You probably think of hackers as the “bad guys,” the criminals who breach companies’ and government agencies’ secure computer networks to steal sensitive personal information for nefarious purposes like fraud and identity theft. However, some tech-savvy individuals use their hacking skills for good. Called “ethical hackers,” they engage in hacking computer networks and systems not to break them down for their own personal gain but instead to find ways to build them up for better data protection. If you want to make a living as an ethical hacker, you’re probably going to need a college education.
What Is an Ethical Hacking Degree?
When we use the term “ethical hacking degree,” we’re not talking so much about a distinct major as we are about any degree program that prepares students for a career in ethical hacking. An ethical hacker, also known by the term “white hat hacker,” is a computer security professional.
Ethical hackers are experts in identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities in various computer systems, just like malicious hackers, also called “black hat hackers,” are. The difference is that ethical hackers use this knowledge in an authorized, lawful manner. Instead of taking advantage of a network system’s vulnerabilities, ethical hackers identify them for the purposes of fixing and strengthening them to prevent an illegal hacker from accessing the system for criminal purposes.
Ethical Hackers’ Job Duties
Ethical hackers utilize the same computer skills as malicious hackers, because their first objective – breaking into the network or system – is the same. An ethical hacker begins by searching the software environment to identify any vulnerabilities. Upon finding any weak point or vulnerability, the ethical hacker explores its potential as a computer security risk. What is the worst that could happen if a malicious hacker were to stumble upon this vulnerability? How can this weak point be made more secure? The next and most crucial job duty of an ethical hacker – the responsibility that sets white hat hackers apart from black hat hackers – is removing the security risk to prevent data breaches and unauthorized access to the site, network or system.
Your exact job duties in an ethical hacking career will depend on your job title and function. Many different job titles can fit under the umbrella of ethical hacker careers.
Penetration tester is one career for ethical hackers that focuses largely on breaking into sites and systems using authorized cyberattacks. However, jobs for ethical hackers can also have a broader range of job duties. Ethical hacking may be part of cybersecurity job roles such as cybersecurity specialist, cybersecurity analyst, cybersecurity architect and cybersecurity consultant. You might also perform some ethical hacking duties in security auditor and security consultant roles.
Perhaps the broadest careers in which ethical hacking responsibilities may be necessary are network administrator and system administrator positions. In these roles, your primary focus is likely to be on the operations of the organization’s computer systems, including setting up, troubleshooting and updating those systems. However, your ethical hacking skills may still be put to the test in the aspects of your job that pertain to cybersecurity, especially if you work in a smaller organization, where the computer and technology roles are less specialized.
Generally, ethical hackers may perform daily security-checking tasks such as monitoring incoming and outgoing data that passes through the system, overseeing Microsoft Exchange activity and reverse engineering any malware found in the system to determine its threat level. Whether you are employed as part of a corporation’s in-house computer technology team or hired on a consulting basis, your job as an ethical hacker includes a responsibility to disseminate relevant information about cybersecurity vulnerabilities and attacks to company administrators.
The highest level of advancement an ethical hacker or can attain is the C-level Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) role. A 2019 report from cloud security company Bitglass found that 62 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a CISO. The work-from-home revolution that resulted from the coronavirus disease pandemic may increase companies’ need for skilled CISOs even more.
The Best Options for Ethical Hacker Degrees
Finding a “hacking degree,” per se, isn’t easy. Most colleges and universities don’t offer a major in ethical hacking (or in hacking, in general). Instead, ethical hackers usually choose a broader computer-related program of study as their college major. The most popular majors for ethical hacking careers include cybersecurity, computer science and computer engineering.
A cybersecurity degree is a type of computer science degree with a particular focus on the security aspect of computer networks and systems. To some degree, cybersecurity degree programs tend to be interdisciplinary.
Of course, much of the curriculum consists of computer science and information technology coursework, including computer programming, operating systems, database fundamentals, routing and switching fundamentals and computer, wireless and mobile networking. However, other coursework digs into subjects like policy, criminology, laws and ethics and human behavior. The specialized classes you might cover in a cybersecurity degree program include ethical hacking, firewalls and perimeter security, critical infrastructure security, defensive security, cybersecurity risk analysis, digital forensics and cybersecurity policies.
Computer science is the broadest computer major to consider, encompassing the study of computers and computational systems – and all that they entail. You will study security, but it will be in the context of computing and computer systems, not as the primary focus of your education.
Throughout your curriculum, you will take classes pertaining to computer networks, programming languages, database systems, numerical analysis, artificial intelligence, software engineering, bioinformatics and human-computer interaction. Because computer science is such a broad field, students may have the opportunity to delve deeper into a few potential areas of technical expertise, with options including not only security but also cryptography, artificial intelligence, machine learning, game programming, operating systems and advanced algorithms.
If you’re less interested in the theory of computer science and more interested in the practical application of science and math principles for the design of cybersecurity systems, consider shifting your focus to engineering. Engineers’ primary job role is to design and develop solutions to problems, drawing from the concepts of science and mathematics. Computer engineering is a subdiscipline of electrical engineering.
When you major in computer or electrical engineering, you will have to take foundational courses in engineering concepts and design, along with courses that focus on applying these concepts to the field of computers. More specialized coursework might include computer organization, introductory through advanced programming for engineers, digital logic design, signals and systems, electronic devices, the foundations of electric circuits and electromagnetics for computing and wireless systems.
The general curriculum of computer engineering may not devote much attention to cybersecurity. Some computer engineering programs offer concentrations in cybersecurity that cover topics such as network security, cyber threats and security management, computer forensics and the design and implementation of embedded real-time systems for resource management. If your program doesn’t offer a formal track in cybersecurity, build your own area of concentration through a combination of elective coursework in cybersecurity and internships and field placement experiences that involve some amount of cybersecurity job duties.
Other potential majors you might consider could include information technology, information systems and information science. Alternatively, you might choose to major in criminal justice with a concentration in cybercrime or forensics. If you don’t follow a traditional computer-focused educational path, make sure that you take plenty of computer coursework as electives to build up your technical computer skills.
Making the Most of Your Degree in Hacking
Whichever major you choose, make sure you study computer programming extensively. Hackers – both good and bad – must use programming languages to breach the computer networks, systems and websites that are their targets. To be fully prepared to succeed as an ethical hacker, you’re going to need to know several programming languages.
The Most Important Computer Languages for Ethical Hacking
Most computer science bachelor’s degree programs include courses in computer programming – not only the basics but also how to write programs in a variety of common languages, such as C++, Java, Perl and Pascal.
Some of the computer languages that are of particular interest to an aspiring ethical hacker are:
- Python: This concise scripting language is easy to learn and is best applied to the automation of repetitive tasks. Cryptanalysis and malware analysis are two of the applications of Python programming language skills to cyber security jobs.
- C: Besides being found in most computer operating systems, this programming language is used to develop approximately 90% of libraries and frameworks. Being proficient in programming with C can help ethical hackers identify system vulnerabilities.
- SQL injection: Structured query language (SQL) is a language commonly used to program databases. However, SQL injection is a type of attack vector that exploits vulnerabilities and manipulates databases to access private information.
Programming languages like Python, C and SQL are the means to achieving many different objectives in computation. Both ethical hackers and malicious hackers utilize these coding languages to formulate algorithms, devise solutions and more.
While learning programming techniques and languages is important, a computer science curriculum is more than just programming. It also explores the underlying theories of computation and algorithms that are based in the sciences and mathematics.
Ethical Hacking Requirements
A bachelor’s degree is a common requirement for ethical hacking career paths, even though you could, in theory, be a skilled ethical hacker even without a college education. However, you need more than a degree to succeed in a job in ethical hacking.
Ethical Hacker Qualifications
Besides having a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, a professional ethical hacker should have plenty of experience in the area of network security, as well as a thorough understanding of various computer operating systems and the latest penetration software.
Getting Certification as an Ethical Hacker
The employers hiring for many positions in this field require or prefer that you have a Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification from the International Council of Electronic Commerce Consultants. Getting certified as an ethical hacker requires you to pass a four-hour, 125-question multiple-choice exam that covers topics such as information security threats, attack detection and prevention and the methodologies used in different kinds of cyberattacks. If you want to achieve the next level of certification, CEH Master, you will also need to pass a six-hour practical exam.
Just how much does certification matter for ethical hackers? According to a survey by SANS –the most trusted and the largest source for information security training, certification, and research in the world – 81% of respondents who have hiring responsibilities weigh certification in their hiring decisions. Further, certification was a factor used to determine salary increases at the organizations where 41% of the respondents worked.
One way to prepare for the CEH exam and certification process is through the EC-Council’s Certified Ethical Hacker course. This immersive course, which is updated periodically to a new version that covers the latest hacking and information security tools and techniques, will help you learn to better defend against malicious hacking attacks.
If you’re seeking out job roles with a broader focus beyond ethical hacking, like network or system administrator, you’re less likely to find that not having the Certified Ethical Hacker credential will hold you back in your career than if you were applying specifically to jobs like penetration tester, vulnerability tester or cybersecurity specialist.
How to Become a Hacker for the FBI
The FBI employs ethical hacking professionals in the cyber squads in their Cyber Crime unit. The requirements to work in the FBI’s Cyber Crime division are similar to the general requirements for ethical hackers, such as a computer science or other computer-related bachelor’s degree, according to The Houston Chronicle. Advanced degrees are fairly common among FBI Cyber Division employees, and having one can boost your salary potential in accordance with the federal government’s General Schedule (GS) payscale. Work opportunities at the FBI are competitive, so you must have experience that outshines that of other candidates – particularly in competencies such as system and network administration and security, digital data analysis and preservation and the development and implementation of custom digital investigative tools.
One big difference between ethical hacker requirements for the FBI and those for other roles in this field is the significance of the background check. If you want to work for the FBI, you generally need a clean record that will allow you to pass the background check and attain Top Secret-SCI clearance. While private companies may accept an ethical hacker who only turned to lawful cyber security work following a checkered past that includes black hat hacking, the FBI’s strict background check requirements could keep you out of the agency if you previously used your computer knowledge in less noble ways.
Aside from having the technical skills and experience in computer science, aspiring FBI ethical hackers should have skills in problem-solving, analytical thinking, interpersonal communication and general technology awareness.
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