What is white hat hacking? Here’s how ethical hacking works

Ray Fernandez

Jul 17, 20235 min read

What is white hat hacking? Here's how ethical hacking works (Header image)

If you think the words “hacker” and “cybercriminal” are synonymous, you are in for a big surprise. Hacker culture began years before personal computers were invented and decades before the internet went mainstream. And while all hackers are defined by their ability to breach systems, not all of them do it for the wrong reasons. Ethical hacking, or white hat hacking, is done by a global community of talented hackers, also known as white hackers, who operate legally for good causes. 

What does a white hat hacker do?

White hat hackers use the same skills cybercriminals use. But a white hat hacker will intentionally breach a system or scan through it with the aim of revealing bugs, misconfiguration, and vulnerabilities so they can be fixed. This often involves trying to get into the minds of cybercriminals, fighting fire with fire in the global cybersecurity crisis that affects all industries and sectors of the world.

Ethical hackers are gaining traction and solidifying their reputation for staying one step ahead of attackers. Today, white hat hackers are employed by organizations to put their systems to the test. Their job is to find the weak points before cybercriminals do. Organizations like HackerOne — the largest community of ethical hackers in the world, with more than one million registered hackers — offer their services to companies like Twitter, Facebook, Nintendo, GM, PayPal, and many others.

A white hat hacker on his Linux laptop during Linux Day
A white hat hacker during Linux Day 2022 in Milano. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Because companies hire top ethical hackers to lead their security teams or as external contractors to test their systems, the work of white hat hackers is 100 percent legal. White hat hackers are respected and valued by the cybersecurity community.

New trends in white hat hacking include bounty programs. Several famous companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and others have offered thousands and even millions of dollars to white hat hackers who can hack newly released products and systems. Entire communities of white hat hackers search for vulnerabilities, malware, or other issues.

By contrast, black hat hackers are individuals who illegally hack systems or devices. Meanwhile, gray hat hackers are those who have good intentions but are willing to cross legal and ethical boundaries. Gray hat hackers operate without the permission of companies but do not have malicious intent. They are motivated by the challenge of hacking strong systems or exposing moral values.

How white hat hacking evolved

In the late 1950s, when there were no computers for personal use, a small group called the Phone Phreaks began hacking into the networks of public phone companies. They hacked into the phone network using a device known only as the Blue Box. This device imitated a specific set of audio tones. Although they could access a phone company’s system and make free calls, among other things, the motive for the hack was purely the thrill and the challenge.

This group inspired the first generation of hackers when Esquire ran a story about them titled “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” in October 1971, thus immortalizing the movement. The article made a big impression on Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple, and on Steve Jobs himself.

Silicon Valley computer clubs

By the 1970s, in the region known today as Silicon Valley, computer clubs began to form. These small groups of young people built their own computers and devices. Only governments and big industries used computers back then, but this movement of early white hat hackers led to the creation of companies like Apple and the evolution of IBM.

Gordon French, co-founder of the Homebrew Computer Club
Gordon French, co-founder of the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the 80s and 90s, hacking entered a new phase. Personal computers were now a reality, and businesses had more at stake. This was the time when black hat and gray hat hackers began to flourish.

The rise of black hat hackers and regulations

While some hackers still only hacked for moral principles or technical challenges, by the late 1980s, the United States federal government stepped in to send a message to all hackers. Kevin Mitnick, known for hacking the computer giant Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), was placed in the number-one spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Today, Mitnick is one of the industry’s most-respected security consultants. However, his case and similar cases stigmatized hacking through new digital laws and robust prosecutions.

Today, the intense threat of a landscape driven by cybercriminal gangs, transnational criminal organizations, and global digitalization has reinvigorated the importance of the original hackers.

Black and white hat hacking: What are the differences?

The difference between a black and a white hat hacker is like night and day. Here are some of the main differences you can use to differentiate between them.

1. Motivation

In the end, intention and motivation make up the main difference between white and black hat hackers. Black hat hackers are criminals. Therefore, their motivations will be similar to the motivations of any criminal: financial gain, data theft, extortion, revenge, and more. Take the infamous Locky ransomware attack, for example, where black hat hackers extorted organizations for money by keeping their data hostage.

White hat hackers want to improve an organization’s or system’s security. Both types of hackers are highly competitive, and some white hat hackers may seek recognition. But the moral values of a white hat hacker are ethical and transparent. White hat hackers hack for global good or for a good cause, while black hat hackers have criminal and often personal motivations.

2. Legality

As mentioned, white hat hackers operate within the laws, while black hat hackers have malicious intent and knowingly breach these laws without any concern. The black hat hackers’ intentions are to steal, damage, harm, or conduct other activities that are illegal.

3. Anonymity

Cybercriminal organizations thrive in the shadows. To operate, they need anonymity. However, white hat hackers do not need to be anonymous. They can work while fully disclosing who they are, including the position, role, or job they’re doing. 

4. Coding, testing, and malware

All hackers are sophisticated coders. However, white hat hackers do work that cybercriminals don’t do. This includes developing security software, tools, and techniques to detect and remove malware, pentesting (penetration testing), and building security patches. 

On the other hand, black hat hackers are dedicated to coding malware and creating new social engineering techniques to trick users and breach systems. It could be said that while black hat hackers create problems, white hat hackers are creating the solutions. However, ethical hackers have lately taken on more offensive security approaches instead of preventive ones.

White hat hackers contribute to innovation and security. The thrill of hacking and the challenge of building a better, more efficient, more inclusive digital world continues to feed the white hat culture just like it did in the early days.

As the world innovates with cloud computing, the edge, AI, 5G, machine learning, and IoT, a rich culture of hacking, seemingly lost for decades, has returned. In our highly digitalized world, every company and organization has a digital footprint. And when almost everyone has a digital life, data has never been so valuable. 

Ray Fernandez Ray Fernandez
Ray has been covering tech and cybersecurity for over 15 years. His work has appeared on TechRepublic, VentureBeat, Forbes, Entrepreneur, and the Microsoft Blog, among others.