What is Ethical Hacking and How Do Organizations Benefit From It?

As technology advances, cyberattacks are becoming more complex and widespread. According to Cybersecurity Ventures, the cost of cybercrime was $8 trillion in 2023, expected to reach $9.5 trillion in 2024, then will rise to $10.5 trillion by 2025. These numbers demonstrate the growth of cyber threats and the need to reinforce sensitive data and digital assets.

To identify and address weak points and vulnerabilities within systems, before they occur and cause potential damage, organizations frequently count on ethical hacking. Although ethical hackers use the same tools and techniques as malicious hackers, their purposes are different. In this article, we will explain “what is ethical hacking?”, its main types, benefits, needed skills,  certifications, and the key phases.

What is Ethical Hacking and How Do Organizations Benefit From It?

What is ethical hacking?

Let’s start with the ethical hacking definition. Ethical hacking is a practice of testing security with proper unauthorized access to computer systems, applications, or networks using the same techniques that hackers use. Commonly called white-hat hackers, ethical hackers intentionally penetrate organizations’ systems to identify potential threats, vulnerabilities, or weak points. Their ultimate goal is to enhance security measures and mitigate risks.

Organizations hire ethical hackers to launch simulated attacks on their computer networks. While simulating real-world attacks, ethical hackers demonstrate how actual cybercriminals break into a network and what damage they could do once inside. They have the same skills and tools and tactics as malicious hackers. Still, their goal is always to improve network security without harming the network and its users.

The terms “ethical hacking” and “penetration testing” often get mixed up. However, penetration tests are only one of the methods that ethical hackers use. Their responsibilities extend far beyond penetration testing and include even more.

The main responsibilities of ethical hackers

What job does an ethical hacker perform? To provide you with the answer, let’s look at the main responsibilities of ethical hackers in detail:

  • Identify security threats and vulnerabilities;
  • Conduct penetration testing;
  • Conduct security assessments; 
  • Research security threats;
  • Choose the right security solutions;
  • Test the level of security in the network;
  • Document findings (potential risks, recommendations, etc);
  • Verify the organization’s system, network, and vulnerable entry points;
  • Find alternatives to security features that don’t work.

Obviously, ethical hackers play a critical role in organizations that strive to proactively identify and mitigate any security risks in advance, thus safeguarding sensitive data and maintaining trust in their digital systems and infrastructure. 

Types of ethical hacking 

Ethical hacking involves various types tailored to assess the security of information systems. The most common of them are:

  • Web application hacking: exploiting security vulnerabilities or weaknesses in web-based applications, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), or insecure authentication to assess security risks;
  • System hacking: gaining unauthorized access to personal computers over a network through a system by exploiting weaknesses in operating systems, software, and network configurations;
  • Wireless network hacking (WiFi hack): gaining unauthorized access to wireless networks or access points to steal confidential information or disrupt network operations;
  • Web server hacking: identifying vulnerabilities in web services hosting websites and applications to steal data, such as server misconfiguration, outdated software, or insecure file permissions;
  • Social engineering: manipulating individuals or employees to disclose sensitive information, such as passwords or login credentials, to exploit human vulnerabilities and gain unauthorized access to systems or data;
  • Penetration testing: ethical hackers try to break into systems to find the weak spots  and weaknesses in an organization’s digital infrastructure. By simulating real-world cyber attacks, these assessments evaluate existing security controls and measures.

Having examined the different ethical hacking methods, let’s discuss the various types of hackers and how they differ.

Types of hackers

Hackers can be both ethical and malicious, but they generally fall into three categories. Let’s explore each of them and how they operate:

  • White hat hackers (ethical): they do not intend to harm an organization; instead, they typically collaborate with an organization to legally identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities in systems, apps, or networks. It tends to improve cybersecurity posture and prevent malicious attacks;
  • Black hat hackers (non-ethical): they illegally break into systems without authorization, disrupt systems, steal data, and engage in malicious activities for personal gain. Their intent is often criminal, seeking financial gain, data theft, or disruption;
  • Gray hat hackers (both): a combine of white and black hats hackers. They hack without any approval from the targeted organization. However, they don’t have malicious intent and still avoid causing significant harm.

People often confuse so-called “good” and “bad” guys, in other words, ethical and malicious hackers. So, let’s explain the main differences between them in more detail.

Ethical hackers vs. malicious hackers: the key differences

The main difference between ethical and malicious hackers lies in their purposes and actions. First, let’s look at ethical hackers:

  • Purpose: they aim to improve security of an organization by identifying vulnerabilities in systems, apps, or networks and help them strengthen their defenses;
  • Actions: they perform penetration testing, vulnerability assessments, and security audits with the consent of the organization;
  • Legality: they are authorized and legal (comply with laws, regulations, and ethical standards);
  • Impact: help protect organizations from cyber threats and prevent data breaches, financial losses, and reputational damage.

The main points of malicious hackers include:

  • Purpose: they intentionally exploit vulnerabilities in networks, apps, or systems to cause harm, steal data, or disrupt systems and compromise an organization’s security;
  • Actions: they perform unauthorized activities such as unauthorized access, data theft, malware distribution, denial-of-service (DoS), and other harmful organization attacks;
  • Legality: non-authorized access and illegal activities;
  • Impact: their activities can lead to financial losses, data breaches, identity theft, and damage to the critical infrastructure of organizations.

In a nutshell, malicious hackers damage organizations’ security and exploit vulnerabilities for personal gain or malicious purposes. In contrast, ethical hackers protect systems and greatly contribute to enforce organizations’ security. Apart from that, ethical hacking can also provide companies with other advantages – about them below.

Skills and certifications of ethical hackers

As we defined “what an ethical hacker is,” it’s time to think about what it takes to become one. The career path of ethical hacking is legitimate. So, it requires specific skills, knowledge, and, in turn, education. Ethical hackers must have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information security, or closely related fields. Typically, ethical hackers should be proficient in:

  • Scripting languages, like Python, SQL, etc.;
  • Operating systems and their security;
  • Network, both wired and wireless;
  • Cybersecurity tools;
  • Vulnerability assessment;
  • Cryptography;
  • Information security principles.

Ethical hackers must earn credentials to demonstrate cybersecurity technical skills like other cybersecurity professionals. Most ethical hackers take courses or get certifications related to their field. Among the most well-known ethical hacking certifications are:

Also, ethical hackers should be familiar with the same hacking tools and methodologies as malicious hackers, including network scanning tools (Nmap), penetration testing platforms (Metasploit), and specialized hacking operating systems (Kali Linux, etc.). 

Above and beyond solid technical skills, ethical hackers should have a mix of creativity, problem-solving, and attention to detail. They must analyze complex systems, identify security weaknesses, and propose effective attack solutions. As the field of cybersecurity is constantly evolving, so they must stay updated with the latest security trends, vulnerabilities, and attack techniques through continuous learning and professional growth.

The necessary tools for ethical hackers

Using the appropriate ethical hacking tools and software is half the battle of effective hacking; as they provide hackers with the necessary capabilities to identify vulnerabilities, exploit weaknesses, and assess security measures. So we’ve put some of the main essential ones together below.

Network scanning tools:

  • Nmap (Network Mapper): a free and open-source versatile network scanner that supports various scan types and protocols (TCP, UDP, SYN, etc.). It helps discover open ports, services, and potential vulnerabilities in networked systems;
  • Angry IP Scanner: is a free, open-source IP address scanner that identifies active hosts on a network by providing basic information about each host;
  • Zenmap: a free and open-source Nmap GUI interface, allowing hackers to manipulate and analyze Nmap scans effectively;
  • Advanced IP Scanner: a free tool that scans IP addresses and offers features like remote shutdown and wake-on-LAN;
  • Fping: a free and open-source ping tool for network diagnosis that sends ICMP pings to multiple hosts simultaneously, aiding in network troubleshooting;
  • SuperScan: a free multi-functional port scanner with host discovery and trace routing features.

Vulnerability scanning tools:

  • Nikto: a free and open-source web server scanner and tester that allows hackers to check for many potentially dangerous files and programs on web servers;
  • OpenVAS: a free and open-source vulnerability scanner that enables hackers to perform comprehensive security assessments and performance tuning;
  • Acunetix: a paid web application security testing tool that audits web apps by checking for vulnerabilities like SQL Injection, Cross-site Scripting (XSS), and others via a web browser and uses the HTTP/HTTPS protocol;
  • Qualys Cloud Platform: a paid cloud-based vulnerability management platform that monitors and visualizes networks, web apps, and endpoints in the IT ecosystem;
  • SAINT Security Suite: a paid security scanner and penetration testing tool with a free trial. It offers a comprehensive set of capabilities to assess network assets for the latest vulnerabilities across various operating systems, software apps, and databases, etc.

Password cracking tools:

  • Hashcat: a free and open-source advanced password recovery tool. As the world’s fastest password cracker, it offers advanced features such as distributed cracking networks;
  • John the Ripper: a free and open-source password cracker tool for auditing and recovery. It supports hundreds of hash and cipher types, including Unix, Windows, macOS, WordPress, database servers, filesystems, and more;
  • L0phtCrack: a free and open-source password auditing and recovery tool that supports various attack techniques, like a dictionary, brute-force attacks, etc;
  • Cain and Abel: a free password recovery tool for Microsoft Windows operating systems that offers multiple methods for password cracking;
  • RainbowCrack: a free and open-source hash cracker tool using rainbow tables that is available for Windows, Linux, and GPU acceleration.

Exploitation tools:

  • Metasploit: it is known as the “Swiss Army Knife” of penetration testing for exploit development and testing. It allows security professionals to simulate attacks and assess vulnerabilities;
  • Canvas: a paid penetration testing and vulnerability assessment tool that supports hundreds of exploits for Windows and Linux;
  • Social-Engineer Toolkit (SET): a free and open-source penetration testing framework for social engineering attacks via Java applets, credential harvesting, SMS spoofing, etc;
  • Zed Attack Proxy (ZAP): a free and open-source web application security scanner and testing tool maintained by Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP). It provides features for automating web security and offers a large community of add-ons.

Web application hacking tools:

  • Skipfish: a web application security reconnaissance tool specifically designed for Kali Linux. It crawls websites, generates interactive sitemaps, and performs security checks;
  • IronWASP: is an open-source platform for web application security testing. It is highly customizable and provides users with build-in plugins and allows them to create their own ones;
  • Vega: is a web vulnerability scanner and testing platform that discovers security flaws by analyzing the application’s structure, parameters, and responses;
  • WebScarab: is a Java-based proxy tool for analyzing web applications. It intercepts and modifies requests and responses, allowing security professionals to inspect and manipulate traffic.

This list can also include many other tools, such as packet sniffing and spoofing, wireless hacking, forensics, social engineering, and others. Therefore, by utilizing the right tools and obtaining the right education, ethical hackers can be a must-have for organizations for a variety of reasons.

The benefits of ethical hacking

The primary benefits that ethical hackers bring to organizations include:

  • Prevent malicious hacking attempts: ethical hackers can help organizations build robust systems that are better prepared to detect and prevent malicious hacking attempts;
  • Reduce international threats: ethical hacking can reduce international threats to organizations by protecting sensitive data from terrorists and other malicious individuals;
  • Reduce cybercrime: ethical hacking can help organizations and government agencies develop ways to detect and prevent cybercrime by educating them about new, malicious hacking techniques;
  • Enhance security: by employing the same techniques as malicious hackers, ethical hackers evaluate a system’s or network’s resistance to attacks so they can suggest effective improvements against potential threats;
  • Gain trust: organizations can gain trust between customers and investors by ensuring the high level of security of products and their sensitive information;
  • Reduce risks: ethical hacking allows companies to find system vulnerabilities and uncover critical weaknesses in advance, helping organizations address them proactively and reducing the risk of data breaches and financial losses;
  • Ensure security compliance: by conducting regular security assessments and vulnerability testing, ethical hackers ensure that their organization meets all cybersecurity requirements.

Despite possible benefits, it is essential to stay ahead of limitations related to ethical hacking that companies also can deal with.

The limitations of ethical hacking

The main limitations of the integration ethical hacking that organizations may run into are:

  • Limited scope: ethical hackers cannot progress beyond a defined scope to make an attack successfully tested. Consequently, they may not have a comprehensive view of all potential vulnerabilities;
  • Limited time: ethical hackers have limited time during attacks; they must work within predefined schedules, unlike malicious hackers, who operate without such constraints and can more carefully plan their attacks;
  • Limited resources: ethical hackers may face resource limitations, including budget constraints and computing power. In contrast, malicious hackers may have access to more extensive resources, making it challenging for ethical hackers to match their capabilities.
  • Unexpected consequences: despite good intentions, ethical hackers may accidentally corrupt files or data during testing;
  • Restricted methods: methods and tools used in ethical hacking may be limited. For example, some organizations prefer to avoid test cases that cause servers to crash, like DoS attacks. Due to these limitations, potential vulnerabilities in a system may not be discovered.

To avoid most of the limitations discussed above and get the most out of this process, organizations need to be aware of its main phases. So, let’s consider them.

The main phases of ethical hacking

To identify and address software security vulnerabilities successfully, hackers generally follow these phases.

Reconnaissance \ Collecting data

The first ethical hacking phase is reconnaissance, also known as the footprint or information gathering phase. The goal during this phase is to collect as much information about the target organization as possible. These data are likely to contain passwords, domain names, IP addresses, employee and network details, DNS records, and other relevant data. The collection of the necessary information helps ethical hackers identify which attacks can be launched and how likely the organization’s systems are to be vulnerable to those attacks.

There are two types of foot printing:

  • Active: collecting data from the target directly using Nmap tools to scan the target’s network, such as port scanning and vulnerability assessment;
  • Passive: collecting data from public sources without directly accessing the target in any way, such as social media accounts, websites, etc.

For example, imagine a hacker trying to hack a company’s server. They might use tools like Maltego or research the target website to gather all needed data, such as staff names, positions, and email addresses.


In the second phase, ethical attackers scan the target system or network to identify and gather precise data about open ports, services, and vulnerabilities to assess the security posture. As a result, it allows hackers to identify potential vulnerabilities, misconfiguration, and weaknesses in a target network or system that could be exploited. For this, hackers use different scanning methods, such as:

  • Vulnerability scanning: identify vulnerabilities and weak points of a target or network and exploit them by using automated tools, such as Netsparker, OpenVAS, and Nmap. Such weak points may include outdated software, misconfiguration, or weak passwords;
  • Port scanning: by sending packets to specific ports on a host to analyze responses, ethical hackers discern details about running services and potential vulnerabilities. They use tools like port scanners and dialers to help identify open TCP and UDP ports, running services, and potential entry points;
  • Network scanning: ethical hackers conduct network scanning to gather insights into hosts, services, and active devices present within a network. This information aids in identifying vulnerabilities and potential exploit avenues.

Each of these canning methods demonstrates a specific set of vulnerabilities that a hacker can use to exploit the system’s weaknesses within the target environment. 

Gaining access

During this phase, hackers design a blueprint of the target network using data collected during the reconnaissance and scanning phases. To break into a system/network, they simulate attempted unauthorized access by using various tools (Metasploit) and methods that we’ve talked about above, such as: 

  • Buffer overflows;
  • Phishing;
  • Cross-site scripting (XSS), 
  • Injection attacks (SQL);
  • XML External Entity attacks, etc. 

Once hackers gain access to a system, they boost their privileges to the administrator level, enabling them to install or modify applications or manipulate data. They can also control the whole or part of a system and may simulate other attacks, such as data breaches or Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS).

Against these threats, hackers can secure entry points, implement password protection across all systems, and deploy firewalls to protect the network infrastructure. Using social engineering emails, they can identify employees who are likely to fall victim to cyberattacks.

Maintaining access

Upon gaining access to the targeted systems, hackers try to maintain control over the compromised systems. They continuously exploit a system, escalating privileges, establishing backdoors, launching DDoS attacks, and setting up persistent connections to maintain access for future use. The goal of this phase is to maintain unauthorized access until ethical hackers have completed their activities.

During this phase, ethical hackers or penetration testers scan the organization’s entire infrastructure to identify any malicious activities and determine their root causes. This prevents systems from being exploited.

Clearing track 

To finish the ethical hacking process, hackers must cover their tracks to avoid detection. For this, they use several tactics. Initially, they changed their MAC address and ran their attacking machine through a VPN to conceal their identity. They avoid direct attacks or “noisy” scanning techniques to remain stealthy. Once access is gained and privileges are escalated, hackers focus on hiding their activities. 

Here are some ways that ethical hackers use to hide their tracks:

  • Edit, corrupt, or delete logs or registry values;
  • Delete the cache and cookies;
  • Uninstall all scripts or apps;
  • Clear out sent emails, clear server logs and temp files;
  • Use reverse HTTP Shells;
  • Use ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol) Tunnels.

While reconnaissance (the first phase) is time-consuming, the following phases require less time. Upon completion of the five mentioned phases, ethical hackers prepare a detailed report outlining detected vulnerabilities and weak points and recommendations for how to resolve them.


Ethical hacking is an essential practice in cybersecurity that helps organizations identify and resolve vulnerabilities before malicious attackers can exploit them. As a result, it not only mitigates risks (financial losses, reputation damage, data breaches) and enhances security, but also fosters trust among stakeholders. Also, ethical hackers provide valuable insights into potential weaknesses in security policies, procedures, and controls, allowing organizations to make informed decisions about their security investments and strategies. Briefly answering the question “what is ethical hacking?” is turning weaknesses into strengths, ensuring your systems are robust, resilient, and ready to withstand cyber threats.

Expert Opinion

Within one of our projects, we frequently engage the services of white hat hackers. The report generated from these tests is mandatory for numerous clients, such as banks, retailers, and large corporate entities. Hence, it is imperative to select a company that not only garners trust from these clients but also ensures that the work performed and the ensuing report are genuinely beneficial for vulnerability mitigation or addressing potential threats. It is crucial to understand that the more information and access provided to such testing entities, the more substantial the verification results will be. Therefore, a high-quality testing process, vulnerability remediation, and subsequent reevaluation are quite labor-intensive. However, this investment in security proves its worth in the future.

Co-founder at SoftTeco

Alex Kutsko

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