What Is a White Hat Hacker? The Ethical Side of Hacking

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

When you think of hackers, you might envision the villains you've seen in movies who break into computers to steal data. But not all hackers are bad. To find out more, learn what it takes to become a certified ethical hacker.

[Featured image] A white hat hacker works on a computer in an office.

The term white hat refers to an ethical hacker whose job involves hacking into computer systems to detect security risks. The term and its definition derive from old movie westerns, where law-abiding heroes typically wore white hats. Unlike those who break into computers to destroy or steal data, white hat hackers have good intentions.

What does a white hat do?

White hats are hired by companies to test their information system’s security by attempting to hack it. This ethical hacking process helps detect vulnerabilities in a system. Depending on the company you work for, your duties as a white hat hacker might include the following:

  • Reverse engineering malware and viruses

  • Analysing attacks and security incidents for their root causes

  • Scanning a target network with vulnerability scanners

  • Designing plans of attack to try and exploit (and then patch) vulnerabilities

  • Providing technical support

  • Reviewing and updating documentation  

Jobs for white hats

These days, the demand for ethical hackers is higher than ever in both private and public sectors. 

Private sector vs. government jobs

There are many types of private sector companies need stringent security for their information systems which include:

  • Financial institutions like banks, credit card companies, and mortgage companies

  • Technology companies 

  • Educational institutions

  • Aerospace companies

  • Cell phone companies

  • Health care businesses

  • Utility companies

  • Large retail and wholesale establishments

  • Entertainment and media companies

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) companies

Ethical hackers who want a government job might work for a variety of departments.For example, the Cabinet Office has been known for hiring an in-house ethical hacker in the recent past. Some common job titles for ethical hackers in the private and public sectors include:

  • IT security analyst

  • IT security manager

  • Network administrator/manager

  • Cybersecurity consultant

  • Penetration tester

  • Security engineer

  • Information security analyst 

Ethical hacker skills 

To be a successful ethical hacker, you’ll need to possess both technical and workplace skills. Technical skills represent the practical aspects of your role, while workplace skills contribute to how productive you are in a work environment. To become a white hat, plan to develop a unique combination of technical and workplace skills, including:

  • Computer programming skills

  • Databases and networks

  • Cryptography (study of encryption and decryption)

  • Web applications and wireless technologies

  • Problem-solving

  • Organisation 

  • Communication

  • Ability to remain calm in high-pressure situations

Degree types for a white hat

Although some white hat hackers develop their expertise from working with computers, many get bachelor's degrees as well. Degrees that might benefit ethical hackers include:

  • Computer science

  • Computer engineering

  • Information technology

  • Cybersecurity

When you're ready to apply for a position as a white hat, you'll likely need a strong working knowledge of operating systems like Linux, Kali Linux, and Windows and extensive experience writing code. Types of scripting and programming languages to learn and master include:

Do I need a master’s degree?

You may not need a master's degree to get a job as a white hat hacker. But if you have an undergraduate degree in a field like computer science, cybersecurity, computer engineering, or any other related discipline, you can go on to get a Master of Science in Cybersecurity. 

Keep in mind, an important attribute to separate yourself from other applicants is relevant experience. Your experience can prove your skills and value to hiring managers. This, paired with professional certification, can potentially satisfy any degree requirement on some job postings. 

Certifications for career prospects

If you're hoping to work as an ethical hacker, certifications can give you a chance to show employers that you have those skills. The Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) Certification offered through the EC-Council (International Council of E-Commerce Consultants) is one of the most respected and comprehensive certifications in the industry. 

This program is globally recognised, and participants who complete it might get top positions as ethical hackers. To enrol in the course, you must have at least two years of experience in information security and pass a pre-enrollment exam. The CEH exam costs 1,199 USD on its own, and there is an additional fee of 100 USD to take the exam remotely. A training course is also available, which focuses on these topics and more:

  • Cryptography

  • Enumeration

  • Firewalls

  • Footprinting

  • Honeypots

  • Latest trojans, worms, and viruses

  • Penetration testing

  • Server hacking

  • Session hijacking

  • Social engineering

  • SQL injection

Part of the process of getting this certification is agreeing to the EC-Council's code of ethics, stating that participants of the program must always protect intellectual property and promise never to engage in malicious hacking activities. 


According to Glassdoor, the average salary for an ethical hacker in the United Kingdom is £49,441 as of February 2024 [1]. Keep in mind that your earning potential may be influenced by factors like geographical location, years of experience, and the industry you work in. 

Next steps

Start building the skills you need to become an ethical hacker with the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate on Coursera. This program covers core principles of compliance and threat intelligence, network security, and more. Learn from field experts and get hands-on experience with industry tools and real-world case studies, all at your own pace. Upon completion, gain a shareable Professional Certificate to include in your resume, CV, or LinkedIn profile. 

Keep reading

Updated on
Written by:

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.