What Is Ethical Hacking and Why Is It Important?

March 22, 2023 • Zachary Amos


The word “hacker” often conjures images of dark rooms lit by computer screens, hoodies and Guy Fawkes masks. While hacking in a cybercriminal sense is a serious and growing issue, it may surprise you to learn the term doesn’t always refer to bad guys. Ethical hacking is an entire field of its own and an important one at that.

As criminal hackers become a more prominent concern, their ethical counterparts are becoming more in-demand. Here’s a closer look at what this kind of hacking involves and why it’s so important today.

What Is Ethical Hacking?

The technical side of ethical hacking is often identical to its more well-known criminal side. Ethical hackers, also called white hat hackers, try to break past digital defenses to gain unauthorized access to an application, device, network or data. The difference is that instead of exploiting those weaknesses, these hackers inform people about them so they can address the vulnerability.

While you may not be as familiar with these hackers as their illegal counterparts, they’re part of a booming field. White hat hacking has become a $4 billion industry in the U.S. and is rapidly growing.

You may also hear this practice called “penetration testing,” though that’s a more specific term. While penetration testing involves non-criminal, authorized hacking, it refers specifically to people hired to find systems’ vulnerabilities. Some ethical hackers look for them without a formal contract, and others instead focus on hacking criminal hackers.

Different Types of Ethical Hackers

Because ethical hacking is a fairly general concept, it covers several different types of work. You can distinguish between various types of ethical hackers in a few ways, but one of the most common is by their “hat.”

White hat hacking is a general term covering all IT experts, amateur and professional, using their hacking skills for good. Red hat hackers also aim to hack for good but do so by targeting cybercriminals. Think of them as IT vigilantes.

Blue hat hacking can refer to two different groups, depending on who you ask. One is a type of black hat (malicious) using their expertise to take revenge on an organization or user. The other takes its name from Microsoft’s BlueHat security conference and involves looking for software vulnerabilities to patch them before a product launch.

You may also hear of gray hat hackers, who you may classify as a type of white hat, depending on the situation. These are people who uncover vulnerabilities but do so without prior permission and may still ask for payment for their unsolicited services.

Why Is Ethical Hacking Important Today?

As unethical, criminal hacking becomes a bigger concern, ethical hacking will grow alongside it. Cybercrime is complicated and can change quickly, but things like penetration testing help protect against hackers by showing businesses where their security can improve.

Ethical hackers often use the latest technology and techniques to test a system’s security. This lets them show their clients or employers where and how they need to improve to stay safe against emerging threats. By addressing these concerns before a criminal exploits them, organizations can avoid a lot of damage.

As data becomes more valuable, protecting it will become all the more important. Black hat hackers will also target some businesses more heavily. In light of these trends, white hat hacking will become an increasingly crucial part of cybersecurity.

Some security organizations even offer ethical hacking certifications for white hat hackers to advance their careers. As data privacy regulations grow, you may see more of these certifications and job postings. If you haven’t heard of white hat hacking before, you’ll certainly see more of it in the future.

Ethical Hacking Is a Growing Field

While “hacking” carries a lot of negative connotations, not all hackers are criminals. Ethical hacking, while probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word, is just as impactful. As cybercrime grows, it will become increasingly popular, too, as one of the best lines of defense against black hat hackers.