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Perhaps you’ve heard the term “white hat” in recent years. If you haven’t spent much time in the information security realm, then you may not be entirely sure what white hat is, let alone a white hat hacker, especially considering the moniker hacker often carries a negative connotation.

In simple terms, a white hat hacker, or white hat for short, is an ethical hacker who infiltrates a network or seeks out software exploits for the sole purpose of exposing weaknesses and vulnerabilities to improve security. It’s essentially like hiring a burglar to break into your home, tell you how they did it and how it can be prevented next time. It may seem odd, but it can pay immense dividends for companies and developers who utilize the services of white hat hackers.

Ethical Hacking

White hats use a method called penetration testing, which is an authorized attack on a computer system that looks for security weaknesses. Although white hat hackers use methods identical to those of malicious hackers – even attempting to think and operate like a malicious hacker – a white hat uses their skills to improve information security and protect sensitive data from malicious hackers.

Businesses and government agencies will often call upon white hats to shore up their information by identifying exploits and weaknesses before a malicious hacker does. When you consider how much sensitive data many of us have on the internet, ethical hacking is a very necessary and important service.

Why the Name “White Hat?”

Although the term “white hat” is thought to have been first used by the computer and software manufacturer IBM, the concept of white hats can be traced back to old western movies. A character wearing a white cowboy hat would signal to the audience that the character is the film’s hero, while someone wearing a black cowboy hat was often the antagonist.

Black and Grey Hat Hackers

If a white hat is an ethical hacker, then obviously a black hat is a malicious hacker. Black hats are criminals who find or develop vulnerabilities in networks to steal information to be sold on the dark web. Black hats will often sell the information about the vulnerability to other criminal hackers.

A grey hat hacker essentially occupies the middle ground between white and black hats. Grey hats will often discover the vulnerability without authorization and come forward to the agency or vendor and sell the information to them. Although they’re ultimately helping, an unauthorized breach of a network is a serious crime.

A recent example of grey hat hacking in action occurred in 2016, when the FBI solicited the services of a group of grey hats to unlock an Apple iPhone to track down its owner.1 The group was able to find a flaw in the software, and they sold the information about the flaw to the government for a one-time fee.

There have been examples of grey hats selling this information for malicious purposes, which is why the name “grey hat” was coined – they occupy a grey area in the cybersecurity world. 

Benefits of Being a White Hat

The clear benefit of being a white hat is that you’ll be performing an extremely beneficial service, helping potentially millions of people keep their most sensitive data safe from malicious hackers. Another benefit is that it’s a career field in demand. Large-scale data breaches are up by more than 40 percent in 2017 compared to 2016.2 Government agencies and corporations are under constant attack from malicious hackers, meaning white hats should only continue to play a large role in information security.

Maybe most important of all, white hat hackers don’t run the risk of being subjected to the lengthy prison sentences and astronomical fines often levied against black hat hackers when the authorities finally catch up to them.

Becoming a White Hat

Although there’s no “ethical hacking 101” course requirement, earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in information security or computer science is an excellent way to gain the necessary technological skills and knowledge potential white hats need. Washington Technology University is a new university offering state-of-the-art degree programs that will prepare students today for rewarding careers in cybersecurity and information security tomorrow.

Contact Washington Technology University for more information by calling (425) 223-5812 or by visiting us online today!