Hacking is the act of breaking into digital systems and devices such as networks and computers. While hacking can be an ethical or an unethical act depending on the hacker’s goal, it often has unethical connotations.

Cyber criminals often use hacking techniques to illegally break into systems and devices to steal private data or cause disruption. Therefore, it’s helpful to specify when hacking is carried out ethically.

What is ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking is a legal form of hacking. It’s usually carried out in a professional setting to test an organisation’s defences and uncover potential security weaknesses. This form of hacking is deemed ethical because it improves cyber security and is only carried out with permission and strict controls.

Why is ethical hacking important?

Every organisation that uses online systems and digital devices can benefit from ethical hacking.

According to gov.uk, four in ten businesses (39%) in the UK experienced cyber security breaches from March 2020 to
March 2021.

And this is not just an issue in the UK, as cyber attacks threaten businesses in every industry around the globe.

Ethical hacking can play a key role in combatting the threat of malicious hacking and other forms of cyber attacks. Businesses that employ professionals to ethically hack their systems will have a better chance of finding and fixing weaknesses before a cyber criminal can take advantage of them.

Can you get paid to be an Ethical Hacker?

Ethical hacking, sometimes known as offensive cyber security, is required in numerous cyber security roles. A globally widening skills gap and growing demand for cyber security experts mean this career path will be valued and provide many job opportunities for years to come.

Let’s discover some of the cyber security roles that use ethical hacking day-to-day to see where this skill could take you.

Penetration Tester

Penetration Testers, or Pen Testers for short, use ethical hacking to ensure a company’s security setup protects their network. A Pen Tester uses offensive cyber security techniques to attempt to hack and bypass the company’s security measures.

Penetration Tester average salary range - £23,000 - £53,000

See if you have the skills and traits to be a Pen Tester in
our blog post.

Digital Forensics Investigator

A Digital Forensics Investigator or Analyst conducts an investigation after a cyber security crime occurs. A person in this role will examine the crime scene to determine why and how the cyber crime took place.

This investigation often requires a Digital Forensics Investigator to hack into a system and acquire data to prove that it’s the source of a cyber crime.

Digital Forensics Investigator average salary range - £21,000 - £45,000

Read more about a role in Digital Forensics in our blog post.

Cyber Security Analyst

A Cyber Security Analyst configures and monitors digital infrastructures to develop new ways to hack into systems and networks to help detect and prevent cyber breaches.

Cyber Security Analysis is a well-rounded job. It requires you to know offensive and defensive cyber security techniques to fix the weaknesses you encounter.

Cyber Security Analyst average salary range - £21,000 - £54,000

Read more about the job of a Cyber Security Analyst in our blog post.

Ethical Hacker skills and traits

Ethical Hacker skills

  • Red team offensive tactics - To ethically hack and test software vulnerabilities.
  • Digital forensics - To analyse and break into systems involved in cyber crimes.
  • Programming and software design - To build software that can break into systems and fix security flaws.

Ethical Hacker traits

  • Attention to detail - To approach challenges with precision.
  • Proactive - To stay ahead of cyber criminals by researching new tactics, anticipating attacks and ethically hacking systems to uncover weaknesses.
  • Problem-solver - To hunt for clues in the aftermath of a cyber security attack or when trying to find a flaw in a security system.

How to learn to hack ethically

Degrees and courses in cyber security, computer science and other related fields are relevant when pursuing an ethical hacking career. Some universities even deliver specific ethical hacking degrees, which will give you more specified skills for a role in the industry.

However, some employers find that graduates leave university with skills that don’t transfer well into the industry, making it difficult to train them.

The way to learn the practical, relevant skills needed for the industry may be through self-learning!

According to the ISC2 Cybersecurity Workforce Study 2021, 19% of Gen Z and Millennials pursued cyber security through self-learning before earning a job in the industry. Just 2% less than those who pursued an education in cyber security before earning a role!

Earn the skills to become an ethical hacker with CyberStart

CyberStart is an ethical hacking game where you play as a cyber agent while learning practical cyber security skills.

CyberStart’s challenges are based on real cyber security scenarios experienced by our industry experts. Solve cyber crimes to unlock new missions, thrilling storylines and in-demand skills that employers are looking for!

Let’s take a look at one of CyberStart’s challenges to see what it’s like to play or register for your free trial and start playing now!

Intern L01 C04 - Lazy Locked Login

In the Lazy Locked Login brief, you discover that an Internet of Things (IoT) connected fridge isn’t working. As no one is available to fix the issue, you’ll have to hack into the fridge’s technician’s page to try and fix it. By doing so, you can fix the problem while also uncovering a security vulnerability.

Intern base challenge L01 C04

How to solve this CyberStart challenge?

The login details to access the fridge’s technician page are already there, but the button to enter doesn’t function. To make it functional, you’ll need to open the webpage developer tools and alter the relevant piece of code to let you access it.

Top tip: Feel free to play around in the developer tools in CyberStart. They’ve been created specifically for you to experiment!

The Lazy Locked Login challenge is the first time you’ll use developer tools in Intern base. This challenge gives you the opportunity to try ethical hacking whilst uncovering security flaws, just like a professional ethical hacker.

You can play 12 free challenges, including this one, in CyberStart’s Intern base right now! Start your journey towards new ethical hacking skills and see where this opportunity takes you. Start playing today!

All of these programmes are entirely free, and feature CyberStart!

CyberStart America

What is it?

A fun programme developed to help you discover your talent, advance your skills and win scholarships in cyber security.

Who's it for?

13-18 year old high school students in the US only.

Awesome! How can I find out more?

Cyber FastTrack

What is it?

The fastest and most cost-effective route to a career in cyber security via free training and exclusive scholarship opportunities.

Who's it for?

College students in the US only.

Great! How can I find out more?

CyberStart Canada

What is it?

A free programme teaching cyber security to high school students in Canada through CyberStart's immersive learning platform.

Who's it for?

Students between the ages of 13-18 nationwide.

Nice! How can I find out more?