As technology continues to become more relevant for businesses worldwide, the importance of securing business-critical applications and their underlying tech stack continues to gain prominence. With the changing threat landscape, it is often impractical to identify vulnerabilities in real-time by simply leveraging automated tools. To help with this, Ethical Hacking has been steadily gaining popularity on account of its effectiveness in simulating real-world attacks and identifying gaps. 

This article explores what ethical hacking is, the five stages of the ethical hacking process and addresses commonly asked questions.

Table of contents
  1. What is ethical hacking?
  2. What are the Phases of Ethical Hacking?
  3. Frequently Asked questions 
  4. Summary for Ethical Hacking

What is ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking involves a collection of processes where organizations authorize individuals to exploit a system’s vulnerabilities for a deeper understanding of their existing security posture. When performing an ethical hack, a security professional or researcher replicates the actions and strategies of a malicious hacker. This helps development and security teams to detect and identify security risks before hackers can exploit them.

Ethical hacking, also known as White Hat Hacking, is a fundamental step for assessing the effectiveness of an organization’s security strategy. To separate themselves from malicious hackers, white hat hackers rely on four principle values:

  • Keeping the exploits legal by obtaining client approval before conducting the vulnerability assessment
  • Predefining the scope of the attack so that the security assessments stay within the approved legal boundaries
  • Reporting all discovered vulnerabilities and providing remediation recommendations to the organization administering the system
  • Agreeing to the set terms and conditions regarding respect for data privacy and confidentiality

The aim of ethical hacking is to mimic the actions of hackers and identify both existing and potential vulnerabilities that may arise in the future. To accomplish this, an ethical hacker undertakes multiple stages of assessment to gain as much in-depth knowledge of the system as possible.

Privilege Escalation explained in a graphic

What are the Phases of Ethical Hacking?

Finding and fully exploiting system vulnerabilities takes a great deal of time and patience. A typical penetration testing requires the ethical hacker to bypass authorization & authentication mechanisms, then probe the network for potential data breaches and network security threats. As a real-world black hat hacker consistently devises new ways to exploit vulnerabilities an effective ethical hack should be carefully thought out considering the changing threat landscape.

To find such vulnerabilities, ethical hackers undertake several steps of the ethical hacking methodology. These steps of hacking include: Reconnaissance, Scanning, Gaining Access, Maintaining Access, and Clearing Track. While not every hacker follows these steps in sequential order, they offer a systematic approach that yields better results. Let us take a closer look at what these hack phases really offer.

1. Reconnaissance

When it comes to penetration testing, the first natural question to ask is – What is the first phase of hacking?

Before performing any actual penetration tests, hackers footprint the system and gather as much information as they can. Reconnaissance is a preparatory phase where the hacker documents the organization’s request, finds valuable configuration and login information of the system, 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
  • Physical location of target machine

2. Scanning

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 a number of tools available, here are a few popular ethical hacking tools commonly used during the scanning phase:

  • SNMP Sweepers
  • Ping sweeps
  • Network mappers
  • Vulnerability scanners

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3. Gaining Access

Once ethical hackers expose vulnerabilities through the first and second hacking phases of the process, 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 a number of hacking tools and techniques to simulate attempted unauthorized access, including:

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).

4. Maintaining Access

The fourth phase of the ethical hacking process involves processes used 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 get past security clearance. Some attackers may also try to hide their identity by removing any evidence of an attack and installing a backdoor for future access.

5. Clearing 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. 

Frequently Asked questions 

1. How can ethical hacking help cybersecurity?

Ethical Hacking steps are crucial for software development, operations and cybersecurity professionals as it helps them improve the organization’s security posture. By identifying and fixing attack vectors, ethical hackers undertake several phases of hacking to help software teams evade the impacts of a successful black hat hacking attack. Some benefits of implementing an ethical hacking process include:

Ethical Hacking helps in Vulnerability Detection

Ethical hacks pinpoint system weaknesses and threat vectors that malicious actors may exploit in production. White hat attacks include the use of hacking tools such as fuzzing to destabilize and crash applications, helping them gain deeper insights into security vulnerabilities.

Helps teams to implement secure networks

Ethical hacks involve probing the network infrastructure and access policies to detect any security gaps. Reports documenting the findings of ethical hacks help organizations protect network ports, implement effective policies, and configure secure firewalls, thereby helping to enforce a robust security posture. 

Helps teams keep data secure

By mimicking attackers’ techniques to access system and user data, ethical hacks help teams assess the effectiveness of their data security policies. This allows security professionals to change their security constructs to address data security threats originating from within and outside the network.

Prevention of Cyber Attacks

Ethical hackers inform organizations of looming threat vectors and evolving attack techniques, enabling cyber security teams to configure safer infrastructure. With this approach, organizations can avoid the consequences of successful attacks such as loss of reputation, reduced customer trust, and hefty fines due to lack of compliance. 

2. What are the most common types of ethical hacking?

There are different types of systems exposed to threat vectors, and each requires its own kind of ethical hacking practices. The most common types of ethical hacking techniques include:

Social engineering

With social engineering, ethical hackers exploit human psychology, rather than technical security gaps to gain access to data and applications. They trick legitimate users into submitting their passwords or installing malicious software that grants them access to network machines and services. It is common knowledge that human users are the weakest link for cyber security, so ethical hackers carry out social engineering simulations to assess organization-wide understanding of security controls.

Web application hacking

Web application attacks are commonly exploited because the web app acts as the interface between the clients and the webserver. The attackers intercept data transmitted in the form of HTML pages over the HTTP protocol, to perform injection and parameter tampering attacks. Ethical hackers test web applications for vulnerabilities that enable attackers to manipulate the application, such as:

Hacking wireless networks

Wireless networks have been adopted favorably since they offer quick access speeds, require little space, and enable boundless connectivity. Attackers leverage a wide range of tools and techniques to exploit vulnerabilities in these networks to gain unauthorized access. Ethical hackers, on the other hand, utilize such tools to find and patch any vulnerabilities present in the networks. 

System hacking

In system hacking, attackers target servers, personal computers, and other hosts connected to the network. They exploit weaknesses in the machines’ operating system to obtain sensitive information or gain unauthorized access to abuse privileges. Ethical hackers simulate system hacks to identify weaknesses in the operating systems and software installed on these machines. 

3. How Can I Prevent Hacking attacks?

The following best practices can be used to help safeguard applications from hacking attacks:

  1. Use a strong firewall to secure networks and host machines
  2. Constantly update the OS for the latest security patches and fixes
  3. Use HTTPS for secure client-server communication
  4. Implement organization-wide training on security posture and controls
  5. Use genuine software that receives constant security updates
  6. Use automated scanning tools to detect and fix security gaps
  7. Implement Effective Intrusion Detection Systems

Summary for Ethical Hacking

Security continues to be a major concern for technology companies, with over 39% of software executives prioritizing the protection of sensitive data. This concern mainly arises from the fact that vulnerabilities are often difficult to detect, with some exploits taking up to a year to be discovered.

Ethical hacking process steps help organizations uncover vulnerabilities and fix them before real-world hackers can exploit them, helping cyber security teams to strengthen system security. Through a combination of manual and automated tests, ethical hackers provide detailed reports of security threats, the effectiveness of security policies, and remediation guidance for safer applications.

While following steps of ethical hacking is one of the most effective ways of identifying real-world exploitations, it is equally important to consider continuous scanning for identifying threats. Crashtest Security offers a comprehensive suite of testing tools that help you identify threats within your application. 

Try Crashtest Security today to discover how it integrates into your development stack for efficient, automated vulnerability scanning.

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