When most people hear the term “hacker” they think of a solitary, shrouded individual, illuminated by the glow of a computer in a dark room as they commit theft and crime via the internet. While in some cases this iconic imagery may ring true, this perception is largely the result of pop culture in the form of television shows and films like “The Matrix” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
While we tend to only hear about hacking when it is related to underground criminal activity, so-called ethical hacking is becoming increasingly common as more components of everyday life continue to take place online and more companies realize that they need creative thinkers to outwit the bad guys on their own playing field.
A career as an ethical hacker can be a rewarding one for those who have an interest in computer technology and code breaking but don’t aspire to engage in a criminal enterprise.
What is ethical hacking?
Ethical hacking is the act of gaining unauthorized access to a network, computer system, program, server or database at the request of an administrator. An ethical hacker’s job is to poke and prod a system from the perspective of a theoretical criminal in order to test security measures and search for bugs, exploits and other vulnerabilities. In doing so, an ethical hacker is able to help an organization tighten up their security before a malicious hacker has an opportunity to break into it.
Ethical hackers are sometimes referred to as “white hat” hackers, calling back to a common trope in traditional Western films where the good guys were easily distinguishable from the villains thanks to their white cowboy hats.
Ethical hackers adhere to a strict code of conduct in order to maintain a trusted and legal reputation. They are officially contracted or hired by companies or organizations and perform their work in exchange for a bug bounty or paycheck, as opposed to malicious hackers who use their expertise for criminal activities like theft or fraud.
How can I become an ethical hacker?
Hackers on both sides of the law come from various backgrounds. Some are self-taught, having spent time learning to code and practicing on their own. Many notable white hat hackers and programmers, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and current cybersecurity expert Kevin Mitnick, actually began their careers by breaking into systems illegally for fun, although most would agree that this is not a recommended route to take.
Many of today’s hackers start their career by investing in the education needed to obtain a computer science degree. Some also seek out A+ certification, which is gained after passing two separate exams. A deep understanding of computer language and real world application is required to hack successfully, and potential employers will be looking for the most highly learned and experienced individuals as they search for security experts.
Today, there is no shortage of online classes and “boot camps” available for those who want to dive into the field of cybersecurity. While almost any of these programs provide networking opportunities and experience, the job market is becoming flooded with candidates who have taken these courses. As a result, those who have a college degree may find themselves favored over those who do not.
Becoming an ethical hacker takes more than just a degree or certificate. You’ll need experience working in the real world with network administrators, IT departments and other engineers to help build knowhow, confidence and references.
After obtaining an education or certification, many aspiring hackers find work in network support. Testing for vulnerabilities and maintaining network health and security in this area will form the foundation needed to move forward in the field of cybersecurity.
After gaining experience in network support, future white hat hackers should look for work as a network engineer. Network engineers build the systems that network support specialists monitor and test. As a network engineer, you will have the option to further hone in on the security aspects of network construction.
After putting in some time as a network engineer, seek to further your career in the field of information security. Information security analysts examine networks for potential flaws and exploits and ensure that their systems maintain top of the line protocols.
Those who work in information security who want to take the leap and market themselves as an ethical hacker may want to get a Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification from the Council of Electronic Commerce Consultants.
With the field of information technology being so extensive and fluid, there are many different certifications one can seek out in order to bolster one’s resume, including those tailored specifically to ethical hacking.
Keep in mind, however, that no amount of certification can stand in for actual experience. Defending against criminal hackers often employs outside-the-box thinking and methodologies that simply cannot be anticipated or duplicated in a controlled testing environment.
Hacking competitions and conventions
At any point in your journey, you may wish to enter into hacking competitions or visit hacker conventions. Competitions allow you to flex your skills and conventions give you further opportunities to expand your network, continue to build your experience and get a heads up on what new trends are popping up in cybersecurity.
Conventions in particular attract hackers of all kinds, providing a unique arena in which hackers on both sides of the fence mingle. However, don’t expect those who engage in destructive or potentially criminal hacking to announce their intentions or presence.
DEF CON is a hacking convention that takes place annually. Started by hacker Jeff Moss as a gathering of hacker friends and associates, DEF CON is now one of the largest and longest running cybersecurity conventions in existence, attracting enthusiasts from all over the world.
When you have your education, experience and certification ducks in a row, you’ve set the stage and can now begin marketing yourself as an ethical hacker.
One of the best ways to break into the industry is to specialize in a certain kind of security or hacking. Even if you don’t have employment experience, you can leverage your skills to create projects or take tests that will allow you to produce a portfolio to show prospective clients or employers.
Use YouTube and other social media platforms to create content that showcases your skills. This not only displays your abilities, but also shows that you go the extra mile to work hard and have a genuine passion for the field.
Employers go through piles of resumes, but those who show an interest in hacking as more than just a means of employment will undoubtedly shine brighter than those who do not exist outside of a LinkedIn profile.
Your career as an ethical hacker
As you accomplish work for clients and build your portfolio, you may wish to seek out contract jobs or apply for an in-house position at an organization. Many companies also offer bug bounties, paying hackers large sums of cash if they are able to find and document exploitable vulnerabilities in their products.
Ultimately, the means by which you practice will be dictated by how you wish to approach your career. In-house work allows for job security, but will likely not provide the range of experience that multiple, unrelated clients can yield.
The most important thing to keep in mind is to stay on the cutting edge of technology. In the fast moving world of cyber, complacency can quickly put you at a disadvantage compared to peers who continually seek to increase their knowledge and anticipate the trends that will make or break tomorrow’s networks.
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