What Is a White Hat Hacker?
Written by: Hilbert College • Jan 22, 2024
What Is a White Hat Hacker? ¶
Despite increased confidence in their security measures, 50% of organizations still experience cybersecurity incidents, according to a 2023 global report on ransomware from Fortinet. Cybercriminals use traditional attack methods like ransomware and social engineering to gain unauthorized access to computer systems, with the resulting data breaches impacting thousands of organizations and millions of users. With the introduction of generative artificial intelligence (AI), new cybersecurity challenges are emerging. Key areas to watch include the risks associated with unsecured AI and the increased use of manipulated images and videos known as deepfakes.
White hat hackers are known as defenders of computer systems against traditional cyberattack tactics and the latest cybersecurity threats. But what is a white hat hacker? A white hat hacker, also known as an ethical hacker, is a skilled cybersecurity professional with a thorough understanding of computer systems and networks who is dedicated to protecting people, organizations and even countries from digital threats.
What Does a White Hat Hacker Do? ¶
White hat hackers differentiate themselves from black hat hackers who engage in illegal activities. While strictly adhering to ethical standards and legal boundaries, white hat hackers conduct activities to counter the efforts of black hat hackers.
Work Settings for White Hat Hackers ¶
White hat hackers play a vital role in ensuring organizations’ digital security. Their specific responsibilities, primarily performed online, vary across different work settings. They are employed in a number of sectors, including finance, health care and government.
Some white hat hackers work as independent consultants, offering their expertise to multiple clients. Others join cybersecurity firms that specialize in vulnerability assessments, penetration testing and incident response. These firms have teams of skilled hackers who tackle organizations’ diverse security needs. This flexibility allows white hat hackers to choose the work environments that suit their preferences.
Key Job Responsibilities ¶
White hat hackers check an organization’s computer systems and networks to find security weaknesses and look for ways hackers might break in. When they find these weak spots, they report them and suggest ways to fix them. They also help make and improve cybersecurity rules and methods for the organization.
By being part of the process of improving the organization’s cybersecurity, they help ensure their systems are well-protected. White hat hackers also provide the organizations’ employees with information on how to stay safe online.
Following are some examples of what a white hat hacker does:
Penetration Testing. Penetration testing involves simulating real-world cyberattacks to identify system vulnerabilities in order to be able to proactively resolve the issues. This process, often performed by external white hat hackers, brings a fresh perspective that often uncovers overlooked weaknesses, thereby enhancing the system’s security.
Vulnerability Assessments. White hat hackers scan for new software and hardware flaws—over 25,000 were reported in 2022 alone, according to CVE—to identify potential weaknesses before they’re exploited by malicious actors.
Participation in Bug Bounty Programs. White hat hackers participate in “bounty” programs in which they are rewarded for finding and reporting software vulnerabilities. Notable programs have been created by the U.S. Department of Defense, Google, Malwarebytes and OpenAI’s ChatGPT. This practice not only enhances system security but also mitigates cyberattack risks.
Fundamental Skills for White Hat Hackers ¶
For those interested in learning how to start a cybersecurity career and succeed as a white hat hacker, an important step is gaining the right skills, including the ability to do the following:
Work With Various Technologies ¶
White hat hackers must be highly skilled in the following areas:
Programming languages (Python, Java, C++), to understand software, identify vulnerabilities and develop solutions
Networking protocols, to analyze network traffic and spot security loopholes
Databases, to help ensure robust security for company data management
Various operating systems, to identify system-specific vulnerabilities
Web technologies, to secure web applications
Security tools, to aid in risk mitigation
Cryptography, to promote data and communication security
Analyze and Solve Problems ¶
White hat hackers need robust problem-solving skills to address complex, evolving cyberthreats and stay ahead of malicious actors. These skills are key to safeguarding digital environments, as new challenges in protecting computer systems and networks against cyberthreats continuously arise.
Communicate Effectively ¶
White hat hackers must have excellent communication skills, particularly when translating complex technical concepts into understandable terms for nontechnical stakeholders. For example, when presenting their findings from a security audit to a company’s executive team, a white hat hacker needs to effectively communicate the implications of these findings and recommend actionable solutions.
Demonstrate Ethics and Integrity ¶
White hat hackers must have a strong ethical compass and an unwavering commitment to integrity and confidentiality. For instance, when they discover a critical vulnerability in a system, they should responsibly report and address the issue, rather than exploit it for personal gain or allow it to remain unaddressed.
White Hat Hacker Salary and Job Outlook ¶
With cybersecurity threats continuing to multiply, the demand for skilled information security professionals such as white hat hackers is expected to increase. Overall, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 32% job growth for information security analysts from 2022 to 2032.
As the demand for skilled white hat hackers steadily rises, so does their earning potential. According to Payscale, the median annual salary for ethical hackers is around $85,700. An individual’s actual compensation is based on factors such as their location and experience. For instance, the median salary for ethical hackers in New York is nearly 8% higher than the national median, while for those in San Antonio, Texas, it’s 30% lower. And the median salary for entry-level professionals is around $69,000, while for veteran white hat hackers with more than 10 years’ experience it’s around $110,000.
Prepare for a Career as a White Hat Hacker ¶
The growing complexity of cyberattacks means that society can benefit from more white hat hackers serving as guardians of our digital world. Those looking for opportunities to enter the field should consider pursuing a relevant degree. Options include a degree in cybersecurity or computer science.
For those looking to enroll in a cybersecurity program, the online Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity program from Hilbert College Global focuses on helping students develop a firm understanding of technical cybersecurity elements and how to manage these elements. It also teaches integrated ethics, hardware and software systems, and digital forensics and investigations.
Learn how the online BS in Cybersecurity program from Hilbert College Global can help you prepare for a successful career as a white hat hacker.