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Considering a career in ethical hacking and wondering “what is ethical hacking?” you're starting in the right place. Ethical hacking involves legally assessing the security of computer systems, networks, and applications to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious attackers. It's an essential component of cybersecurity practices, designed to proactively fortify systems against potential threats. 

There are 5 key phases in ethical hacking (reconnaissance, scanning, gaining access, maintaining access and covering tracks), which we’ll explain further in this article. By the end, you’ll have a solid understanding of what ethical hacking is, and if it’s the right career path for you. 

5 Phases of Ethical Hacking 

Phase 1: Reconnaissance / Footprinting

Phase 1 of ethical hacking is called reconnaissance or footprinting. This is the first and very important step where ethical hackers collect as much information as possible about the target system before launching any actual attack. During this phase, hackers use a variety of tools and techniques to gather information.

  • The goal here is to understand the target environment and find out the best way to approach the hacking process.

There are two types of reconnaissance: passive and active. 

  • Passive reconnaissance: The hacker collects information without directly interacting with the target system. This might involve searching public records or websites, monitoring network traffic passively, or gathering data from various online sources without alerting the target.
  • Active reconnaissance: This involves directly engaging with the target system to gather data. This could include scanning networks to discover open ports, identifying specific services running on servers, and other direct methods that may tip off the target about the ongoing assessment.

Both methods provide critical data that hackers use to plan their next steps. By understanding what systems are in place, how they're configured, and their vulnerabilities, hackers can effectively prepare for the next phases of the ethical hacking process.

Phase 2: Scanning

Phase 2 of ethical hacking is known as scanning. After gathering all the necessary information in the reconnaissance phase, ethical hackers move on to this next step, which involves a more direct interaction with the target's systems. 

  • This phase is all about using technical tools to understand the network and machine more intimately.

During scanning, hackers use automated tools to send requests to the target system and then analyse the responses they receive. The main goal here is to map out and identify live hosts, open ports, and the services running on the systems, as well as any vulnerabilities or weak spots that could be exploited later.

There are several types of scans that might be conducted:

  • Port scanning involves identifying open ports and the services they are running. This is crucial because open ports can be entry points for attacks.
  • Network scanning allows the hacker to understand the network structure and discover devices that are connected to it, which helps in forming a picture of the network’s layout.
  • Vulnerability scanning aims to pinpoint weaknesses in the system that could potentially be exploited by attackers.

This phase is critical because it sets the stage for planning actual attacks (in a controlled and legal environment when it comes to ethical hacking). By knowing exactly where the vulnerabilities lie, ethical hackers can efficiently plan their next moves to test the system's defences without unnecessary trial and error.

Phase 3: Gaining Access

Phase 3 of ethical hacking is gaining access. This is where the action really starts—ethical hackers use the vulnerabilities identified in the scanning phase to actually penetrate the system. 

  • The goal here is to see how deep they can get into the system using these vulnerabilities, which simulates what a real attacker might achieve.

In this phase, hackers employ various methods and tools to exploit weaknesses in the system, such as software bugs, insecure configurations, or poor network security practices. The types of attacks could include:

  • Exploiting software vulnerabilities like buffer overflows or injection flaws (SQL injection, for example) where hackers insert malicious code that the system executes, allowing them to gain unauthorised access.
  • Session hijacking where attackers take over a valid computer session to gain unauthorised access to information or services in the system.
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks where the attacker intercepts and alters communication
    between two parties who believe they are directly communicating with each other.

Once access is gained, ethical hackers try to escalate their privileges to see how much more access they can gain within the system. This might involve obtaining administrative rights or accessing restricted areas of the network. 

The purpose of this phase is not just to enter the system but to understand how deep an attack could go and how much damage could be done. This provides valuable insights into the security posture of the target system, highlighting areas where security needs to be tightened.

Phase 4: Maintaining Access

Phase 4 of ethical hacking is called maintaining access. Once ethical hackers have gained access to a system, this phase involves staying within that system long enough to perform intended tasks without being detected. This could involve collecting, encrypting, and exfiltrating data, or even setting up a backdoor for future access.

  • The key goal here is to simulate the actions of advanced persistent threats (APTs), which can maintain unauthorised access to an enterprise network for prolonged periods to mine highly sensitive data. 

The techniques used in this phase often involve installing software specifically designed to keep the hacker's connection open, despite restarts, password changes, or other security measures that might normally cut off access. 

These tools could be Trojans, rootkits, or other types of malware that are used only in controlled and ethical scenarios to test the system's resilience to persistent threats.

Understanding how these threats work and how long they can go undetected helps organisations strengthen their defences against real-world attacks.

Phase 5: Covering Tracks

The final phase, Phase 5, is covering tracks. In this phase, ethical hackers clean up after themselves to leave the target system exactly as they found it. This involves:

  • Erasing any signs that the system was hacked
  • Deleting log files 
  • Deleting any other records that show the hacking process took place.

This phase is critical because it ensures that the ethical hacking exercise does not affect system performance or security after testing is completed. It also simulates an attacker's need to avoid detection, which provides insights into how malicious hackers could potentially erase evidence of their activities, helping cybersecurity professionals develop better detection and prevention strategies.

By removing all traces of the hack, ethical hackers help secure the system against future breaches by showing how attackers could potentially cover their tracks. This knowledge is used to improve security measures and auditing processes to detect similar activities in the future, ensuring the organisation remains one step ahead of malicious attackers.

How Can You Become an Ethical Hacker?

The first step to becoming an ethical hacker is enrolling in an online course in ethical hacking. Learn how to protect your digital assets, create strong defence plans, and use ethical hacking techniques to stay ahead of cyber threats. 

Whether you're new to cybersecurity and ethical hacking, or looking to level up your skills, our course is designed for everyone. 

Plus, you can study at your own pace and in your own time, from anywhere that has internet access! It’s the most accessible way to study and kickstart your ethical hacking career. 

Enrol now!

Ethical Hacking Course FAQs

What prerequisites are required for this course?

While anyone can take OCA’s ethical hacking course, we’d recommend having at least a basic understanding of computer systems and networks.

What tools and skills will I learn in this course?

In our ethical hacking course, you'll learn about various tools used for testing the security of systems. These include penetration testing software, vulnerability scanners, and password cracking tools. Skills taught range from advanced network analysis and understanding encryption, to intrusion detection and prevention techniques.

Can I legally practise the skills I learn in this course?

Yes, the skills you learn can be legally practised, but only within defined ethical and legal boundaries. Ethical hackers must always have permission to probe and test systems. Without such permission, applying these skills can be considered illegal and unethical.

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