Organizations will often employ professionals called ethical hackers to test their systems for weaknesses. These individuals use vulnerability assessment and penetration testing (VAPT) procedures to identify and address security vulnerabilities in the system. Unlike malicious hackers, ethical hackers work with the permission of the system owner to improve security. Their goal is to discover and fix weaknesses before malicious hackers can exploit them, helping organizations strengthen their overall cybersecurity. Ethical hacking is a proactive approach to cybersecurity that involves conducting controlled and authorized penetration testing to identify and resolve potential security risks.
There are several methods used in ethical hacking, including reconnaissance, scanning, exploitation and post-exploitation.
Reconnaissance is one method of information gathering and is a crucial phase in ethical hacking. It involves the hacker collecting information about a target system, network or organization, which helps the ethical hacker understand the target’s environment and identify potential vulnerabilities.
The objective of passive reconnaissance is to gather information without directly interacting with the target. The hacker will use publicly available sources such as search engines, social media, WHOIS databases and public records to obtain information. Examples of passive reconnaissance include scanning websites, social media profiles or domain registration details to gather data without actively engaging with the target.
Some common methods of scanning websites include Google dorking, Google alerts, metadata analysis, open-source intelligence tools (OSINT), social media analysis and WHOIS lookup.
Google dorking and alerts
Ethical hackers use advanced search operators and specific search queries to find information that may not be easily accessible through conventional searches. This can include sensitive files, login pages or other system-related data.
Professional hackers may set up Google Alerts to receive notifications when new information related to the target, such as software vulnerabilities or discussions on forums, becomes available online.
Metadata refers to data that provides information about other data, so it’s essentially data about data. Metadata offers context and details about a particular piece of information, helping users understand, organize and manage data more effectively. Examining the metadata of documents and files available online can reveal hidden information about software versions, authors and other details that might be useful in understanding the target system. Some types of metadata are descriptive, which describes the content of the data, including titles, abstracts, keywords and other information that summarizes the content. Another type is structural, which describes how the components of the data are organized or related, such as indicating the order of chapters or sections.
Administrative metadata provides information about the creation, management and use of the data, which can include details such as file formats, access rights and creation dates. Another type is technical metadata, which describes the technical aspects of the data, such as file size, resolution or encoding format, and provides an understanding of how the data is stored and formatted. The final type is rights metadata, which specifies information about the intellectual property rights or usage permissions associated with the data. This is particularly important for digital content and ensures compliance with copyright laws.
Open-source intelligence tools (OSINT)
OSINT tools are software or applications designed to collect and analyze information from publicly available sources. These tools assist in gathering data from a variety of online channels, including websites, social media platforms and public records. OSINT tools are widely used by security professionals, investigators and ethical hackers to assist in information gathering and analysis. Ethical hackers use specialized OSINT tools to automate the process of collecting information from various online sources, including search engines. These tools aggregate and analyze data to provide a comprehensive view of the target.
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Social media analysis
Information shared on social media platforms can be valuable. Ethical hackers may analyze public profiles, posts and interactions to gather insights about the target organization, employees and potential security weaknesses. Ethical hackers use social media analysis as part of their reconnaissance phase to gather information about a target and identify potential vulnerabilities in systems.
Ethical hackers examine public profiles of individuals associated with the target organization. This is called profile enumeration, and includes employees, executives and sometimes third-party contractors. Information such as job titles, roles and responsibilities can provide insights into potential points of entry.
Connection mapping and analysis
Analyzing social connections between individuals within and outside the organization helps ethical hackers understand the network structure. This can reveal relationships that might be exploited, intentionally or unintentionally, to gain unauthorized access.
Monitoring the online behavior of employees can reveal patterns that can be leveraged for social engineering attacks. Ethical hackers might look for information such as common interests, frequently used hashtags or details about work-related activities.
Some social media platforms allow users to share their location. Ethical hackers can analyze geotagged posts to identify the physical locations of offices or facilities, which may be relevant when assessing the organization’s overall security.
Information leakage and phishing
Employees might inadvertently disclose sensitive information on social media. Ethical hackers look for posts, images and comments that reveal details about internal processes, technologies in use and upcoming projects. This is an integral part of cybersecurity and keeping an organization’s system safe.
Social media analysis can provide information that helps ethical hackers craft more convincing phishing attacks. Understanding the tone, language and communication style of employees can enhance the effectiveness of social engineering attempts.
Monitoring social media for accounts impersonating the target organization helps ethical hackers identify potential risks related to brand integrity. This includes phishing attempts, fake customer support accounts and misinformation campaigns.
Gathering information about domain registration through WHOIS lookup services helps ethical hackers identify details about the domain owner, registration dates, and sometimes contact information. Hackers use WHOIS lookup as part of passive reconnaissance to gather information about domain registrations and ownership details. WHOIS provides a publicly accessible database of domain registration information, and ethical hackers use this data to understand the ownership, registration history and contact details associated with a domain.
Identifying domain ownership
Ethical hackers use WHOIS lookup to identify the individual or organization that owns a particular domain. This information is valuable for understanding the entities involved in a target’s online presence. WHOIS records often include contact details of the domain registrant, including an administrative contact, technical contact and sometimes the registrar. Ethical hackers can use this information to reach out to responsible parties if needed, such as reporting security vulnerabilities or seeking additional information.
WHOIS also provides information about when a domain was registered and when it is set to expire. Ethical hackers can use this data to assess the age of a domain, which might be relevant in understanding the stability or potential risks associated with it. Records include details about the domain’s name servers. Ethical hackers can use this information to understand the hosting infrastructure and potentially identify other related domains or services. These records also keep historical information about changes in domain registration details. Ethical hackers may review historical records to identify any changes in ownership, which could be indicative of organizational restructuring or potential security issues.
WHOIS lookup can provide information about the IP addresses associated with a domain. This can be useful in mapping out the online infrastructure related to the target. By utilizing WHOIS lookup as part of passive reconnaissance, ethical hackers can gather valuable information about a target’s online presence without directly interacting with the target. This information helps in building a comprehensive understanding of the target’s digital footprint, which is crucial for identifying potential vulnerabilities and planning subsequent phases of ethical hacking engagements.
The objective of active reconnaissance is to collect information by directly interacting with the target. The hacker will use tools and techniques to actively probe the target’s systems, networks and applications for information. Examples of active reconnaissance include network scanning, port scanning and vulnerability scanning to identify live hosts, open ports and potential weaknesses. Reconnaissance is a legitimate and crucial step to understand the target environment thoroughly and helps ethical hackers identify potential attack vectors, weaknesses and areas where further penetration testing can be conducted.
Scanning is a crucial methodology used by ethical hackers during the information gathering and vulnerability assessment phases of penetration testing. This process involves actively probing a target system, network or application to identify open ports, services and potential vulnerabilities. Here’s how ethical hackers use scanning as part of their methodology:
This type of scanning is used to Identify live hosts and devices on a network. By using tools such as ping sweeps and network scanners to discover active hosts, hackers can map out the network’s topology.
Port scanning is used to identify open ports on target systems using tools such as Nessus to scan for open ports. Knowing which ports are open is key to understanding the services running on a system and potential entry points for attackers.
Service enumeration is used to identify the services and protocols running on open ports using tools to query open ports to determine the type and version of services. This information is vital for assessing the potential vulnerabilities associated with specific services.
This type of scanning is used to Identify known vulnerabilities in target systems by using scanning tools to search for weaknesses in the target’s software, operating systems and configurations. This helps prioritize security risks for further investigation.
Operating system fingerprinting
Operating system fingerprinting is used to identify the operating system and the version running on a target system. By using tools like OS fingerprinting in Nmap, ethical hackers determine the operating system type and version. This information is valuable for tailoring subsequent attacks on the target environment.
Banner grabbing is used to obtain information about the software version and configuration of network services. Ethical hackers use tools to capture banners or information provided by network services which aids in understanding the specific software versions in use and guides further exploitation attempts.
Firewall and IDS/IPS detection
This type of scanning is used to identify the presence of firewalls or intrusion detection/prevention systems. Scanning tools can help ethical hackers determine if there are network security devices in place, which is critical information for understanding the level of protection and potential evasion techniques.
Exploitation is a phase in the ethical hacking methodology during which security professionals attempt to actively take advantage of identified vulnerabilities in a system, network or application.
Identifying and prioritizing vulnerabilities
The objective of this phase is to evaluate the severity and potential impact of identified vulnerabilities by using information from vulnerability assessments to prioritize which vulnerabilities to exploit. They consider factors such as the risk level, potential consequences and relevance to the target environment.
Ethical hackers research exploits to find or develop exploits for specific vulnerabilities from public databases, security forums or exploit databases. In some cases, they may develop custom exploits tailored to the target’s unique characteristics.
Exploiting systems help ethical hackers gain unauthorized access or control over the target system and use exploitative tools or scripts to target vulnerabilities. This may involve taking advantage of weaknesses in software, misconfigurations or leveraging vulnerabilities in specific services to gain access to the system.
The objective of privilege escalation is to increase the level of access to compromise sensitive data or gain control over the system. Ethical hackers attempt to escalate their privileges within the compromised system. This could involve exploiting additional vulnerabilities or leveraging misconfigurations to gain higher levels of access.
The objective of maintaining access is to establish persistence to maintain control over the compromised system. Ethical hackers may install backdoors or create persistent connections to ensure continued access even after initial exploitation, which helps simulate the tactics of real attackers who aim to maintain long-term control.
Post-exploitation is a phase in ethical hacking that occurs after a system has been successfully compromised. During this phase, ethical hackers aim to assess the impact of the compromise, gather additional information and understand the extent of the security breach. Here’s how post-exploitation is used as a methodology:
The objective of information gathering is to collect information about the compromised system, network or application by exploring the compromised environment to gather details such as user accounts, system configurations, network layouts and sensitive data. This information helps in understanding the target’s infrastructure.
The objective of privilege escalation is to increase the level of access within the compromised environment. Ethical hackers may attempt to escalate privileges further, seeking access to more critical systems or sensitive data. This simulates the actions of real attackers who aim to gain higher levels of control.
Ethical hackers move laterally within the network to compromise additional systems to explore the network, identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities in other connected systems. This helps assess the potential for compromising more targets within the organization.
Data exfiltration attempts to extract sensitive data from the compromised environment. Ethical hackers simulate the actions of malicious actors by attempting to exfiltrate or access sensitive information. This helps evaluate the risk of data breaches and understand the potential impact on the organization.
The objective is to establish persistence to maintain long-term control over the compromised systems. This may be done by installing backdoors, creating additional user accounts or employing other techniques to ensure continued access even after the initial compromise. This helps assess the organization’s ability to detect and respond to ongoing threats.
Documentation and reporting
It is crucial to document findings and provide a comprehensive report to the organization. Ethical hackers compile detailed reports outlining the vulnerabilities exploited, the extent of the compromise and recommendations for improving security. This information is crucial to allowing the organization to remediate identified weaknesses.
Ethical hackers play a crucial role in enhancing cybersecurity and protecting digital assets. Through methods such as reconnaissance, scanning, exploitation and post-exploitation, they emulate a real-world attack on a system to find vulnerabilities and provide solutions to fix them.