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A guide for how to become an ethical hacker

Ethical hackers have a unique and valuable skill set to find vulnerabilities before they can be exploited. Learn what it takes become an ethical hacker in the cybersecurity industry.

With businesses increasingly on high alert for malware attacks, organizations need to a plan to combat the problem. Some have added ethical hackers to their cybersecurity teams to protect their networks and data systems.

Hackers fall into one of two categories: ethical and unethical.

The unethical hacker is the person often reported in the news for stealing financial information or holding company information for ransom. The ethical hacker works in opposition by looking for the weaknesses that unethical hackers exploit.

What is the role of an ethical hacker?

An ethical hacker penetrates a computer network without malicious or criminal intent. Usually, businesses employ them to break into computers and networks to test the organization's overall security. They use their knowledge to improve organizations rather than exploit or steal from them.

By employing ethical hackers, organizations gain insight into their own security vulnerabilities. Ethical hackers use several forms of security analysis and risk management -- such as network security testing, perimeter testing, web application and operating system testing, and penetration testing.

Companies can benefit from a fresh set of eyes to identify vulnerabilities that the internal team may have overlooked. Ethical hackers can help organizations see weakness and vulnerabilities that might be hiding in plain sight.

Ethical hacker is an overarching umbrella term for a variety of positive and virtuous hacker skills. For example, "red teams" specialize in offensive or proactive security services, while "blue teams" provide defensive services. Purple teams -- a combination of red and blue -- provide a combination of both services.

Required skills for an ethical hacker

It may be obvious, but ethics and morals play a key role in guiding a person interested in ethical hacking. Due to the nature of the job, an ethical hacker will have access to a business's vital systems and its data.

Skills recommended for ethical hackers include experience with the following:

A successful ethical hacker can make the complex understandable to nontechnical employees. After all, not everyone has a Cisco or Microsoft MVP certification. They will also have to understand a user's intent and behavior to apply social engineering techniques. Finally, patience and perseverance serve an ethical hacker well, as finding vulnerabilities takes time and repeated efforts.

Education and certifications for ethical hackers

There is no formal schooling or training for unethical hackers. But it is possible to become certified as an ethical hacker and computer systems protector. While hacking can be self-taught, formal education is recommended. Seventy-three percent of the ethical hacking job advertisements analyzed required applicants to have a degree, according to a Crowdstrike study.

However, which degree applicants hold is open for debate. Crowdstrike found 25.9% of job ads that require a degree also mention a computer science degree. Sixty-eight percent didn't specify what degree the applicant should have.

While collegiate education is nice, a key component for a career as an ethical hacker is certification. Some examples of organizations and the certifications they offer include:

  • EC-Council. More than 20 cybersecurity certifications are offered by the group, including the popular Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification.
  • Council of Registered Security Testers (CREST). The nonprofit organization offers company accreditations and individual certifications, including those for pen testing, incident response and security architecture.
  • SANS Institute. The organization provides cybersecurity courses and certifications, including Global Information Security Certifications in cloud penetration testing, mobile device security and vulnerability assessment.
  • Offensive Security. Learning paths and certifications include penetration testing, web app security and exploit development, with certifications such as Offensive Security Certified Professional, Offensive Security Wireless Professional and Offensive Security Exploitation Expert.
  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). Certifications through the popular training institute (ISC)² cover cloud security, security administration and authorization.
  • CompTIA Security+. The well-known trade association provides a baseline certification for cybersecurity knowledge and skills. Additional advanced certifications such as CySA+, CASP+ and PenTest+ are available.

Career outlook for ethical hackers

In general, the outlook for cybersecurity job seekers looks good. The growth rate for security analysts is projected to be 33% by 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The average salary for an ethical hacker was $101,750 as of October 2021, according to Salary.com. Salaries range from $80,772 to $129,117, depending on experience, certification level, location and other skills.

The career path for an ethical hacker varies. Ethical hackers can be independent consultants, employees of a company that specializes in cybersecurity or an in-house employee protecting their company's network. Government and military operations also see value in using ethical hackers to fight growing global cyberthreats.

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