What Are the 5 Steps of Ethical Hacking?

Many people only associate hacking with negative intentions. However, ethical hacking is an increasingly important tool for improving cybersecurity.

Ethical hacking involves a cybersecurity expert trying to access a computer system with the owner’s permission. Such situations often occur when a client asks an ethical hacker to test a new app or website. With this approach, they can find problems that a malicious party might later exploit if unaddressed. Let’s take a closer look at ethical hacking by examining its five stages.

The 5 Steps of Ethical Hacking

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Ethical hacking is not a haphazard activity where people decide to break into a network minutes beforehand. Here’s a breakdown of the steps someone should take as an ethical hacker.

1. Reconnaissance

This is the preparation phase of the hack. It requires the hacker to gather as much comprehensive information as possible about the target. This step also consists of active and passive reconnaissance. Ethical hackers ideally engage in both types.

Active reconnaissance is a direct approach where hackers look for flaws and potential entry points. It’s the faster method of the two reconnaissance options.

Passive reconnaissance happens without direct interaction with the targeted network. Instead, hackers conduct it by eavesdropping on network activity.


2. Scanning

In this phase, hackers use information gathered in the previous step. They gather resources that they’ll use to improve their chances of accessing the network successfully.

Hackers could gather system information and use it to make a network infrastructure map. They might then run a port scan that detects any vulnerabilities they could use to enter the network.

Many people consider the scanning phase an extension of active reconnaissance. That’s because it involves using various tools on the data acquired in the first step of ethical hacking.

3. Gaining Access

This is the ethical hacking phase of putting all the information to work and attempting to get into the network. People use various methods. They might try password cracking or exploit a weakly encrypted part of the network.

Once an ethical hacker gets into the network, their next goal is to gain administrator privileges. Getting administrator rights on a Windows computer lets people make changes that may affect all other users. A person who has them can add and remove software, change security settings, and access all files on a machine.

4. Maintaining Access

This phase concerns hackers trying to retain the access they recently gained. It often happens over a relatively longer period than the other phases. That’s mainly because hackers aim to gradually expand their reach within a network, so they can continue to wreak havoc unnoticed.

A recent hack on the Irish national health service highlights how malicious hackers may prolong this phase. They hit the system with ransomware but had access for eight weeks before deploying it.

Hackers with harmful intentions cause worldwide damage, though. Perhaps that’s why the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) considered a cybersecurity rule, according to this story from Vigilant. Such a move would force companies to standardize their cybersecurity and monitor digital risks.

5. Covering Tracks/Providing a Vulnerability Report

It’s worth mentioning here that malicious and ethical hacking both include the previous four steps, but the fifth one differs.

Malicious hackers avoid detection, so they cover their tracks. They do so by deleting or editing log files, removing any programs they installed, and hiding any other evidence of their network presence.

However, recall that ethical hackers try to break into networks with permission. There’s no need to cover their tracks, although some will because they want to mimic dangerous hackers.

Ethical hackers conclude their efforts by giving the client a vulnerability report. It details any issues that made it easier to gain access and recommends strategies to tighten cybersecurity.

How Does Ethical Hacking Help Cybersecurity?

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Ethical hackers help clients uncover flaws in their systems before cybercriminals do. One study found that ethical hackers reported more than 66,000 vulnerabilities to organizations in 2021. That was a 20 percent rise over 2020’s numbers.

Another study found that ethical hackers have been even more helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistics from Security Magazine show that 74 percent of them thought vulnerabilities increased during the pandemic. And 80 percent of ethical hackers working through the pandemic said they found new vulnerabilities during that time.

Ethical Hacking Can Thwart Cybercriminals

People often say it’s necessary to imagine being in someone else’s situation to understand them better. That sentiment explains why ethical hacking is so valuable.

The hackers who access systems with permission think like malicious actors, using the same techniques and tools they do. Clients get advice about how to improve system security, so their choice to hire ethical hackers may prevent future attacks.

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