When you hear the word “hacking”, what images enter your head? You’ll most likely think about teenage geeks in their bedrooms trying to find ways into military systems, or groups of criminals using hacking skills to pull of digital heists.

While it’s true that hacking can often be damaging, the word is gaining a much more positive aura these days. In fact, hack labs are popping up all over the world, turning hacking skills to good use. So if you’re into coding and want to wield your knowledge for good, how can you learn ethical hacking? This blog will explain what you need to know.

Why would you want to learn ethical hacking anyway?

Firstly, let’s straighten out what is meant by the phrase “ethical hacking,” as the whole idea may be unfamiliar to many readers. In traditional hacking, outsiders exploit vulnerabilities in networks or software to gain illegitimate access – and there’s usually nothing ethical about their activities.

But that doesn’t always have to be the case. Ethical hacking also seeks to gain access to protected systems, but for the best possible reasons. In these cases, hackers try as hard as they can to breach security measures. The idea is that by testing the integrity of an organization’s security systems, they can learn how to boost their defenses.

That’s one form of ethical hacking. Another form revolves around “hacking” technology to make it more socially useful. In practice, the two often go together. If people are keen to use their cybersecurity skills to protect companies and public organizations, they tend to be more socially-minded as well.

What does ethical hacking involve?

Not all hacking qualifies as ethical, and to do so, the activities of ethical hackers have to satisfy certain criteria. So here’s a quick checklist to make sure your efforts stay on the right side of the moral divide.

  • It must have permission – the whole point of ethical hacking is to provide a service, not to cause security alerts which take systems offline. While you can definitely help out organizations by finding weaknesses without letting them know beforehand, this is usually frowned upon by ethical hackers.
  • It is tightly limited – what happens when ethical hackers gain access to the internal workings of company IT systems or databases? In theory, this gives them a huge (and tempting) amount of power. They could harvest personal details or map out the way servers are structured. But they don’t do this. Instead, ethical hackers limit their actions to what is strictly necessary to provide valuable security insights.
  • There are no loose ends – when ethical hackers gain access to a system, they take care not to cause any damage or leave issues unresolved. More importantly, they definitely do not leave any backdoors for hackers to exploit in the future (including themselves). So there’s a need to resist the temptation to do so – and not all hackers are up to the task.
  • Honest reporting is essential – if you want to learn ethical hacking, you’ll have to learn about how to communicate your findings. Ethical hackers must report whatever they find to their clients or managers, giving a clear, actionable account of what needs to be done. Otherwise, what was the purpose of penetrating their security systems?

Understanding the difference between White Hat and Black Hat hackers

When you start digging into the world of ethical hacking, you’ll soon come across a key division in the community: the divide between White Hat and Black Hat hackers. This is a vital distinction to know about, so we should spend some time setting out where the two differ.

As the color suggests, Black Hat hackers are defined as malicious and potentially criminal. Their efforts are usually geared toward personal gain, whether they target systems for financial profit or personal pleasure. This could involve running vast botnets, staging man-in-the-middle attacks, or forcing passwords and stealing credit card details. In any case, they won’t let companies know when they are attacking, or how they achieve security breaches.

By contrast, White Hat hackers can be welcomed by companies. Generally professionally employed as cybersecurity experts, White Hat hackers are skilled at simulating the activities of their Black Hat counterparts. And it’s common for Black Hats to turn White (especially after being caught by law enforcement organizations).

Do ethical hackers really exist?

So far, we’ve taken for granted that there is such a thing as an “ethical hacker”, and that choosing to learn ethical hacking is a constructive, beneficial path. But there have been plenty of critics of ethical hacking.

These critics question whether there is a clear dividing line between the White Hats and Black Hats we introduced earlier. They see the use of the term “hacker” as a real problem. By giving hackers a sense of legitimacy, supporters of ethical hacking normalize the act of gaining forced entry to security systems.

Moreover, while there are many cases of Black Hat criminals seeing the light, there are plenty of people who juggle both hats without any problems (and without necessarily telling their employers). It’s a fair bet that these professionals carry huge insider threats to corporations, and encouraging them to assume the hacker identity seems to feed this risk.

Should you learn ethical hacking?

There are good reasons to take issue with the critics of ethical hacking. Most importantly, their opposition to the practice doesn’t seem to correspond to what we know about how ethical hackers operate.

For example, a recent survey of over 1,600 White Hat hackers found that they aren’t primarily motivated by money. Instead, they are more interested in improving their personal knowledge and skills, not enriching themselves by harnessing those abilities.

However, there’s no doubt that learning ethical hacking can be a lucrative career move. The same survey found that hackers can make 2.7 times as much as conventional software engineers. Their skills are in huge demand, overriding any concerns about whether hacking can be ethical or not.

How can you get into ethical hacking?

If you’d like to explore a career in ethical hacking, you don’t necessarily need to sign up for a college degree in cybersecurity (though it will definitely help if you have the resources).

Instead, take advantage of online resources such as Cybersecurity For Dummies, to get a sense of what’s involved.

After that, you’ll need to sharpen up your coding skills. Get started with Python, JavaScript, Mysql, Ruby, and C, and learn as much as you can about Windows and Linux operating systems, as well as general networking.

It takes time, but the rewards are undeniable. And hey – given the rise of cybercrime, you could join one of the best cybersecurity companies and be part of a community which saves the world.