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Ethical Hacking vs Pen Testing

“Hacking” is the first thought that comes automatically to one’s mind when you mention “Information security”. From the sublime Computer professional to the amateur computer user, everyone understands the term perfectly. With technological advances, hacking and other exploits have shown an exponential increase in the world.  “Hacking” is using sophisticated and new ways to infiltrate systems without the user’s explicit permission and knowledge to grab personal data, financial information and cause other damage.

In the light of this explanation, there are two terms that are used interchangeably and often confused. They are “ethical hacking” and “pen testing”. This post first explains the different types of hackers and explains the term “pen testers” and details the differences between them.

Types of hacking:-

While the word “hacking” is commonly strewn around, did you know that there are different types of hackers? Some of them are “white hat hackers”, “black hat hackers” and “grey hat hackers”.

  1. Black hat hackers:- “Black hat hackers” are hackers with a devious intent. The activities of these hackers make waves all around the world. They break into systems without any explicit permission to cause monetary, physical and personal damages.

The latest example of this type of hacker wreaking havoc is the ‘Capital One’ data breach where the personal information of 106 million customers was compromised (Source: @ cnet) White hat hackers:  “To beat a hacker, you have to think like one …” is a saying I read long back…and that is exactly what “white hat hackers” or “ethical hackers” do. They are employed by corporations to find vulnerabilities, flaws, backdoors, security weaknesses within the rules prescribed to improve the security posture of an organization.  “Ethical hackers” then have to disclose the findings of the flaws that have been detected during the course of their analysis. The process of “ethical hacking” encompasses all the procedures and attack methods.

  1. Gray hat hackers:- A “grey hat” hacker is not as pure as “white hat” hacker nor as devious as a “black hat” hacker but the “grey hat” hacker does violate laws and regulations while hacking though they are not nefarious as the “black hat” hacker.

Having talked about hackers and “ethical hacking” let us see what ‘pen testing’ is;

“Penetration testing” or “Pen testing” involves discovering vulnerabilities, risks and flaws on target systems. This almost sounds similar to a “ethical hacker” but is more limited in scope. Some of the tools that can be used to perform a pen test are Wireshark, Metasploit and Nmap. The pen testing findings are then used to strengthen the security posture of the system by plugging in the vulnerabilities that have been discovered. It is important to note that “pen testing” is not a one-time test. It has to be done periodically by the organization since new security threats are emerging every day.

Having seen the definitions of “ethical hacking” and “pen testing”, let us now list the differences between the two:

  1. “Pen testing” as the name mentions is just a “test”. On the other hand, ethical hacking is a full blown process. Hence, “pen testing” is much more narrow in scope, than “ethical hacking”.
  1. Most “ethical hackers” are better accepted in the industry by the leading certifications. On the other hand, pen testers do not necessarily need to validate themselves by means of a certification though they can.
  1. Pen testing is restricted to smaller set of systems while “ethical hacking” is conducted on a large set of systems.

Enroll in the CEH v10 from EC-Council or the Pentest+ from CompTIA course and offered by InfoSec Train and get certified today!!

Jayanthi Manikandan ( )
Cyber Security Analyst
Jayanthi Manikandan has a Master’s degree in Information systems with a specialization in Information Assurance from Walsh college, Detroit, MI. She is passionate about Information security and has been writing about it for the past 6 years. She is currently ‘Security researcher at InfoSec train.