What Is Ethical Hacking?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Unlike malicious hackers, ethical hackers have the permission and approval of the organisation 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.

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

Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that cybercrime will globally cost an estimated $10.5 trillion every year in damages by 2025 [1]. It also predicts that ransomware alone will cost victims $265 billion every year by 2031. In this article, explore key points to consider if you’re thinking of going into ethical hacking. 

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. Here are some of the differences:

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.

Ethical hackers Black-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 those with malicious intentions. 

Within ethical hacking, there are 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 organisation 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 organisation's security overall.

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:

  • Fixing holes in your system to avoid the economic catastrophe of unexpected downtime or a data breach

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

  • Implementing security measures that strengthen networks and actively prevent breaches

  • Digging down deeper into your systems than a manual scan or automated test can do

  • Helping you remain compliant with GDPR legislation and avoid costly penalties

Job opportunities for ethical hackers

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 organisation, including public, private, and government institutions. You could work in financial institutions like banks or payment processors. Other potential job areas include e-commerce 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:

  • Penetration tester

  • Information security analyst

  • Security analyst

  • Vulnerability assessor

  • Security consultant

  • Information security manager

  • Security engineer

Ethical hacker salary

The national average base salary for an ethical hacker in the UK was £52,285 in April 2023, according to Glassdoor [2].

Steps to become an ethical hacker

There’s no single degree you have to pursue to become an ethical hacker, but having a strong background of experience and expertise is a must. Many ethical hackers earn a university degree at a minimum. Gaining certifications can boost your credibility with potential clients and employers and increase your earning potential. 

Pursue a degree.

Many ethical hackers start with at least a bachelor’s degree. While there is no one particular area of study you must pursue, useful subjects can include computer science or information systems, maths, physics or other science subjects. You might also pursue a master's degree in cybersecurity. 

Expand your skills.

If you already have a degree but want to pivot to gain skills in ethical hacking, you might attend an ethical hacking or cybersecurity bootcamp. Employers generally look for individuals who can demonstrate:

  • Experience with programming languages 

  • Skills in scripting to deal with network-based and host-based attacks.

  • Understanding of how networks are connected and how to handle network compromise situations 

  • Knowledge of databases like SQL and multiple operating systems like Windows, Linux, Mac 

Get Certified.

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.

  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) is offered by ISACA and is designed to prove your expertise in IS/IT auditing, control, and security.

Next steps

Prepare to launch your career in cybersecurity with the Google Cybersecurity Professional Certificate on Coursera. Get hands-on experience with industry tools and examine real-world case studies, all at your own pace. Upon completion, you’ll have a certificate for your resume and be prepared to explore job titles like security analyst, SOC (security operations center) analyst, and more. 

Article sources


Cybersecurity Ventures. “Cybercrime to Cost the World $10.5 Trillion Annually by 2025, https://cybersecurityventures.com/cybercrime-damage-costs-10-trillion-by-2025/.” Accessed April 18, 2023.

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