Ethical hacking and penetration testing are two distinct things, however, the terms are often used interchangeably. These terms differ in scope but both are geared towards helping corporations improve their cybersecurity and to minimise the risks of a successful cyber attack. Choosing the right testing methods is essential for corporations to protect themselves against exploitation.

What is ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking is a broad term that covers all hacking techniques and methods. The goal is to find vulnerabilities in a corporate information system and to fix them. Compared to penetration testing, the approach is much broader.

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing is a formal procedure and is just one subset of all ethical hacking techniques. Once again, the objective is to identify security vulnerabilities, risks, and flaws. Penetration testing mimics a cyber criminals attempt to access an information system. However, this is done without causing actual damage.

Penetration tests are carried out to highlight weaknesses so that organisations can improve security and defence. It is a proactive approach to cybersecurity, designed to tackle problems before they arise. 

Penetration tests should be conducted on a regular basis. The reason for this is that cyber criminals are always adapting their techniques to find new weak points. Penetration testing is essential for organisations that are introducing new programs, applications, or systems. At these times, a pen test will help to minimise the risk of a successful attack, as new systems are introduced.

The differences between penetration testing and ethical hacking

There are some key differences between penetration testing and ethical hacking, including the skill set of the tester:

  1. A pen testing company performs a cybersecurity assessment on a specific IT system. An ethical hacking company will assess all system security vulnerabilities, while incorporating the techniques of penetration testing.
  2. A penetration tester only needs access to the system being tested. An ethical hacker needs access to a wider range of computer systems in the IT infrastructure. This wider access is due to the larger scope of testing.
  3. Penetration testers don’t need certification if they have adequate experience. Ethical hackers usually require certification.
  4. Penetration testers need skills and knowledge only in the area they are testing. Ethical hackers need a wider range of knowledge, including programming and knowledge hardware hacking techniques.
  5. Ethical hackers are required to create in-depth, lengthy reports detailing their findings and recommended solutions. A penetration tester is not always required to do this dependant on the scale of the test.
  6. A penetration test is usually a quick process with a time limit. Ethical hackers usually have more time test and report.
  7. Ethical hackers are required to sign legal paperwork before they commence testing. Penetration testers do not need to sign lots of legal paperwork.

Black hat hackers versus white hat hackers

White hats and black hats have long been associated with good and evil, and the same is true for hacking. A black hat hacker has malicious intent. This intent might be financially motivated and ransomware is one example of this. The black hat hacker may want to steal consumer data or conduct intellectual property theft.

A white hat hacker will attempt to access systems with the consent of the organisation. They should be contractually obliged to reveal vulnerabilities solely and directly to the owner. White hat hackers use the same techniques of black hat hackers in the real world. This might include using stolen credentials. They might also look to use weak links within the corporation’s business partners and supply chain.