A wise person once said that there are two kinds of companies: Those that have been breached and those that don’t know they have been breached.

At least, they don’t know yet. And by the time they do find out they’ve been victimized, it’s probably too late to control the damage.

Fortunately, there is a way to stay ahead of security problems that can compromise your reputation and your bottom line: Seed your security staff with ethical hackers or budget to contract for such services at least once a year.

The role of an ethical hacker is to think like an unethical one, digging deep into the IT environment to find – and address – security holes before the black-hats can take advantage of them. You may want to consider specifying that candidates for an in-house job, or employees from a third-party security firm, are certified ethical hackers. Anyone can call themselves an ethical hacker, after all, but a certification behind that moniker helps validate an individual’s real skills and abilities. Your business is too important to leave vulnerability assessments and penetration testing to grown-up script kiddies who want to do “good” hacking, but who may actually do damage because they don’t understand the tools they’re using. 

The EC-Council (The International Council of E-Commerce Consultants) is the home of the Certified Ethical Hacking and Countermeasures (CEH) security certification, which I’m proud to have been granted in 2006. Earning the certification entails learning how the bad guys actually breach an organization’s defenses, gaining first-hand knowledge of their tools and techniques in order to employ them for good. Certified ethical hackers also must understand that they are to deploy their knowledge for good and will obtain the organization’s explicit consent prior to traipsing across its systems and networks.  

Certified Ethical Hackers At Work

The decision to hire internal ethical hacking experts versus outsourcing the task to a contractor depends largely on the size and scope of a business and the risks to which it is prone. Most large financial firms, for example, have a cadre of ethical hackers on-hand to constantly evaluate potential threats and explore how vulnerabilities can be exploited. Tests might always be ongoing on their most high-risk systems, for instance, to ensure a hole never opens.

Having in-house staff with these skills makes sense when you have a big X painted on your back as being a prime cybercrime target. Hiring full-time certified ethical hackers also is a good idea if changes to networks or systems are pervasive at your organization, whatever industry you’re in, since any alterations can open up new vulnerabilities.

However your business might source ethical hacking talent, one thing is certain: You are only as good as your last penetration tests. These tests are a series of attempts by on-staff or contracted ethical hackers to break into a corporate network and systems to see how they can exploit the holes identified in vulnerability assessments. Their means of entry run the gamut from using the Internet (Google Hacking), to remote access scenarios, to social engineering techniques directed at employees.

Penetration test efforts extend even to having ethical hackers physically enter the premises, disguised perhaps as a repair-person, to find open wired network connections they can plug into, or untended and unsecured PCs where they can install tools to capture passwords and gain network access.

The reason for trying all these doors, so to speak, is simple: The evil-doers need only find one way in, but the protectors need to put up roadblocks in every possible path. Admittedly, penetration testing is risky business, because production systems might break during the efforts. Some certified ethical hackers try to avoid creating problems for the business by conducting their tests during off-hours, or they may even build test systems that replicate real-world environments.

How long penetration testing takes varies depending on whether everything is being tested or just a subset of systems, but three to four weeks is not uncommon for a specific project. At the end of an effort, certified ethical hackers will disclose security problems to management and help them understand the risks each one creates as it relates to business impact.

Be prepared: An organization may well be presented with an intimidating list of dozens of security issues. The good news is that the top five or so identified on that list may represent the main avenues into the corporate environment, and fixing these may greatly reduce the need to address the other issues post-haste.

 When you bring certified ethical hacking into your organization, the opportunity is there to be a third kind of company: The kind that isn’t going to let a breach happen without putting up one heck of a fight.