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Ethical Hacking

Ethical hacking, also known as penetration testing or white-hat hacking, is the practice of intentionally probing systems, networks, or applications to identify and fix security vulnerabilities.

Ethical Hacking, also referred to as “white hat hacking,” “Pen Testing,” or simply “ethical hacking,” plays a critical role in maintaining the security and integrity of computer systems and networks. It involves cybersecurity practices that use hacking tools and techniques to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in computer systems and networks with the primary objective of preventing unauthorized access to systems and sensitive data, protecting against cyber-attacks, and ensuring the security of an organization’s assets.

Ethical Hacking
Ethical Hacking

Unlike malicious hackers, ethical hackers operate with the permission of the system owner and adhere to laws and ethical guidelines.

Key aspects of ethical hacking include:

  1. Authorization: Ethical hackers have explicit permission to probe the system, ensuring their activities are legal and sanctioned by the organization.
  2. Objective: The primary goal is to identify and fix security weaknesses to prevent unauthorized access, data breaches, and other cyber threats.
  3. Methodologies: Ethical hackers use a variety of techniques and tools to simulate attacks, including:
    • Reconnaissance: Gathering information about the target to identify potential vulnerabilities.
    • Scanning: Using tools to identify open ports, services, and weaknesses.
    • Gaining Access: Exploiting identified vulnerabilities to see how deep an attacker could penetrate the system.
    • Maintaining Access: Ensuring that access remains available for later use, which helps in understanding how persistent threats can be managed.
    • Covering Tracks: Demonstrating how attackers could cover their traces to avoid detection, helping in the development of better logging and monitoring systems.
  4. Reporting: After conducting tests, ethical hackers provide detailed reports to the organization, outlining the vulnerabilities found, the methods used to exploit them, and recommendations for mitigating these issues.
  5. Compliance: Ethical hacking helps organizations comply with industry standards and regulations (e.g., GDPR, HIPAA, PCI-DSS) that require regular security assessments.

By identifying and addressing vulnerabilities, ethical hacking enhances the overall security posture of an organization, protecting sensitive data and maintaining trust with customers and stakeholders.

The 6 Phases of Ethical Hacking

The process of ethical hacking is typically divided into several phases, each with a specific focus and set of activities. These phases ensure a systematic and thorough approach to identifying and mitigating security vulnerabilities. Here are the main phases of ethical hacking:

  1. Reconnaissance (Information Gathering):

    1. Before performing any penetration tests, hackers footprint the system and gather as much information as possible. Reconnaissance is a preparatory phase where the hacker documents the organization’s request, finds the system’s valuable configuration and login information and probes the networks. This information is crucial to performing the attacks and includes:

      • Naming conventions
      • Services on the network
      • Servers handling workloads in the network
      • IP Addresses
      • Names and Login credentials of users connected to the network
      • The physical location of the target machine
    2. Objective: Collect as much information as possible about the target.
    3. Activities: Includes both passive and active reconnaissance techniques such as querying public databases, social engineering, network scanning, and gathering information from public websites and social media.
    4. Tools: WHOIS, Nmap, Google Dorks, Shodan.
  2. Scanning:

    • Objective: Identify open ports, services, and potential vulnerabilities.
    • Activities: Use various tools to scan the network and systems for vulnerabilities. This phase often includes port scanning, network mapping, and vulnerability scanning.
    • Tools: Nmap, Nessus, OpenVAS.

    In this stage, the ethical hacker begins testing the networks and machines to identify potential attack surfaces. This involves gathering information on all machines, users, and services within the network using automated scanning tools. Penetration testing typically undertakes three types of scans:

    Network Mapping

    This involves discovering the network topology, including host information, servers, routers, and firewalls within the host network. Once mapped, white hat hackers can visualize and strategize the next steps of the ethical hacking process.

    Port Scanning

    Ethical hackers use automated tools to identify any open ports on the network. This makes it an efficient mechanism to enumerate the services and live systems in a network and how to establish a connection with these components.

    Vulnerability Scanning

    The use of automated tools to detect weaknesses that can be exploited to orchestrate attacks.

    While there are several tools available, here are a few popular ethical hacking tools commonly used during the scanning phase:

    • SNMP Sweepers
    • Ping sweeps
    • Network mappers
    • Vulnerability scanners
  3. Gaining Access (Exploitation)

    Once ethical hackers expose vulnerabilities through the process’s first and second hacking phases, they now attempt to exploit them for administrative access. The third phase involves attempting to send a malicious payload to the application through the network, an adjacent subnetwork, or physically using a connected computer. Hackers typically use many hacking tools and techniques to simulate attempted unauthorized access, including:

    • Buffer overflows
    • Phishing
    • Injection Attacks
    • XML External Entity Attacks
    • Using components with known vulnerabilities

    If the attacks are successful, the hacker has control of the whole or part of the system and may simulate further attacks such as data breaches and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS).

    • Objective: Exploit identified vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to the system.
    • Activities: Execute attacks such as SQL injection, buffer overflows, and password cracking to penetrate the system.
    • Tools: Metasploit, SQLmap, Hydra.
  4. Maintaining Access

    The fourth phase of the ethical hacking process involves processes to ensure the hacker can access the application for future use. A white-hat hacker continuously exploits the system for further vulnerabilities and escalates privileges to understand how much control attackers can gain once they pass security clearance. Some attackers may also try to hide their identity by removing the evidence of an attack and installing a backdoor for future access.

    • Objective: Ensure continued access to the system once it has been compromised.
    • Activities: Install backdoors, create user accounts, or use other techniques to maintain access for future exploitation.
    • Tools: Netcat, Meterpreter, persistence scripts.
  5. Covering Tracks

    To avoid any evidence that leads back to their malicious activity, hackers perform tasks that erase all traces of their actions. These include:

    • Uninstalling scripts/applications used to carry out attacks
    • Modifying registry values
    • Clearing logs
    • Deleting folders created during the attack

    For those hackers looking to maintain undetected access, they tend to hide their identity using techniques such as:

    • Tunneling
    • Stenography

    Having successfully performed all the 5 steps of ethical hacking, the ethical hacker then concludes the steps of ethical hacking by documenting a report on the vulnerabilities and suggesting remediation advice. 

    • Objective: Remove evidence of the hacking activities to avoid detection.
    • Activities: Clear logs, delete files, and use anti-forensic techniques to hide the presence of the hacker.
    • Tools: Log cleaners, rootkits, Stealth tools.
  6. Reporting:

    • Objective: Document the findings and provide recommendations.
    • Activities: Create a detailed report outlining the vulnerabilities found, the methods used to exploit them, and recommendations for mitigation. This report is typically presented to the organization’s management and IT team.
    • Contents: Executive summary, detailed findings, risk assessment, remediation strategies.

These phases provide a structured approach to ethical hacking, ensuring that all aspects of the system’s security are examined and that the findings are effectively communicated to the organization for remediation.

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