Introduction to Ethical Hacking.

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What is Ethical Hacking?

The act of hacking is defined as the process of finding a set of vulnerabilities in a target system and systematically exploiting them. Ethical Hacking as a discipline discerns itself from hacking by adding a vital element to the process — ‘consent’. The addition of ‘consent’ to this process serves two objectives –

  • The process becomes a legal activity
  • Since the ethical hacker takes permission prior to hacking into a system, it is legally made sure that he has no malicious intent. This is normally performed by making the ethical hacker sign contracts that legally bind him to work towards the improvement of the security of the company

Ergo, an ethical hacker is a computer security specialist, who hacks into a system with the consent or permission of the owner to disclose vulnerabilities in the security of the system in order to improve it. Now, let us go over the roles of an ethical hacker in this ethical hacking tutorial.

Ethical Hacker Roles

Ethical hackers have various roles in the organization they work for. Considering the fact that ethical hacking is adopted by public and private organizations alike, goals may end up being diverse, but they can be boiled down to a few key points –

  • Protect the privacy of the organization the ethical hacker is working for.
  • Immaculately report any sort of discrepancy in the system to the corresponding division with the responsibility of mending the vulnerability.
  • Update hardware and software vendors regarding any sort of vulnerabilities found in their product, that is being used to orchestrate business.

Why is Ethical Hacking Important?

Data has become an invaluable resource. Accordingly, the preservation of privacy, and integrity of data has also increased in importance. In essence, this makes ethical hacking extremely important today! This is primarily due to the fact that almost every business out there has an internet facing side. Whether it be public relations, content marketing or sales, the internet is being used as a medium. This makes any endpoint that is being used to serve the medium, a possible vulnerability.

Furthermore, hackers of the present age, have proven themselves to be creative geniuses when it comes to penetrating into a system. Fighting fire with fire might not work in the real world, but to fight off a hacker so smart, an organization needs someone who has the same train of thought. Recent hacking outages have to lead to losses amounting to millions of dollars. These incidents have cautioned businesses around the globe and made them rethink their stance on the importance of ethical hacking and cybersecurity.

Having laid down the grounds for ethical hackers after specifying their roles and importance to an organization, let us move forward and discuss some key elements of ethical hacking in this ethical hacking tutorial.

What is a Security Threat?

As an ethical hacker, your daily routine will include dealing with a bunch of security threats.

Any risk that has the potential to harm a system or an organization as a whole is a security threat. Let’s go over the types of security threats.

Types of Security Threats

Threats are of two types:

Physical Threats

Physical threats are further divided into three categories.

  • Internal e.g. hardware fire, faulty power supply, internal hardware failures etc
  • External e.g. floods, fires, earthquakes etc
  • Human e.g. vandalism, arson, accidental errors etc

Non-Physical Threats

Non-physical threats include every threat that has no physical manifestation. They are also known as logical threats. Below is a picture of the most common non-physical threats:

An ethical hacker generally deals with non-physical threats on a daily basis, and it is his responsibility, to come up with preventive measures for these threats.

Security Threats: Preventive Measures

While most preventive measures adopted by ethical hackers tend to differ for every organization due to customized needs, they can be boiled down to some key methodologies that are ubiquitously followed –

  • Every organization must have a logical security measure in place. This could also include cognitive cybersecurity measures adopted by an organization which operates on an incident response system.
  • Authentication can be improved and made more efficient by using multi-factor authentication systems. Authentication methods can be in the form of user IDs and strong passwords, smart cards, captchas, biometric, etc.
  • For protection against entities like worms, trojans, viruses etc. organizations sometimes use specially curated anti-viruses that are made keeping the company’s special needs in mind. Additionally, an organization may also find it beneficial to use control measures on the use of external storage devices and visiting the website that is most likely to download unauthorized programs onto the target computer.
  • Intrusion-detection/prevention systems can be used to protect against denial of service attacks. There are other measures too that can be put in place to avoid denial of service attacks.

Having discussed the types of threats an ethical hacker deals with regularly, let’s go over the skills that are required to be able to deal with the discussed threats in this ethical hacking tutorial.

Ethical Hacker Skills

An ethical hacker is a computer expert, who specializes in networking and penetration testing. This generally entails the following skill set –

  • Expertise in various operating systems, primarily Linux and its various distribution. This is because a good portion of vulnerability testing includes invading the target system and sifting through their system. This is impossible without a good grasp on operating systems.
  • In-depth knowledge of networking is also key to a successful ethical hacking career. This involves packet tracking, packet sniffing, intrusion detection & prevention, scanning subnets etc.
  • Programming: Now programming is a vast topic with nuances in every language. As an ethical hacker, it is not expected of you to be a master-coder, but rather be a jack-of-all-trades.

Below is a table of the major/commonly used programming languages. They mainly are HTML, Javascript, SQL, PHP, Ruby, and Bash. Knowing these will definitely help you as an ethical hacker:

Why Learn Programming?

Whenever I’ve mentioned that programming is an ethical hacking essential, I’ve been asked why. This is mostly because people do not have the slightest clue about the roles and responsibilities of an ethical hacker. Here are a few reasons that make programming knowledge crucial for an ethical hacking career:

  • Ethical hackers are the problem solver and tool builders, learning how to program will help you implement solutions to problems.
  • Programming also helps automate tasks that would generally take up precious time to complete
  • Writing programs can also help you identify and exploit programming errors in applications that you will be targeting
  • Programming knowledge also helps customize pre-existing tools to cater to your needs. For example, Metasploit is written in Ruby and you can add a new exploit to it if you know how to write one in Ruby

Talking about tools used in ethical hacking, let us go over a few of them.

Ethical Hacking Tools

It is impossible to go over every ethical hacking tool out there in a single article, hence, I’ll just be going over some of the really famous ones in this section:

Nmap

Nmap, short for Network Mapper, is a reconnaissance tool that is widely used by ethical hackers to gather information about a target system. This information is key to deciding the proceeding steps to attack the target system. Nmap is cross-platform and works on Mac, Linux, and Windows. It has gained immense popularity in the hacking community due to its ease of use and powerful searching & scanning abilities.

Netsparker

Netsparker is a web application security testing tool. Netsparker finds and reports web application vulnerabilities such as SQL Injection and Cross-site Scripting (XSS) on all types of web applications, regardless of the platform and technology they are built with. Netsparker’s unique and dead accurate Proof-Based Scanning technology does not just report vulnerabilities, it also produces a Proof-of-Concept to confirm they are not false positives. Freeing you from having to double check the identified vulnerabilities.

Burpsuite

Burp Suite is a Java-based Web Penetration Testing framework. It has become an industry standard suite of tools used by information security professionals. Burp Suite helps you identify vulnerabilities and verify attack vectors that are affecting web applications. Burp Suit’s unquestionable acceptance and fame can be attributed to the fantastic web application crawler. It can –

  • Accurately map content and functionality
  • Automatically handling sessions
  • Handles all sorts of state changes, volatile content, and application logins

Metasploit

Metasploit is an open-source pen-testing framework written in Ruby. It acts as a public resource for researching security vulnerabilities and developing code that allows a network administrator to break into his own network to identify security risks and document which vulnerabilities need to be addressed first. It is also one of the few tools used by beginner hackers to practice their skills. It also allows you to replicate websites for phishing and other social engineering purposes.

Talking about social engineering, let us take a moment to discuss the same.

What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering has proven itself to be a very effective mode of hacking amongst other malicious activities. The term encapsulates a broad range of malicious activities accomplished through human interactions. It uses psychological manipulation to trick users into committing security mistakes or giving away sensitive information.

Social engineering is a multi-step process. A perpetrator first investigates the intended victim to gather necessary background information, such as potential points of entry and weak security protocols, needed to proceed with the attack. Then, the attacker moves to gain the victim’s trust and provide stimuli for subsequent actions that break security practices, such as revealing sensitive information or granting access to critical resources.

The image below depicts the various phases of a social engineering attack:

Social Engineering Techniques

Moving forward in this ethical hacking tutorial, let us discuss the various methods used for social engineering.

Familiarity Exploit

You always trust someone you are familiar with, don’t you? That’s exactly what social engineering evangelists take advantage of! The perpetrator might get themselves familiarized with the chosen target with day to day methodologies which have a facade of friendliness painted all over it. These can include activities like joining someone for a smoke, going out for drinks, playing video games etc.

Phishing

Phishing has proven itself to be a fantastic approach to social engineering. Phishing involves creating counterfeit websites that have the look and feel of a legitimate website. People who visit the website are tricked into entering their credentials that are then stored and redirected to the hacker’s system.

Exploiting Human Emotions

Exploiting human emotions is probably the easiest craft of social engineering. Feelings like greed and pity are very easily triggered. A social engineer may deliberately drop a virus infected flash disk in an area where the users can easily pick it up. The user will most likely plug the flash disk into the computer. The drive may be infested with all sorts of nonphysical threats which may actually be an infected file.

It is an ethical hacker’s job to spread awareness about such techniques in the organization he/ she works for. Now let’s take a moment to talk about cryptography and cryptanalysis in this ethical hacking tutorial.

Cryptography

Cryptography is the art of ciphering text into an unreadable format. Just in case your data falls into the wrong hand, you can stay at ease as long as it is well encrypted. Only the person with the decryption key will be able to see the data. An ethical hacker is more interested in the working of algorithms that let him decipher the data without the key. This is called cryptanalysis.

Cryptanalysis

Cryptanalysis is the study of analyzing information systems in order to study the hidden aspects of the systems. Cryptanalysis is used to breach cryptographic security systems and gain access to the contents of encrypted messages, even if the cryptographic key is unknown. Methodologies like Brute force, Dictionary attacks, Rainbow table attacks have all stemmed from cryptanalysis. The success of cryptanalysis depends on the time one has, the computing power available and also the storage.