The role of ethical hacking in protecting domestic networks

Apr 8, 2010

At first the term ethical hacking seems antithetical: how can hacking be ethical? Ethical hacking refers to a group of people hired to hack into a specified industries’ network: the idea being that these so-called “ethical hackers” will be able to expose certain weakness in networks before other hackers with malicious intentions hack their networks.

In the US, hacking is illegal. However, it can be legal if the hacker has a contractual relationship with the targeted organization to hack into its systems.Furthermore, in order for the arrangement to be legal the hacker must be a so-called “Certified Ethical Hacker” – where certification is conditional upon completion of a program and test. The certification is offered by the International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council), a professional organization headquartered in Albuquerque, NM.

Teams of ethical hackers work to figure out the vulnerabilities of a specified industry’s networks. The group is called a “red team,” and it works to find vulnerabilities generally without the advice or knowledge of the industry they’re hired to hack. Sandia Laboratories’ Information Design Assurance Red Team (IDART) has been in place since 1996 and has provided services for the government, military and other industries. The following is their vision of red teaming:

“What exactly is red teaming? Examples of different terms related to red teaming include black, gray, and white hatting; blue teaming, green teaming, and tiger teaming; penetration testing, and vulnerability assessment. Cyber red teaming, especially, has strong ties to both network vulnerability assessment and penetration testing. All these related terms make it difficult and confusing to talk about the knowledge, skills, methods, and tools red teams use in their work.

It is very important to understand what an assessment team means by red teaming. Sandia National Laboratories’ IDART ™ defines red teaming to be ‘authorized, adversary-based assessment for defensive purposes.’”

Other organizations also have their own red teams, one notable is the NSA. The goal of the NSA’s red team is to try and gain unauthorized access to various departments within the Department of Defense. Importantly, red teams cannot do damage to the systems that they are hacking into – that means that they cannot carry out malicious attacks such as viruses, of denial of service attacks.

Ethical hacking and red teaming are critical for cybersecurity in that they provide a way to access, target, and correct the vulnerabilities of domestic networks before they can be hacked by others with malevolent intentions.

Lisa K Domme
Intern, Technology and Public Policy