Ethical Hacker (Penetration Tester) Job Duties (2022)

The manufacturing company’s employees went to work every day under the watchful, protective eye of the security cameras placed throughout their offices. Most staff didn’t even know they were there. Unobtrusive black orbs secreted in corners, they were installed to protect the office after hours, a standard precaution to guard against thieves and vandals. But the cameras had a secret: they were no longer under the company’s control.

The off-the-shelf camera modules had been installed without updates to their system software, which had a default username and password that were freely available on the manufacturer’s website. Part of their basic installation included a web-based interface, where users could log in and control them. And now the hackers controlled them.

Panning and zooming, the hackers looked for angles that allowed them to see the keyboards of employees logging into their workstations and onto sensitive systems during the course of the work day. With freeze-frame and slow-motion, the hackers could see exactly what credentials the users were typing in.

With those credentials in hand, it was short work to log in to and compromise the network without ever setting foot inside the company offices.

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Having completely taken over the company’s network, the hackers next did something a little odd: they wrote up the entire exploit in a report and handed it over to the company’s IT department, with recommendations on how to close the holes and improve system security. They were not, as it happened, ordinary hackers: they were ethical hackers, consultants hired to test and review the manufacturing company’s security systems.

Today, to distinguish the ethical hackers from the malicious, many in the industry use the term “white hat hacker” to refer to the good guys and “black hats” to refer to the bad guys.

Having done their job, the white hats rode off into the sunset, off to help the next client prepare to fend off the bad guys.

The Complicated History of Hacking for the Good Guys

The word “hacker” today conjures visions of shadowy figures hovering over keyboards in the dead of night, looking to steal credit card numbers or nuclear defense codes. But it wasn’t always so. The original hackers were computer scientists and students, exploring the forefront of modern technological innovation by finding ways to poke holes in it. Most such activities were more exploratory than malicious.

The idea of having hackers perform penetration tests to help secure networks originated with the National Security Agency and Department of Defense in the 1970s. Anticipating that malicious actors would attempt to penetrate government and defense industry systems to spy on them, groups of hackers called “tiger teams” hit those systems first, trying to find and fix the holes that others might later exploit.

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Today’s ethical hackers are the spiritual descendants of those early tiger teams.

The Job of White Hat Hackers Begins at the Outer Limits of what Traditional Tools are Capable of

Automated scanners like Nessus and Metasploit can isolate most known vulnerabilities and common configuration problems that lead to security holes. Conducting such scans doesn’t require any special training or skill and thousands of cybersecurity engineers do so in the normal course of their duties each day.

But while white hat hackers might use some of those same scanning tools in their own role, doing so is merely a jumping off point for them. Ethical hacking involves more creativity and a deeper knowledge of both human psychology and hacking strategy than simply running a network scan.

In one instance, ethical hackers were charged with trying to penetrate a network with very few external services where there was virtually nothing to detect using a network scan. However, a web administration interface that the company’s web developer used to maintain the site was located there. A little judicious investigation of public company contact lists turned up the name and email address of the web developer. Some Googling pulled up his Facebook profile, where the hackers found a nickname used by the man’s friends. Further Googling of the nickname turned up a profile on a dating site called “Caucasian-Asian Love.” And from that profile, the hackers built up a word list of likely passwords and found one that the developer used for the web administration interface.

Making the sort of social and psychological connections required to tie all those profiles together is where white hat hackers excel.

Job Duties: A Day and Night in the Life of an Ethical Hacker

Working as an ethical hacker can be one of the most creative and fulfilling jobs available in cybersecurity. Few other industry professionals are allowed the same degree of latitude in their work or encouraged to break the constraints of the working environment like white hat hackers.

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Broadly speaking, the job of a white hat hacker is to find vulnerabilities before the black hats can do so. The ethical hacker uses many of the same tools and goes through the same steps:

  • Researching the intended target via both open-source and dark-web channels
  • Scanning target networks and systems with commercial, open-source, or custom vulnerability scanners
  • Designing a plan of attack that can include exploiting software vulnerabilities, systemic vulnerabilities, social manipulation, or any combination of those factors

Many of these activities may happen at odd hours, conforming to times when the target may be least monitored and most vulnerable. Sometimes work is performed on-site at the client company, and other times remotely via the Internet.

But it’s not all fun and games. Ethical hacking is a job, not a joy ride through other people’s networks. Ethical hackers are expected to carefully document the steps taken to uncover vulnerabilities and detail exactly how they were able to compromise client security systems. Long hours can be spent writing up reports in clear and concise language for corporate executives. And, after breaching a target, the ethical hacker might be expected to spend time with the hapless IT group that was just compromised, helping to advise and train them to avoid future penetrations.

Not all ethical hacking is strictly confined to penetration testing, however. Many ethical hackers spend a great deal of time either writing or examining computer code, to either look for or exploit flaws. They attempt to push systems and devices to accomplish tasks that the creators may not have envisioned. For instance, in 2011, an ethical hacker found an exploit in his own insulin pump that had the potential to allow attackers to command delivery of a fatal dose via wireless network.

How to Become an Ethical Hacker: Earning the Right Degree and Certification

There are a number of ways to land a job in ethical hacking, all of which are befitting to the unusual nature of the job. Some of the greatest hackers have been relatively weak in technical skills, instead relying on social engineering and common software tools to accomplish their feats.

Kevin Mitnick, now an ethical hacker and security consultant, was perhaps one of the best known black hat hackers in history. Mitnick had limited technical skills and primarily relied on talking people out of passwords or software to gain entry into secure systems.

If you are not a natural schmoozer, however, it’s more likely that a strong technical background and education would be the best way to prepare for a career in ethical hacking.

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Most ethical hackers are able to find the flaws in systems because they are intimately familiar with the low-level operations of the hardware and software that comprises them. Consequently, most company’s hiring white hat hackers look for candidates who have in-depth coding or networking experience and advanced technical certifications, including:

A bachelor’s degree in computer science or computer engineering is typically viewed favorably, but graduate degrees in cybersecurity are increasingly coveted. Regardless of the degree, an in-depth, demonstrable familiarity with the basic building blocks of modern networks is mandatory. Candidates have to be knowledgeable at a deep level of Unix and Windows operating system fundamentals, the OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) model and TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) stack.

There are also specialized ethical hacking certifications that carry considerable weight with hiring managers:

Finally, a familiarity with computer security precepts and the hacker scene are viewed favorably. Successful candidates will probably know the OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project) Top Ten list by heart and they may have accounts on various shadowy darknet message boards frequented by thieves and black hat hackers.

Ethical hackers are natural puzzle solvers, and hiring managers often want to see a demonstration of this talent. Even candidates with the best qualifications on paper will be subject to elaborate challenges during the interview process as hiring managers try to geta look at how they approach difficult problems.

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FAQs

Do ethical hackers do penetration testing? ›

Ethical hackers can and do use penetration testing as one of their many tools for diagnosing security issues in a client's security system. However, ethical hackers focus more heavily on building and improving a client's information security system.

What does a penetration tester do on a daily basis? ›

Penetration testers protect digital assets by finding weaknesses in existing computer systems or networks. Sometimes called ethical hackers or pen testers, these professionals work in teams to stop malicious hackers from accessing valuable data.

What is an ethical hacker job? ›

An ethical hacker, also known as a 'white hat hacker', is employed to legally break into computers and networks to test an organization's overall security. Ethical hackers possess all the skills of a cyber criminal but use their knowledge to improve organizations rather than exploit and damage them.

Is penetration tester a good career? ›

Is penetration testing a good career? Penetration testing can be an excellent career choice for individuals with strong computer, IT, and problem-solving skills. The BLS projects much-faster-than-average growth for information security analysts, including penetration testers, from 2020-2030.

Does penetration testing require coding? ›

Most penetration testing positions will require some amount of programming ability, both in scripting languages such as Perl, and in standard programming languages such as Java. Aspiring penetration testers would benefit from learning basic programming skills, especially related to high-demand languages such as Python.

What is the difference between hacker and penetration tester? ›

Whereas penetration testing focuses primarily on system weaknesses, ethical hacking gives actors the freedom to use whatever attack methods they have at their disposal.

What is the main difference between a hacker and a Pentester? ›

A pen tester only needs to know about the specific area they are conducting a pen test on, an ethical hacker requires much wider knowledge. An ethical hacker will have access to the entirety of an organisation's systems in order to carry out their work, a pentester only needs access to the specific area of interest.

How much do Pentesters earn? ›

Salary and Career Outlook for Penetration Testers

As of September 2021, Payscale reported a typical base salary of nearly $87,000 per year for pen testers. At the low end (bottom 10%), pentesters earn about $59,000 per year. At the high end (top 10%), they make up to $138,000 per year.

What qualifications do you need to be a penetration tester? ›

To enter this industry, you'll usually need a relevant degree, in-depth knowledge of computer operating systems and at least two to four years of experience in a role related to information security. Useful degree subjects include: computer science. computing and information systems.

Can penetration testers work from home? ›

Freelance pentesters have the liberty of working from wherever they want, unless they get subcontracted to work on on-site jobs that require them to travel. Otherwise, they can work from the comfort of their homes if they have reliable Internet connections, or from cafes or malls.

How many hours do penetration testers work? ›

Part-time penetration testers evaluate the security of a computer network, website, application, database, or another type of computer system by attempting to breach the network. Unlike full-time employees, part-time penetration testers work thirty hours or less per week.

What are the 7 types of hackers? ›

Types Of Hackers
  • White Hat / Ethical Hackers.
  • Black Hat Hackers.
  • Gray Hat Hackers.
  • Script Kiddies.
  • Green Hat Hackers.
  • Blue Hat Hackers.
  • Red Hat Hackers.
  • State/Nation Sponsored Hackers.
26 Aug 2022

Is ethical hacker a good job? ›

A. Yes, it is a good career if you are interested in the ethical hacking and cybersecurity field but it requires a great knowledge of the whole IT field.

Do ethical hackers work from home? ›

To become a remote ethical hacker, you need to have professional or personal experience with cybersecurity and the principles of hacking. Having a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity, information technology, computer science, or network architecture is very useful for getting remote ethical hacker work.

Is penetration testing easy? ›

It takes 48 hours to complete, but it shows that you know how to tackle the security issues that less advanced ethical hackers can't handle. It's one of the industry's most difficult tests. If you've passed it, companies know that you can take on the toughest problems out there.

Where do penetration testers work? ›

Penetration testers assess the security systems within an organization. They conduct tests and purposefully attempt to exploit existing computer systems and software to detect and correct system weaknesses.

How long does IT take to become Pentester? ›

Entry-level penetration testing roles usually require 1 to 4 years of experience performing IT functions like system, security, or network administration and engineering. Higher-level positions typically require 3 to 10 years of experience related to vulnerability assessment or network penetration testing.

Is Python good for penetration testing? ›

Python is a powerful language for penetration testers, and packs many libraries and tools that can make a penetration tester's life easier, and can be used as a basis to build custom tools and exploits.

Which language is best for penetration testing? ›

C# C# is among the best programming language for Windows hacking and pentesting. Hackers and Pentesters use C# programming language to create many types of malicious programs like Cryptor, Binder, Dropper, RAT, Ransomeware, fuzzing, and many exploitation tools. And it can also be used in security tools automation.

Who is the person who do the penetration testing? ›

A penetration test, also called a pen test or ethical hacking, is a cybersecurity technique organizations use to identify, test and highlight vulnerabilities in their security posture. These penetration tests are often carried out by ethical hackers.

What is GREY hat hacker example? ›

However, gray hat hacking does play a role in the security environment. One of the most common examples given of a gray hat hacker is someone who exploits a security vulnerability in order to spread public awareness that the vulnerability exists.

Which type of hacker represents the highest risk to your network? ›

Which type of hacker represents the highest risk to your network? Answer 6. Option A. Explanation: Disgruntled employees have information which can allow them to launch a powerful attack.

What is the first step of a pen test? ›

The first stage involves: Defining the scope and goals of a test, including the systems to be addressed and the testing methods to be used. Gathering intelligence (e.g., network and domain names, mail server) to better understand how a target works and its potential vulnerabilities.

Which type of testing is most likely used by both ethical and unethical hackers? ›

Penetration testing is very closely related to ethical hacking, so these two terms are often used interchangeably.

How are ethical hackers different than malicious hackers? ›

Ethical hacking is conducted by hackers as well but their intention behind hacking is not for malicious purposes. Their services are used to check and build on software security and thus help to develop the security system of a framework in a business or organization to prevent potential threats.

What's the highest paying cyber security job? ›

The Five Highest-Paying Cyber Security Jobs in the United States
  • Ethical Hacker. Average annual wage: $119,289* ...
  • Information Security Engineer. ...
  • Security Sales Engineer. ...
  • Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) ...
  • Network Security Architect. ...
  • Ethical Hacker. ...
  • Information Security Engineer. ...
  • Cyber Security Sales Engineer.

What is CEH certification salary? ›

The average ethical hacking salary in India is INR 5.02 lakh per annum. Pay in this field can go up to INR 40 lakh per annum depending on your experience, skills, and other factors.

How much do ethical hackers get paid? ›

According to PayScale, the average base salary of an ethical hacker (without bonuses or other perks) is $79,618 per year, while the average base salary of a certified ethical hacker is $82,966 per year. The actual base salary of a professional with a CEH certification is $96,000 per year.

Is cyber security a good career? ›

Cybersecurity is a great career to enter right now, as there is a high demand for professionals with these skills. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the employment of information security analysts will grow 31 percent from 2019 to 2029.

How much do freelance penetration testers make? ›

As of May 2021, PayScale reports that the median annual penetration tester salary is around $86,000. A host of factors impact the salary, including education, experience, job type and job location. For example, penetration testers with 10 to 20 years of experience in the field can earn more than $120,000 yearly.

What is certified penetration tester? ›

Certified Penetration Tester is a two-hour exam designed to demonstrate working knowledge and skills for pentesting. CPT focuses on nine domains: Pentesting methodologies. Network protocol attacks.

How much does a Pentest cost? ›

The average cost of a penetration test can cost anywhere from $4,000 for a small, non-complex organization to more than $100,000 for a large, complex one.

What is the salary of a penetration tester in India? ›

Very High Confidence means the data is based on a large number of responses. Penetration Tester salary in India ranges between ₹ 2.0 Lakhs to ₹ 23.6 Lakhs with an average annual salary of ₹ 7.0 Lakhs.

What is SOC analyst in cyber security? ›

SOC Analysts are like Cyber Security Analysts who are among the first in an organization to respond to cyberattacks. They inform about the cyber threats and make improvements in the organization to protect it from any malicious attack.

Who is responsible for penetration testing? ›

Penetration Testing Expert is an IT professional specialized in vulnerability assessment and penetration testing programa and responsible for the design and performance of application security robustness tests.

What is the salary of a penetration tester? ›

Average salary for a Penetration Tester in India is 7.1 Lakhs per year (₹59.2k per month). Salary estimates are based on 116 salaries received from various Penetration Testers across industries.

What qualifications do you need to be a penetration tester? ›

To enter this industry, you'll usually need a relevant degree, in-depth knowledge of computer operating systems and at least two to four years of experience in a role related to information security. Useful degree subjects include: computer science. computing and information systems.

How much do freelance penetration testers make? ›

As of May 2021, PayScale reports that the median annual penetration tester salary is around $86,000. A host of factors impact the salary, including education, experience, job type and job location. For example, penetration testers with 10 to 20 years of experience in the field can earn more than $120,000 yearly.

Can penetration testers work from home? ›

Freelance pentesters have the liberty of working from wherever they want, unless they get subcontracted to work on on-site jobs that require them to travel. Otherwise, they can work from the comfort of their homes if they have reliable Internet connections, or from cafes or malls.

How long does IT take to become a penetration tester? ›

4 Years. Most often, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree to become a penetration tester. At many universities that takes around 4 years. However, at WGU many students finish coursework more quickly and earn their degrees sooner.

Is penetration testing difficult? ›

It takes 48 hours to complete, but it shows that you know how to tackle the security issues that less advanced ethical hackers can't handle. It's one of the industry's most difficult tests. If you've passed it, companies know that you can take on the toughest problems out there.

Where do penetration testers work? ›

Penetration testers assess the security systems within an organization. They conduct tests and purposefully attempt to exploit existing computer systems and software to detect and correct system weaknesses.

What is CEH certification salary? ›

The average ethical hacking salary in India is INR 5.02 lakh per annum. Pay in this field can go up to INR 40 lakh per annum depending on your experience, skills, and other factors.

What's the highest paying cyber security job? ›

The Five Highest-Paying Cyber Security Jobs in the United States
  • Ethical Hacker. Average annual wage: $119,289* ...
  • Information Security Engineer. ...
  • Security Sales Engineer. ...
  • Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) ...
  • Network Security Architect. ...
  • Ethical Hacker. ...
  • Information Security Engineer. ...
  • Cyber Security Sales Engineer.

Is cyber security a good career? ›

Cybersecurity is a great career to enter right now, as there is a high demand for professionals with these skills. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the employment of information security analysts will grow 31 percent from 2019 to 2029.

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