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The difference between ethical hacking & penetration testing

When discussing security testing, the terms ‘ethical hacking’ and ‘penetration testing’ are used interchangeably. It’s important to recognise the differences between the two approaches, as they are used for different objectives.

If you are responsible for Cyber Security, you’ll need to understand the clear distinctions. Otherwise, you may end up investing in a service which doesn’t meet your security needs.

Let’s examine the similarities and differences between the two, and help you decide the most suitable service for your brand.

What is ethical hacking?

The aim of ethical hacking is to uncover security holes in an organisation’s infrastructure. Unlike black hat hackers, they must have prior approval from the firm.

Ethical hackers are often hired when a new system goes live, or after implementing network changes. It’s their job to find weaknesses that could be used for malicious intent.

However, the responsibilities of ethical hackers are not limited to finding vulnerabilities in systems.

They also:

  • Assess and improve security policies
  • Make strategic recommendations
  • Work alongside your IT teams to build your defences.  

The role of an ethical hacker is more varied than a penetration tester. Whilst they do use penetration testing, this is just one of many methods used to uncover vulnerabilities.

‘Ethical hacking’ is an umbrella term used to describe various hacking techniques. It’s not a rigid approach and may involve several of the following tactics:

1. Phishing

Using publicly available resources to research the victim, an ethical hacker can craft convincing phishing campaigns to steal credentials.

2. Sniffing

Using a set of tools, sniffing allows a ‘hacker’ to intercept and monitor network traffic. A packet sniffer can be used to read private data, such as login credentials, financial information, and emails.

3. Manual testing and exploitation

Using a variety of tools, ethical hackers scan and probe networks to identify vulnerabilities. Once a hole is identified, they exploit the weakness to attempt to gain wider network access.

4. Social engineering

Social engineering is used to trick users into revealing confidential information. The ‘attacker’ takes advantage of trust and lack of security awareness to achieve their objectives.

5. Footprinting

This technique involves various tools and methods to gather as much information as possible about a target network. By gaining a deeper understanding of your infrastructure, the aim is to identify a back door to penetrate your systems.

6. SQL injection

An SQL injection attack happens when the user input is improperly validated before using it in an SQL query. When malicious queries are executed in the backend database, it can cause disruptive and damaging results.

What is pen testing?

There are many different types of penetration tests. They are used to determine the security of a specific network, application, or computer system.

The technical scope is defined by the client at the beginning of the assessment. This outlines what systems should and shouldn’t be tested, and the agreed methods to follow. Within the set of defined parameters, the consultant tests the security controls and exploits the weaknesses.

After the test, a report is created summarising the results, listing any vulnerabilities, classifying their risk, and providing suggestions for fixes. A risk score is generated by understanding the value of the business assets tested, and the impact of a cyber attack.

Many businesses undertake penetration tests to comply with laws and legislations. For example, NHS trusts are required to follow the guidance outlined in the DSP Toolkit, this recommends at least one annual penetration test.

The key differences between ethical hacking and penetration testing

Ethical hackers and penetration testers both have important roles in the security sphere. Let’s breakdown the key differences between them.

1. Different knowledge is required: Pen testers need advanced knowledge of the areas their tests target. Ethical hackers need comprehensive knowledge of real world attacks, as well as staying current with the latest tools and techniques.

2.  Short term versus long term: A penetration test is a short-term assessment, while ethical hackers are usually hired for a longer, more comprehensive evaluation.

3. Ethical hackers are more hands on: Penetration testers are not responsible for incident handling or remediations. Ethical hackers are much more hands on, they are often required to assist defensive teams with breach response and containment.

4. Narrow scope versus holistic assessment: Penetration testers assess the security of a specific application, network or system defined by the client. Whereas ethical hackers are not restricted by a scoping document. They use multiple techniques and attack vectors to assess the security of your entire business.

5. Ethical hackers provide strategic guidance: Ethical hackers use penetration testing for diagnosing security flaws in your IT ecosystem. However, once a vulnerability is discovered, they are more focussed on building and improving your overall security strategy. In contrast, penetration testers are more focussed on finding and exploiting weaknesses. They do not fix vulnerabilities or provide security advice.

6. More authorisation is required for ethical hackers: Penetration testers need client authorisation to test a small, targeted area of your infrastructure. Ethical hackers need permissions and access to a wide range of systems. This requires extensive legal agreements.

Ethical hacking or penetration testing: Which service is right for your business?

Ethical hackers and penetration testers both play important roles in identifying security vulnerabilities. They have many differences, but are closely linked.

Ethical hacking is a much broader form of security assessment. They are free to utilise a variety of tactics used by malicious hackers to gain access to systems. They cover every aspect of your data security including internal and external networks, applications, physical security, and social engineering all either, black, grey or white testing.

Whereas penetration testing focusses on a more specific area. Pen testers are more restricted as they have a specific scope, clearly defined objectives and tighter timeframes.

Still unsure about which service is right for your business needs? If you would like to speak to our team of security testers and ethical hackers, you can call us on 0121 663 0055, start a live chat or email

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