How Ethical Hackers Find Weaknesses and Secure Businesses

When people hear about hackers, it typically conjures up images of a hooded figure in a basement inputting random code into a computer terminal. This Hollywood cliché is far from the truth from modern-day cybersecurity experts, and it’s also important to note that not all hackers are malicious.

Hackers and their role in information cybersecurity is a vastly growing career on a global scale. Market research predictions in the cybersecurity space is expected to exceed $181.77 billion by 2021. The global market for cybersecurity is growing, and companies are considering security an imperative for today’s organizations.

The cybersecurity landscape has growing threats today, with data breaches and attacks happening constantly. For instance, it’s hard to forget the infamous WannaCry ransomware attack spread through the world, targeting Microsoft machines and bringing multiple services worldwide to their knees. The attack hit an estimated 200,000 computers across 150 countries, encrypting files in health services, motor manufacturing, telephone companies, logistics companies, and more.

So, what can we do to secure our businesses and online infrastructure? One option is to look to ethical hackers, or white hat hackers, security experts who approaches your data and services through the eyes of a malicious attacker. An engagement from an ethical hacker is designed to see how your infrastructure or applications would hold up against a real-world attack.

Turning to Ethical Hackers

A commonly used term for ethical hackers attacking your system is known as the “Red Team.” While this term covers a broader attack surface, including attacks against people, such as social Engineering, and physical attacks, such as lock picking. Would your security stop dedicated and professional attackers or would they find holes and weaknesses, unknown to you and your internal security team (also known as, The Blue team)?

The job description for an ethical hacker can be simple to breakdown – assess the target, scope out all functionality and weaknesses, attack the system and then prove it can be exploited. While the job description can be described quite easily, the work involved can be large and undoubtedly complex. Additionally, when carrying out a pen-test or assessment of a client’s application or network, production safety and legality is what separates the “good guys” (ethical hackers) from the “bad guys” (malicious hackers).

Assessing the Target

When beginning an assessment of a system or application, we must have a set scope before we begin. It is illegal to attack systems without prior consent and furthermore a waste of time to work on assets out of the predefined scope. Target assessment can be one of the most important steps in a well-performed test. The idea of simply jumping straight in and attacking a system on the first IP or functionality we come across is a bad way to start.

The best practice is to find everything that is part of the assessment and see how it works together. We must know what the system in place was designed to do and how data is transferred throughout. Building maps with various tools gives a much greater picture of the attack surface we can leverage. The assessment of the target is commonly known as the “enumeration phase.”

At the end of this phase we should have a great place to start attacking, with an entire structure of the system or application, hopefully with information regarding operating systems, services packs, version numbers and any other fingerprinting data that can lead to an effective exploit of the target.

Vulnerability Analysis

All information gathered against the machines or applications should immediately give a good hacker a solid attack surface and the ability to identify weakness in the system. The internet provides a vast amount of information that can easily be associated with the architecture and lists of all known exploits or vulnerabilities already found against said systems.

There are additional tools to help with vulnerability analysis, like scanners, that flag possible points of weakness in the system or application. All of the analytic data is much easier to find and test after a thorough assessment.


Then, with exploitation, the services of an ethical hacker make an impact. We may have all the assessment data and vulnerability analysis information, but if they do not know how to perform strong attacks or bypass any security mechanisms in place, then the previous steps were useless. Exploiting a commonly known vulnerability can be fairly straight forward if it has write-ups from other security specialists. But hands-on experience against creating your own injections and obfuscated code, or black/white list in place is invaluable.

Furthermore, it is imperative to test with production safety in mind. Having an ethical hacker run dangerous code or tests against the system may cause untold damage. This defeats the purpose of a secure test. The objective is to prove that it is vulnerable, without causing harm or disruption to the live system.

Providing Concepts

After a test has been concluded, the results of all exploits, vulnerability analysis and even enumeration data returning valuable system information should be documented and presented to the client. All vulnerabilities should be given ratings (Standard rating systems like CVSS3 are most common to use) on how severe the issue and impact of the exploit could be.

Additionally, steps shown on how an attacker could perform this exploit should be included in a step-by-step proof of concept. The client should be able to follow along with your report and end up with the same results showing the flaw in the system. Again, non-malicious attacks should be given in the report.

Providing these proof-of-concept reports to clients, with steps on how to reproduce the issues and give non-malicious examples of how the system can be breached, is paramount to success in securing your systems.

No Perfect System

Finally, it’s important to note that no system is ever considered flawless. Exploits and vulnerabilities are released on almost a daily basis on every type of machine, server, application and language. Security assessments and tests in modern applications must be a continual process. This is where the role of a hacker in your organization, simulating attacks in the style of a malicious outsider becomes invaluable.

Approaching your currently implemented security as a target to beat or bypass, instead of a defense mechanism waiting to be hit, is the strongest and fastest way to find any flaws that may already exist! Modern-day web applications have been described as a living, breathing thing and negligence for keeping it secure will surely result in a digital disaster!

About the author: Jonathan Rice works as a vulnerability web application specialist for application security provider WhiteHat Security. In this role, Rice has focused on manual assessments, vulnerability verification and dynamic application security testing (DAST).

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