Every time we connect to the internet in the modern digital world, we put ourselves and our data at risk. The increasing amount of cyber attacks has made ensuring our digital safety nearly difficult, and it has become critical for corporations and individuals alike to obtain more modern cybersecurity measures.
However, merely enforcing security measures isn’t always enough; sometimes a more proactive strategy is required to identify and address any cyber vulnerabilities in a network. Threat detection is based on the detection of potential malware and anomalies in a system, which can be accomplished through the use of ethical hacking.
When people hear the word “hacking”, they immediately envision an ominous figure bent over a laptop trying to commit all sorts of nefarious deeds. Hacking, according to the Merriam-webster dictionary, is the gaining of illegal access to a computer network or system – a definition that has stuck for most people. Nevertheless, the term does not always need to infer a criminal element.
Ethical hacking is, as the name suggests, the intrusion into a network with ethical motivations. The process is an authorized breach of network security protocols to identify cyber vulnerabilities in a system. Ethical hackers are trained and professional cybersecurity experts who help organizations uncover weak areas in their defenses by exposing them and providing support to improve security.
Consider the adage “it takes a thief to catch a thief” – ethical hackers are hired by organizations to leverage their knowledge of threat detection measures, as well as all the ways to bypass those measures, to provide a fully comprehensive assessment of a company’s cybersecurity standing. Hackers can broadly be defined into 3 categories:
Black Hat Hackers
These are the more stereotypical malicious hackers – using their skills with criminal motives. Black hat hacking is the unlawful intrusion into a network to exfiltrate data and exploit any weakness in a company’s security system. The primary agenda for this type of hacking is monetary – usually in the form of ransomware attacks.
White Hat Hackers
These are the cybersecurity experts that are legally hired by companies and organizations to infiltrate systems and provide them with a security evaluation. They assist companies and governments by applying hacking techniques and identifying security flaws. They are well-intentioned and assist in finding cyber vulnerabilities and improving overall security measures.
White hat hackers mostly use the same tools and techniques as black hat hackers – ranging from documented public rootkits to more complex campaigns such as social engineering, exploiting endpoint vulnerabilities, presenting attack decoys, spoofing protocols, and many more
Grey Hat Hackers
Finally, as the name suggests, grey hat hacking is a blend of both white hat hacking and black hat hacking. Grey hat hackers will access a company’s network without their permission but can have ambivalent intentions. These hackers could approach companies with information about their cyber vulnerabilities or simply release them online for no personal gain.
This form of hacking is usually done for fun to test a cybersecurity expert’s skills unconventionally. Regardless, both grey hat and black hat hacking are illegal as they both constitute an unauthorized system breach, even though the intentions of both types of hackers differ.
Now that we know that different forms of hacking do exist, we can focus on how to utilize ethical hacking processes to improve cybersecurity measures.
Introduction to Ethical Hacking And Malicious Hacking
Ethical hacking involves an authorized attempt to gain unauthorized access to a computer system, application, or data. Carrying out an ethical hack involves duplicating the strategies and actions of malicious attackers. This practice helps to identify security vulnerabilities which can then be resolved before a malicious attacker has the opportunity to exploit them.
Hacking is the process of finding vulnerabilities in a system and using these found vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access into the system to perform malicious activities ranging from deleting system files to stealing sensitive information. Hacking is illegal and can lead to extreme consequences if you are caught in the act. People have been sentenced to years of imprisonment because of hacking.
Nonetheless, hacking can be legal if done with permission. Computer experts are often hired by companies to hack into their systems to find vulnerabilities and weak endpoints so that they can be fixed. This is done as a precautionary measure against legitimate hackers who have malicious intent. Such people, who hack into a system with permission, without any malicious intent, are known as ethical hackers and the process is known as ethical hacking.
Hacking is referred to as the illegal or legal practice of accessing data stored in any system by experts. These experts are termed Hackers. Hackers have all the knowledge related to programming and its concepts. The mistakes that are done by programmers while developing or working on software are picked up by hackers to encroach on the security framework of the software.
Ethical hacking is conducted by hackers as well but their intention behind hacking is not for malicious purposes. Their services are used to check and build on software security and thus help to develop the security system of a framework in a business or organization to prevent potential threats. Ethical hackers are referred to as White Hats, who end up providing protection from the Black Hats who are unethical hackers. Ethical hacking is adopted by many almost every organization.
It is commonly assumed and accepted that hackers help to build security whereas crackers aim to break security. There is a major difference between how the two work although they both engage in hacking of some sort.
Hackers usually have an advanced level of knowledge regarding computer security and possess all the technical knowledge required as well but are not necessarily skillful as hackers. Few of them are skilled enough to develop their own software and tools. Hackers aim to counterattack threats posed by crackers to computer systems as well as internet security across networks.
On the other hand, crackers are well aware that their activities are illegal and thus are criminal activities hence they try to cover their tracks. Even though crackers may be highly skilled in breaching systems, professional hackers can restore the security of the breached system and catch the cracker with their skills and competency.
Crackers possess highly advanced and technical knowledge and can create software and tools that are powerful enough to damage and exploit systems after analyzing the system’s weak areas. Most of the time, crackers do not leave their mark behind as they are very efficient and careful in executing their work.
However, they pose a serious threat to the internet security. It is well established that hackers are ethical professionals whereas crackers hack into systems illegally and without consent. Apart from this major difference, another difference is with regard to their understanding of computer systems and security systems. Hackers can write codes in many languages and possess in-depth knowledge of computer languages like C, C++, HTML, and Java.
They also understand how these languages work and what these codes do. On the other hand, crackers do not have an upper hand here. They do not possess much knowledge about computer programming. Their work and the intent behind it makes them poles apart from each other and is the main point of difference between the two.
Types of Ethical Hacking
When we look at the news, there are frequent occurrences of cyber security threats, data leaks, money theft, digital attacks, and cyber espionage. All of this is enabled by the fact that people with malicious intent can now orchestrate these activities in the comfort of their homes, from behind a computer screen.
With widespread access to the Internet across the world, this convenience incentivizes an exponentially greater number of hackers to attempt cyber crimes. Naturally, this phenomenon has led to an increased demand for skilled Ethical Hackers and other Cybersecurity professionals.
When we talk about Ethical Hacking, it is explicitly implied that we are talking about hacking that is based on ethical or moral values, without any ill intent. Ethical Hacking is defined as any form of hacking that is authorized by the owner of the target system. It can also refer to the process of taking active security measures to defend systems from hackers with malicious intentions on data privacy.
From a technical standpoint, Ethical Hacking is the process of bypassing or cracking security measures implemented by a system to find out vulnerabilities, data breaches, and potential threats. It is only deemed ethical if the regional or organizational cyber laws/rules are followed. This job is formally known as penetration testing. As the name suggests, this practice involves trying to infiltrate the system and documenting the steps involved in it.
Web Application hacking
Web hacking is the process of exploiting software over HTTP by exploiting the software’s visual Chrome browser, meddling with the URI, or colluding with HTTP aspects not stored in the URI.
Hacktivists gain access to personal computers over a network through system hacking. Password busting, privilege escalation, malicious software construction, and packet sniffing are the defensive measures that IT security experts can use to combat these threats.
Web Server Hacking
An application software database server generates web information in real-time. So attackers use Gluing, ping deluge, port scan, sniffing attacks, and social engineering techniques to grab credentials, passcodes, and company information from the web application.
Hacking Wireless networks
Because wireless networks use radio waves to transmit, a hacker can easily squirt the system from either a location nearby. To discover the Identifier and bodge a wireless network, often these assailants use network snorting.
The art of manipulating the masses so that they divulge sensitive information is known as social engineering. Eugenics is used by criminals since it is generally easier to attack your organic hard-time trusting than it is to figure out how to spoof your device.
Let’s understand why Ethical Hacking or penetration testing is such an important field. For this, we need to understand some of the many use cases and types of Ethical Hacking. Here are a few of them:
- Testing password strength
- Ensuring security settings and privilege levels in the domain account and database administration by testing out exploits
- Penetration testing after every software update/upgrade or after adding a new security patch
- Ensuring that data communication channels cannot be intercepted
- Testing validity of authentication protocols
- Ensuring security features in applications, which protect organizational and user databases
- Defense against denial-of-service attacks
- Network security and testing of anti-intrusion features
As you can see, the aforementioned tasks are important to protect the integrity of a digital lifestyle and work environment. If you do not hire Ethical Hackers to deter the threat of unethical hackers, then you are setting yourself up for disaster.
Let’s take a scenario that is very much based on real-world cases in the past. If you are running an e-commerce or social media website, you need to create databases for your web application to save the details of your customer accounts. These details and data can range from birthdays, addresses, and likenesses to private multimedia content, privileged messages, payment information, hashed passwords, etc.
As you can probably figure out, any successful attack or exploit on your website, which leads to this data being leaked to an attacker or the public, can prove to be a huge problem. There would be legal repercussions from the customers who had entrusted you with their private data, which could lead to a hefty fine in court. After that, there would be a lack of trust in your website’s security, which would lead to drastically reduced traffic. All of this will be a big liability for your organization.
How Ethical Hacking Works
The term ethical hacking, also called white-hat hacking, refers to the use of hacking skills and techniques with good intentions and with the full consent and approval of the target. Ethical hackers use their tools and knowledge to probe an IT system, database, network, or application for security vulnerabilities. They then inform the target of any flaws they find and provide recommendations for patching them.
Both parts of the definition above—good intentions and the target’s consent—are necessary to be an ethical hacker. If one or both parts are missing, the individual is known as a black hat or a gray hat hacker, depending on the motivation:
- Black hat hackers are malicious, lacking both good intentions and the consent of their targets. These individuals are what the term hacker means in the popular imagination. They break into IT environments, steal confidential data, or install ransomware that charges a fee for users to regain access to their computers. These individuals often have self-serving motivations, such as money or fame, and may work for political activism or government entities as part of a cyber warfare team.
- Gray hat hackers occupy a morally gray area between black-hat and white-hat. Their activities are often technically illegal, probing systems for vulnerabilities without the consent of their targets. However, gray hat hackers are motivated by passion or curiosity rather than the intent to exploit their findings for financial gain.
For individuals to be ethical or white hat hackers, they must obey a few key concepts:
- The activities of ethical hackers must be with the target’s full knowledge and consent and always remain within legal boundaries.
- They should work with the target to define the scope of their activities and must not go beyond this scope unless otherwise agreed upon.
- They must report all the vulnerabilities they discover during their work and offer their best advice for fixing them.
- They must respect the target’s privacy and security, including any sensitive or confidential information.
Ethical hackers are useful because they help organizations identify vulnerabilities in their IT environments before black hat hackers can exploit them. Businesses usually employ ethical hackers on internal IT teams or external contractors. The designation of an ethical hacker is usually not an official job title; instead, ethical hackers occupy roles such as security analysts, security engineers, and penetration testers.
Ethical hackers have many use cases within an organization. Depending on their skills and specializations, ethical hackers may work on detecting vulnerabilities in one or more of the following ways:
- Social engineering: Social engineering refers to manipulating targets through social or psychological means rather than technical ones, tricking them into revealing sensitive information. For example, employees might be fooled into divulging their login credentials after they receive a phishing email.
- Web application hacking: Many web applications have hidden security flaws that attackers can exploit. These vulnerabilities may include failure to sanitize user input (such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting) and issues with authentication and user credentials.
- Web server hacking: Servers and databases are also subject to various problems that ethical hackers can detect. For example, a server might inadvertently expose sensitive information or be vulnerable to denial-of-service attacks that seek to overwhelm it with too much traffic.
- Wireless network hacking: Networks, too, are susceptible to unauthorized entry by black hat hackers, and it’s up to their ethical hacker counterparts to stop them. Potential network vulnerabilities include password and encryption issues, rogue access points, and even lost or stolen company devices.
- System hacking: Last but not least, attackers may try to exploit individual systems or machines within a company network and install viruses, trojans, ransomware, spyware, keyloggers, and other malware. Ethical hackers look for system flaws, such as password cracking and privilege escalation.
Both the number and the intensity of cyberattacks are increasing rapidly—and there’s no sign that they will slow down any time soon. According to IBM, for example, the average data breach cost for companies now stands at $4.35 million, the highest figure ever on record (IBM Security, 2022).
Given the tremendous business risk of suffering a cyberattack, organizations must be proactive in defending against black hat hackers. Working with ethical hackers is an excellent way for companies to use black hat tools against them. Institutions as important as banks, the military, and national intelligence services all rely on ethical hackers as crucial parts of their cybersecurity strategies.
When starting their work, ethical hackers perform a vulnerability assessment of the client’s IT environment, including networks, databases, servers, applications, and endpoints. This may include the use of automated tools and manual checks and verifications. At the end of the assessment, ethical hackers produce a report listing any vulnerabilities detected, their severity, and recommendations for fixing each one.
As part of their work, ethical hackers may also help with training and education programs for employees. Even basic cybersecurity practices, such as choosing stronger passwords and using multi-factor authentication, can go a long way to help strengthen an organization’s IT security posture.
Web Application Security Project (OWASP) Methodology
OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project) is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving software security through community-led open-source software projects. Furthermore, the OWASP methodology offers a framework for identifying, assessing, and mitigating security risks in web applications or larger organizations like financial services. Here are some security testing tools that OWASP offers to all organizations:
- OWASP ZAP
- Burp Proxy
- Web Stretch Proxy
- Firefox HTTP Header Live
- Firefox Tamper Data
- Firefox Web Developer Tools
- DOM Inspector
The methodology is based on the security approach of “defense in depth,” which means that security controls should be applied at multiple levels within the system to provide layered protection against attacks. The methodology stresses the need for continuous testing and improvement rather than relying on a single test or assessment to identify all potential vulnerabilities.
The OWASP methodology encompasses a variety of tests and procedures, including threat modeling, code review, vulnerability scanning, penetration testing, and security requirement testing. These tests are made to find weaknesses in the code, configuration, and behavior of the application and the network environment and underpinning infrastructure.
The OWASP methodology is made to be versatile and adaptive to various application kinds, development settings, and security requirements. It frequently serves as a framework for the creation of personalized security testing programs that are catered to the unique requirements of a company and plays a huge role in cyber security awareness.
All things considered, the OWASP methodology is a tried-and-true way of identifying and mitigating security threats in web applications. It is regarded as a best practice for web application security testing and has been widely implemented by enterprises worldwide.
When using OWASP penetration testing on your system, or web application, there are steps you will have to go through.
1. Planning and Preparation
Before conducting a penetration test, the tester requires a high-level view of the server or application and must gather the information that will be used in the next phases. Additionally, this phase collects basic data like:
- Web server version and type
- Understand typical requests/responses of applications
- Search engines
- Robots.txt files
- Folder paths
Furthermore, the goals and parameters of the security evaluation are established during this step. The security team identifies the assets that need to be secured and the potential threats and vulnerabilities that could damage them.
2. Threat Modelling
To identify potential dangers and attack vectors, a model of the web application must be created during this phase. Here, system administrators and security teams pinpoint prospective security threats and calculate the possibility of those threats materializing.
In this phase, the tester has already identified the application’s infrastructure and knows how it affects the application and its security. Additionally, they have also looked for administrator interfaces that can be exploited while carrying out a penetration test.
Furthermore, it is a phase where you can test aspects like the platform configuration and how it handles different file extensions. Additionally, you can also test for cross-site policies that can be exploited.
3. Vulnerabilities Assessment
The team searches for vulnerabilities in the web application at this phase using both automated tools and manual testing. This entails checking for frequent flaws, including buffer overflows, cross-site scripting, and SQL injection.
This step also deals with accounts, privileges, and access. The login page is the main focus, and collaborative efforts are made to investigate whether it can be exploited. Additionally, different application roles like user and administrator are tested to see which access and privileges come with each role.
Furthermore, the tester also checks the process and needed requirements to delete or create an account. All this testing is essential to find out whether there are vulnerabilities that can be exploited within the system.
This step consists of prioritizing the vulnerabilities found in the risk analysis phase following their seriousness which allows for the development of a remediation strategy. Applying patches or updating program versions may be required. Lastly, it is during this stage that PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) is validated.
The team conducts additional security testing to ensure the effectiveness of the security protections implemented after the vulnerabilities have been fixed.
Verification helps to reduce cyber risks by doing thorough manual and automated assessments to identify security holes and vulnerabilities in applications, networks, and systems. The evaluations improve your security while reducing risks and protecting technology infrastructure.
In order to maintain the web application’s security over time, this step needs regular monitoring. This includes updating security controls and conducting frequent vulnerability assessments.
Also, the business as a whole, especially those in charge of security, must be aware of a preventative maintenance plan. Additionally, the security team should always know which components were examined during each inspection, the findings, and what corrective actions were taken.
Ethical Hacking Tools
Ethical hacking tools are used by security professionals especially to get access to computer systems in order to access the vulnerabilities in computer systems so that their security will improve. Security professionals use hacking tools such as packet sniffers to intercept network traffic, password crackers to discover passwords, port scanners to identify open ports on computers, etc. Though there is a variety of hacking tools available in the market keep in mind what should be its purpose.
Nevertheless, the field of network administration has grown tremendously in the last couple of years. Initially, it is used to simply monitor the networks and now it can be used to manage firewalls, intrusion detection systems (IDS), VPNs, anti-virus software, and anti-spam filters.
Some of the most famous hacking tools in the market are Nmap (Network Mapper), Nessus, Nikto, Kismet, NetStumbler, Acunetix, Netsparker, and Intruder, Nmap, Metasploit, Aircrack-Ng, etc.
Invicti is a web application security scanner hacking tool to find SQL Injection, XSS, and vulnerabilities in web applications or services automatically. It is usually available on SAAS solution
- It detects Dead accurate vulnerability with the help of unique Proof-Based Scanning Technology.
- It requires minimal configuration with a scalable solution.
- It automatically detects URL rewrite rules as well as custom 404 error pages.
- There is a REST API for seamless integration with the SDLC and bug tracking systems.
- It scans up to 1,000 plus web applications within just 24 hours.
Price: It will cost from $4,500 to $26,600 with Invicti Security features.
2. Fortify WebInspect
Fortify WebInspect is a hacking tool with comprehensive dynamic analysis security in automated mode for complex web applications and services.
- It is used to identify security vulnerabilities by allowing it to test the dynamic behavior of running web applications.
- It can keep the scanning in control by getting relevant information and statistics.
- It provides Centralized Program Management, vulnerability trending, compliance management, and risk oversight with the help of simultaneous crawl professional-level testing to novice security testers.
Price: It will cost around $29,494.00 provided by HP company with Tran security and virus protection.
3. Cain & Abel
Cain & Abel is an Operating System password recovery tool provided by Microsoft.
- It is used to recover the MS Access passwords
- It can be used in Sniffing networks
- The password field can be uncovered.
- It Cracks encrypted passwords with the help of dictionary attacks, brute-force, and cryptanalysis attacks.
Price: It is free. One can download it from open source.
4. Nmap (Network Mapper)
Used in port scanning, one of the phases in ethical hacking is the finest hacking software ever. Primarily a command-line tool, it was then developed for operating systems based on Linux or Unix, and the Windows version of Nmap is now available.
Nmap is basically a network security mapper capable of discovering services and hosts on a network, thereby creating a network map. This software offers several features that help in probing computer networks, host discovery as well as detection of operating systems. Being script extensible it provides advanced vulnerability detection and can also adapt to network conditions such as congestion and latency while scanning.
The next ethical hacking tool on the list is Nessus. Nessus is the world’s most well-known vulnerability scanner, which was designed by tenable network security. It is free and is chiefly recommended for non-enterprise usage. This network-vulnerability scanner efficiently finds critical bugs on any given system.
Nessus can detect the following vulnerabilities:
- Unpatched services and misconfiguration
- Weak passwords – default and common
- Various system vulnerabilities
With the growing Internet security threats, employers now seek skilled and certified ethical hackers by taking up courses like the Certified Ethical Hacking Course to prevent fraudulent crimes and identity thefts. End users have always been the weakest links using which cybercriminals crack even highly sophisticated defenses. The recent past has witnessed several large businesses announcing major security breaches. Ethical hacking tools help companies identify possible shortcomings in internet security and prevent data breaches.