The terms “hacking” and “hacker” are frequently associated with illegal activity, dangerous data breaches and stolen information. But have you ever heard of legal and ethical hacking? Yep, you heard that right. There’s a type of hacking no law enforcement can bust you for: white hat hacking.

So, what is a white hat hacker? As cybercrime matures, prevention techniques need to follow. In other words, white hat hackers are paid to legally breach data and information systems to find weaknesses and report them back to the organization. 

While you may be able to download protection for your at-home systems, larger organizations pay white hats to show them where their systems may be in need of repair. Continue reading this guide to learn what else sets white hat hackers apart from other cybercriminals.

White Hat Hacker Defined

In simple terms, a white hat hacker is a hacker who is legally hired by an organization or person to hack their information infrastructures to find possible weaknesses. While these people deliberately breach security systems, they are proceeding with permission, which distinguishes them from other hackers, including hacktivists.

The term “white hat” refers to old Western movies: The good guys would usually wear white hats while the bad guys would wear black. In the realm of computer hacking, many white hats are former black hat hackers who moved on to legal and ethical hacking for one reason or another.

Unlike other cybercriminals, white hats help organizations perform vulnerability assessments and notify the companies responsible for creating patches of any weaknesses. Instead of hacking for information and personal or political gain, white hat hackers break into systems to increase safety and reduce malicious attacks. 

Types of Hat Hackers

Besides white hat hackers, there are two other categories of hat hackers: gray hat hackers and black hat hackers. 

Black hat hackers are well known because they are the opposite of a white hat. Black hat hackers use their power for their own personal or political gain. Additionally, when it comes to black hat vs. white hat hackers, black hats will sell or exploit any infrastructure vulnerabilities they find, leaving organizations open to attack. 

Gray hat hackers, on the other hand, straddle the middle ground. While they are less likely to cause damage to the systems they breach, gray hats don’t usually request organizational permission before hacking them. In simple terms, they feel they can change the rules when it comes to ethical hacking, and they prioritize their personal morals over the law.

White Hat vs. Gray Hat vs. Black Hat Hackers

White Hat HackersGray Hat HackersBlack Hat Hackers
Legally hiredNot hired legallyNot hired legally
Notify organizations about vulnerabilitiesHack without permission but won’t exploit systems or cause damageSell, use, or exploit vulnerabilities
Express good intentionsExpress morally gray intentionsExpress bad and damaging intentions
Prioritize the lawPrioritize personal moralsPrioritize personal or political gain

White Hat Techniques

White hat hackers and black hat hackers use the same tools and techniques to breach security systems. However, instead of exposing an organization to danger, white hats help protect its security status. Generally, white hats use techniques like:

  • Penetration testing: A penetration test helps determine an infrastructure’s weaknesses and potential entry points. These are then reported to the organization. 
  • Email phishing: Legal phishing scams — also known as anti-phishing campaigns — are enacted to find potential vulnerabilities. These are also used to teach infrastructure users what a phishing scheme may look like.
  • DoS and DDoS attacks: A denial-of-service attack stops or changes the performance of a network or security system. White hats will reproduce these types of attacks so organizations can adapt their response plans.
  • Social engineering: Attacks using social engineering will manipulate human nature and human response. White hats will simulate these attacks to test an organization’s security and educate users on attack strategies.
  • Security scanning: White hat hackers will use tools to automatically scan web applications and open-source systems for weaknesses.

Illustrations of the techniques and tools white hat hackers use.

Legal Considerations and Limitations

Although white hat hackers have the law on their side, there are still some legal considerations and limitations to consider. 

Legal considerations:

  • Written permission: In order for white hats to legally hack an organization’s system, they must be given written permission. This permission is what separates a white hat hacker from a gray hat or black hat.
  • Secondary business consent: If a white hat hacker is asked to penetrate the system of a business partner, that business must also give consent. If the secondary business does not consent to any type of penetration test, white hats could be legally responsible for the damages and illegal activity.
  • Information retrieval: If a white hat is able to penetrate a system with secure information, this must be immediately reported to the organization. The white hat has then had access to personal information. This is important to keep in mind as customers may not be aware their information was accessed.

Possible limitations:

  • Time: White hat hackers are limited to a set amount of time when breaching a security system. Unlike gray hat and black hat hackers, white hats don’t have months or years to try out a variety of hacking techniques and tools. Their organization will only provide them with a limited amount of time to find and report vulnerabilities.
  • Scope: Most white hat hackers are only allowed to perform penetration tests. In the cyber kill chain, there are more steps beyond penetration. However, the scope of white hat hacking usually only includes finding weaknesses and enacting security breaches. 

While these limitations and legal considerations may make white hat hacking a narrower profession, it has its perks:

  • White hat hacking is allowed under the law.
  • White hats are legally paid and the work is profitable.
  • Organizations have stronger protections.
  • Understanding computers, coding and security breaches is a recognized profession.

Becoming a White Hat Hacker

Becoming a white hat hacker is just like any other profession. Many hirable white hats study for and receive a white hat hacker certification, which is identified by the Department of Defense and other major government organizations.

The Electronic Commerce Council (EC-Council) set the standard field certification for ethical hackers. These certified ethical hacker (CEH) certifications, like the Global Tech Council program, can now be found in various places. However, CEH certifications can be demanding and rigorous, so the council encourages the use of certification tools.

Certification tools:

  • EC-Council training program: The CEH training program has 20 modules covering more than 300 attacks and 2,000 hacking tools. The three accredited training centers are EC-Council, Affinity IT Security and Pearson VUE.
  • CEH handbook and exam workbook: The EC-Council handbook and workbook offer practice questions for the CEH exam.
  • Prep courses: Prep courses to help prepare future white hat hackers are offered at organizations like Infosec Institute.
  • Practice tests: White hat candidates are encouraged to conduct and take practice tests before the official CEH exam. The EC-Council’s Online CEH Assessment and Infosec Skills assessments are the top practice tests.

After a white hat has received their certification, there are a variety of jobs and career paths they can pursue, including:

  • Private sector jobs for financial institutions, technology companies, educational institutes, aerospace companies, health care businesses and more.
  • Government positions in data security, network administration and security, engineering, vulnerability assessing and more.

5 Well-Known White Hat Hackers

Illustrations of 5 famous white hat hackers.

White hats often love programming, adrenaline or simply figuring out how to break the puzzle that is a security system. Plus, many ethical hackers are powerful and influential computer security professionals who have decided to use their skills for the greater good, like these five well-known white hat hackers.

1. Kevin Mitnick

Once called the world’s most famous hacker, Kevin Mitnick began his hacking career as a black hat in the ‘80s and ‘90s. After finding himself on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and serving time for breaching some of the biggest corporations, Mitnick became a white hat penetration tester. He is now a writer and cybersecurity consultant who helped change the way authorities pursue cybercriminals.

2. Jeff Moss

Also known as “The Dark Tangent,” Jeff Moss is the founder of the Black Hat and DEF CON hacker conferences. As a white hat security professional, Moss has created a space for hackers and government officials to meet, speak and learn from each other. Additionally, he has served as an adviser to the Department of Homeland Security.

3. Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman is a computer programmer and advocate for free and open software. He is the founder of the GNU Project, an open-source operating system that promotes projects from a variety of creators. He has worked closely with James Gosling (who developed Java) and has always supported the idea that all computer code should be open to modification and sharing.

4. Steve Wozniak

As the co-founder of Apple, also known as “The Woz,” Steve Wozniak is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who began as a white hat hacker. He helped shape the computer industry with his Apple I and II designs. Now, Wozniak has founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, received the Legacy for Children Award and founded Woz U, which trains individuals in software and technology engineering.

5. Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web in 1989 after hacking into restricted areas at Oxford University. He also co-founded Inrupt, which promotes the use of Solid. Solid is an open-source platform that gives users agency over their data. Plus, Berners-Lee is the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium.

While there are ethical hackers out there, it’s important to remember that black hat hackers are always looking for weaknesses and vulnerabilities where security breaches are possible in information systems. More than 30 million users count on Panda Security’s premium services to protect them while they’re surfing the web at home or storing personal data at work. 

Sources: Mitnick Security | Cybersecurity Education Guides | Britannica | Woz | W3