Ethical Hacking for Beginners: Learn the Basics
If you’re interested in learning hacking skills or pursuing a career in ethical hacking, you’re in the right place.
The field of ethical hacking, also called penetration testing or pen testing, is a dynamic and fast-paced industry. Professional hackers constantly face new problems to solve, making this an exciting, challenging, and rewarding career path. This career requires you to be continually learning and studying to keep up with advancements in technology, cybersecurity, and hacking techniques. Becoming a skilled hacker can lead to a lucrative career in cybersecurity, as many large companies now hire ethical hackers to help keep their systems secure.
Last Updated March 2023
Become an ethical hacker that can hack computer systems like black hat hackers and secure them like security experts. | By Zaid Sabih, z SecurityExplore Course
To start, let’s dive into what hacking is and what it means to be a hacker.
What is hacking?
Hacking is gaining unauthorized access to a system. Hackers do this through a number of methods, which mainly fall into two categories: exploiting security vulnerabilities or weaknesses in the target system and exploiting the system users through social engineering. Therefore hacking can include both technical strategies and social engineering techniques — in which a hacker uses psychology to trick human users into opening malicious software or providing key information. In many cases, hacking involves a combination of the two.
Hacking can be legal or illegal, depending on the hacker’s motivations and whether they have permission from the device owner to hack it. Either way, hacking into a device is always considered “unauthorized” access, simply meaning that the hacker gained access to the system through unintended channels.
Illegal hacking is when a person uses hacking for a malicious purpose, such as to collect confidential information, compromise an organization’s success, or hold data for ransom as a method of financial gain.
Legal hacking, also known as penetration testing or ethical hacking, is when companies hire a person to purposefully hack into their computer systems as a way of revealing any existing vulnerabilities and devising solutions to make the systems more secure. An ethical hacker’s job is to combat and prevent malicious hackers from illegally accessing a company’s systems.
What are black hat hackers and white hat hackers?
Hackers are often represented in the media as evildoers bent on stealing money and personal information from individuals and businesses. These types of hackers are referred to as black hat hackers in the cybersecurity world — they engage in hacking illegally and with malicious intent.
In reality, most hackers are simply people who love learning about computers and are doing their hacking legally, as a career in the cybersecurity field. Typically, these are categorized as white hat hackers. White hat hackers are ethical hackers, also called penetration testers. They have permission from the owners of the devices they hack and usually earn money from finding weaknesses and strengthening computer systems.
What does it take for a beginner to become an ethical hacker?
Hacking or pen testing requires both technical knowledge and an understanding of psychology and social engineering.
On the technical side, to become a professional hacker, you will need to learn about the following key topics (ordered by importance):
- Basic IT and computer skills
- Computer networking
- Linux operating system (OS)
- Web applications and websites
For beginners, you don’t need to worry about mastering all of these topics at once. Beginner’s courses will cover the necessary basics as you go through the course. With the right lessons, you’ll learn the above skills gradually while you learn hacking.
Basic IT and computer skills
To start your journey in becoming an ethical hacker, you need to be comfortable with computers and have basic operating system (OS) skills. For instance, you should understand and be able to install and remove software, edit system settings, debug issues, and so on. These fundamental skills provide a foundation for all hacking education. You cannot proceed to learn the rest of the required skills for ethical hacking without first knowing these primary IT skills.
Learning about computer networking is important because most devices these days are connected to some sort of network, and those networks often become the targets of cyberattacks. Taking courses in computer networking will give you an understanding of how computers communicate across networks. This will help you understand how networks can become an entry point for malicious hackers and what measures you can use to protect networks and make them more secure.
Every hacker should spend some time learning the Linux operating system (OS). Linux is an open-source operating system that servers of all types can use, including website servers. This makes Linux a popular target for malicious (black hat) hackers. Thus, ethical hackers should become familiar with the workings of Linux and Linux-based servers. In your career as a hacker, many of the companies that you work with will be using Linux.
Linux is also the favorite operating system for hackers because of its open-source nature and the number of hacking tools that run on it. One of the most popular hacking operating systems is Kali Linux — a specially-tuned Linux operating system for hackers. It contains a large number of pre-installed and pre-configured hacking tools that you can leverage.
While Windows OS is less popular in the hacker community, you may consider learning Windows as you advance in your hacking skills. Many of the world’s largest organizations run on Windows and need cybersecurity experts with Windows OS experience.
Web applications and websites
Because websites and web applications are extremely popular methods for finding and sharing information on the internet, they are also popular targets for cyberattacks. Learning how to hack websites and how to secure them from hackers is essential for an ethical hacker. Every modern company will have at least one website where they share important data or collect data from their web visitors.
It is possible to learn how to hack without knowing how to program. However, learning programming will make it far easier for you to succeed. Almost all hacking techniques require a knowledge of programming.
Of course, you can use all of the above languages to write your own programs — there is no one-size-fits-all. Choosing the right programming language to learn depends on the reason you want to learn programming in the first place. The following languages are the most common among hackers:
- Python: If you have absolutely no programming experience, Python is an excellent place to begin. It is a relatively forgiving programming language that is powerful enough to create standalone desktop applications, and you can even use it as a scripting language. Thousands of resources are available online to learn Python. Many hacking tools are Python-based, so you will have access to existing libraries and code that you can leverage. This makes Python a favorite programming language for hackers. That’s why there are courses specially made to teach both Python programming and ethical hacking at the same time!
- Ruby: This is another easy to learn yet powerful programming language that hackers love. Learning Ruby will enable you to write your own hacking programs. The creators of Metasploit Framework (a hugely popular penetration testing framework) wrote the platform in Ruby. Just as with learning Python, you’ll be able to improve and edit existing tools and programs written in this language, including the Metasploit Framework.
- C and C++: Although these languages may take a bit more time to master, knowing how to program in C++ and C is extremely valuable for hackers. Most operating systems, including Windows, rely on these languages. Many programs are written in C and C++, making these essential if you’re planning on getting involved in exploit development or reverse engineering.
Cryptography describes the process of converting a readable piece of data (such as text or numerical data) into a non-readable format to send it between devices or networks without a third party being able to understand it even if they manage to read it.
It’s important for hackers to understand different encryption methods and learn their weaknesses in order to test networks and communication channels and secure them from black hat hackers.
This is important not just to combat malicious hackers but also to prevent information from being leaked — whether on purpose or unintentionally — by people within an organization.
Social engineering and psychology
Some hackers use advanced technical methods to find weaknesses where they can access a system. Other hackers use psychology techniques to target humans. Malicious hackers have implemented tricks to coax human users into sharing passwords (or other personal and confidential information) with a third party, which they then use to access a system. Think of this like a robber tricking a person into giving them a key to their front door — it can be much easier than finding a stealthy way to break into the locked house.
Hackers may also use fake emails, landing pages, and digital ads to trick people into clicking on an attachment or a link that contains malware. In a strategy called phishing, hackers pose as a coworker, boss, or friend and design an email that looks as if a person the recipient knows or an official organization is the sender. Hackers are able to write and design emails that look convincing to trick users into clicking on something that harms their device or allows the hacker to access their information.
Therefore, ethical hackers must also study psychology and social engineering tactics like phishing to understand how best to combat these techniques. In many cases, human users are the most vulnerable part of a company’s computer systems, as humans are less predictable than computers. Ethical hackers, or penetration testers, may be tasked with conducting an “approved” phishing attack or creating fake landing pages to try to successfully trick human users into falling for the attack. This helps a company identify areas where they may need increased cybersecurity training for their team members or how they can improve their internal policies and procedures to handle data safely.
What is a good way for beginners to start learning hacking?
To pursue a career in hacking, it can be beneficial to get a degree in computer programming, computer science, computer engineering, or a number of other technical fields. However, you don’t necessarily need a degree in order to become a professional ethical hacker.
Landing a job as a hacker is more about displaying your skills and in-depth knowledge of computer systems than carrying a specific degree or certification.
For beginners, the best route to start learning to hack is to look online. There are plenty of videos, tutorials, workshops, and online courses that will teach you hacking from scratch from the comfort of your home and on your own schedule. Start by finding courses that focus on just the basics to grasp the core aspects of hacking. It’s important to have a strong understanding of the fundamentals before diving into more complicated hacking techniques. Once you develop a fair amount of knowledge and experience, you can move on to learning about highly specific hacking tactics and cybersecurity methods — either on your own or through more advanced courses.
Even after working in the field as an ethical hacker, you should continue seeking new books and resources to learn from to stay up-to-date with the latest technical information on vulnerabilities and ways to exploit them.
Hacking is a skill that you can never truly master because the world of hacking is always advancing, evolving, and growing. Your work as a hacker is never done. You will always need to stay updated with the new techniques, tips, and tricks along the way.
Ethical hacking is a fun and interesting experience — something you can carry with you throughout your lifetime. It can be exciting to hack a website or server for noble purposes and to hone your skills to the point where you’re always one step ahead of those who intend to do harm.
Additionally, hacking skills translate very well across a number of roles in computer security, making it a lucrative career choice. The skills you learn as you hone your hacking prowess are in high demand by companies around the world, as they look for new ways to protect their users and information from black hat hackers.
Most importantly, enjoy the experience of learning how to hack computer systems. Have fun learning and applying new techniques, and you will find yourself among the hacking elite in no time.
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