What Is Ethical Hacking?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Unlike malicious hackers, ethical hackers have the permission and approval of the organization which they’re hacking into. Learn how you can build a career from testing the security of the network to fight cybercrime and enhance information security.

[Featured image] An ethical hacker takes notes of data charts from her desktop.

It is predicted that cybercrime will globally cost an estimated $10.5 trillion every year in damages by 2025 [1]. They also predict that ransomware alone will cost victims $265 billion every year by 2031. The present threat of cybercrime combined with the shortage of experienced information security professionals has created a crisis for businesses, organizations, and governmental entities.

However, the need to combat cybercrime also presents a unique opportunity for a career path. We’ve rounded up some key points to consider if you’re thinking of going into ethical hacking. 

What is ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking is the practice of performing security assessments using the same techniques that hackers use, but with proper approvals and authorization from the organization you're hacking into. The goal is to use cybercriminals’ tactics, techniques, and strategies to locate potential weaknesses and reinforce an organization’s protection from data and security breaches. 

Ethical hacking vs. hacking: What’s the difference?

Hackers, who are often referred to as black-hat hackers, are those known for illegally breaking into a victim’s networks. Their motives are to disrupt systems, destroy or steal data and sensitive information, and engage in malicious activities or mischief. 

Black-hat hackers usually have advanced knowledge for navigating around security protocols,  breaking into computer networks, and writing the malware that infiltrates systems.

Ethical hackers, commonly called white-hat hackers, use many of the same skills and knowledge as black-hat hackers but with the approval of the company that hires them. These information security professionals are hired specifically to help find and secure vulnerabilities that may be susceptible to a cyber attack. Ethical hackers will regularly engage in assessing systems and networks and reporting those findings.

Here are some of the differences:

Ethical hackersBlack-hat hackers
Increase security frameworkReduce security and steal data
Develop strong security and structuresAccess accounts and data without permission
Develop systems like ad blockers and firewalls and regularly update and maintain security systemsSteal valuable data and break into restricted data areas

Types of hackers 

Black-hat hackers are always the outlaws, the hackers with malicious intentions. But over time ethical hackers have shifted into a variety of roles other than white-hat hackers. 

Some of the roles include red teams that work in an offensive capacity, blue teams that work as a defense for security services, and purple teams that do a little of both:

  • Red teams may pose as a cyberattacker to assess a network or system's risk and vulnerabilities in a controlled environment. They examine potential weaknesses in security infrastructure and also physical locations and people.

  • Blue teams are aware of the business objectives and security strategy of the organization they work for. They gather data, document the areas that need protection, conduct risk assessments, and strengthen the defenses to prevent breaches. These ethical hackers may introduce stronger password policies, limit access to the system, put monitoring tools in place, and educate other staff members so that everyone's on the same page.

  • Purple teams bring red and blue teams together and encourage them to work together to create a strong loop of feedback and reach the goal of increasing the organization's security overall.

Read more: Red Team vs. Blue Team in Cybersecurity

Benefits of ethical hacking

New viruses, malware, ransomware, and worms emerge all the time, underscoring the need for ethical hackers to help safeguard the networks belonging to government agencies, defense departments, and businesses. The main benefit of ethical hacking is reducing the risk of data theft. Additional benefits include:

  • Using an attacker’s point of view to discover weak points to fix

  • Conducting real-world assessments to protect networks

  • Safeguarding the security of investors' and customers' data and earning their trust

  • Implementing security measures that strengthen networks and actively prevent breaches

Career opportunities in ethical hacking

As an ethical hacker, you might work as a full-time employee or as a consultant. You could find a job in nearly any type of organization, including public, private, and government institutions. You could work in financial institutions like banks or payment processors. Other potential job areas include ecommerce marketplaces, data centers, cloud computing companies, entertainment companies, media providers, and SaaS companies. Some common job titles you'll find within the ethical hacking realm include:

Read more: 4 Ethical Hacking Certifications to Boost Your Career

Job outlook and salary

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates that jobs like information security analysts may grow by 32 percent between 2022 and 2032, an average rate significantly higher than the 8 percent for all other careers [2]. As an ethical hacker, you have a variety of job opportunities available to you, from entry-level to management.

Not only is there a strong demand for ethical hackers, but this career path has strong earning potential. The average annual salary for ethical hackers in the US is $108,831, according to Glassdoor [3]. However, the salary differs depending on where you live, the company you work for, your level of experience, and the certifications you hold can all impact your potential salary.

Educational requirements for ethical hacking

There’s no single degree you need to become an ethical hacker, but having a strong background of experience and expertise is a must. Many ethical hackers earn a bachelor’s degree at a minimum.

Hiring managers want to see that you're proficient in a variety of operating systems, firewalls, and file systems. You'll need strong coding skills and a solid foundation in computer science. 

Along with strong technical skills, good ethics and analytical thinking are key skills to cultivate. Common fields of study for a bachelor's degree include:

Should I get a master’s degree?

When you work in cybersecurity, having a master's isn't always required, but many employers prefer the added specialization. Earning your master’s degree can help give you a stronger competitive edge in the job market and allow you to deepen your knowledge and gain hands-on experience.


Alternatives to getting a degree

If you already have a degree but want to pivot to gain additional skills in ethical hacking, then attending an ethical hacking or cybersecurity bootcamp could be an alternative to getting a degree. Many bootcamps have ties to big tech organizations, giving you increased networking opportunities and chances to make lasting professional connections.

Another option is to earn a certification. One of the core certifications to consider is the Certified Ethical Hacker credential issued by the EC-Council. Other popular certifications include:

  • CompTIA Security+ covers a broad range of knowledge about troubleshooting and problem-solving a variety of issues, including networking, mobile devices, and security.

  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) is offered by (ISC)² and demonstrates your proficiency in designing, implementing, and managing cybersecurity programs.

  • GIAC certifications are available in focus areas like cyber defense, cloud security, offensive operations, and digital forensics and incident response.

Read more: 10 Popular Cybersecurity Certifications

Next steps

Ready to develop your skills for a career in cybersecurity? The Google Cybersecurity Professional Certificate is your gateway to exploring job titles like security analyst, SOC (security operations center) analyst, and more. Upon completion, you’ll have exclusive access to a job platform with over 150 employees hiring for entry-level cybersecurity roles and other resources that will support you in your job search. 

Article sources


Forbes. “Cybercrime To Cost The World $10.5 Trillion Annually By 2025, https://cybersecurityventures.com/cybercrime-damage-costs-10-trillion-by-2025/.”  Accessed December 13, 2023.

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