A hacker accesses a computer system or network without the authorization of the
system’s owner. By doing so, a hacker is breaking the law and can go to prison.
Those who break into systems to steal or destroy data are often referred to as crackers; hackers might simply want to prove how vulnerable a system is by accessing the computer or network without destroying any data. For the purpose of this article, no
distinction is made between the terms “hackers” and “crackers.” The U.S. Department of Justice labels all illegal access to computer or network systems as “hacking,”
and that usage is followed in this article.
An ethical hacker is a person who performs most of the same activities a hacker does but with the owner or company’s permission. This distinction is important and can mean the difference between being charged with a crime or not being charged. Ethical hackers are regularly involved to perform penetration tests or security tests. Companies are willing to pay for someone to find these vulnerabilities before intruders do because they are aware that they may try to access their network resources. Companies would rather pay a “good hacker” to discover problems in their current network configuration than have a “bad hacker” discover these vulnerabilities. Bad hackers spend many hours scanning systems over the Internet, looking for openings or vulnerable systems.
Some hackers are skillful computer experts, but others are younger, inexperienced people who experienced hackers refer to as script kiddies or packet monkeys. These disrespectful words refer to persons who copy code from skilled programmers instead of writing the code themselves. Many experienced penetration testers can write computer programs or scripts in Perl (Practical Extraction and Report Language, although it’s always referred to as “Perl”) or the C language to carry out network attacks. (A script is a set of instructions that run in sequence to perform tasks on a computer system.)
An Internet search on IT job recruiter sites for “penetration tester” produces hundreds of job announcements, many from Fortune 500 companies looking for experienced applicants. A typical ad might include the following requirements:
- Perform vulnerability, attack, and penetration assessments in Internet, intranet,
and wireless environments.and wireless environments.
- Perform discovery and scanning for open ports and services.
- Apply appropriate exploits to gain access and expand access as necessary.
- Participate in activities involving application penetration testing and application source code review.
- Interact with the client as required throughout the engagement.
- Produce reports documenting discoveries during the engagement.
- Debrief with the client at the conclusion of each engagement.
- Participate in research and provide recommendations for continuous improvement.
- Participate in knowledge sharing.
Penetration testers and security testers usually have a laptop computer configured
with multiple OSs and hacking tools. The online resources accompanying this article
contains the Linux OS and many tools needed to conduct actual network attacks.
This collection of tools for conducting vulnerability assessments and attacks is sometimes referred to as a “tiger box.” You can order tiger boxes on the Internet, but if
you want to gain more experience, you can install multiple OSs and security tools on
your own system. Learning how to install an OS isn’t covered in this article, but you
can find article on this topic easily. The procedure for installing security tools varies,
depending on the OS.
What Does a Penetration Tester Do?
Other names for some penetration testing roles include “ethical hacker” or “assurance validator.” The duties of these professions are similar to those of a penetration tester in that they look for, pinpoint, and make an effort to exploit known vulnerabilities in digital systems and computing networks. Websites, data storage systems, and other IT assets are part of these systems and networks.
Many people confuse penetration testing with vulnerability testing. However, these two cybersecurity specializations have distinct differences. Vulnerability testers look for flaws and weaknesses during a security program’s design and setup phases. Penetration testers specifically seek out flaws and weaknesses in active systems.
Penetration testing teams simulate cyberattacks and other security breaches designed to access sensitive, private, or proprietary information. They utilize existing hacking tools and strategies and devise their own. During a simulated attack, pen testers document their actions to generate detailed reports indicating how they managed to bypass established security protocols.
Penetration testing teams help their employers avoid the public relations fallout and loss of consumer confidence that accompany actual hacks and cyberattacks. They also help businesses and organizations improve their digital security measures.
Key Soft Skills for Penetration Testers
- A Desire to Learn: Hackers and cybercriminals constantly change their strategies and tactics as technology continually evolves. Penetration testing professionals need to stay updated on the latest developments on both fronts.
- A Teamwork Orientation: Penetration testers often work in teams, with junior members undertaking duties with lower levels of responsibility while reporting to senior members.
- Strong Verbal Communication: Team members must articulate their findings in clear, easy-to-follow language that people without advanced technical knowledge or skills can understand.
- Report Writing: Strong writing skills serve penetration testing professionals well because their duties include producing reports for management and executive teams to review.
Key Hard Skills for Penetration Testers
- Deep Knowledge of Exploits and Vulnerabilities: Most employers prefer candidates whose knowledge of vulnerabilities and exploits goes beyond automated approaches.
- Scripting and/or Coding: Testers with good working knowledge of scripting and/or coding can save time on individual assessments.
- Complete Command of Operating Systems: Penetration testers need advanced knowledge of the operating systems they attempt to breach while conducting their assessments.
- Strong Working Knowledge of Networking and Network Protocols: By definition, understanding how hackers and cybercriminals operate requires penetration testers to understand networking and network protocols like TCP/IP, UDP, ARP, DNS, and DHCP.