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What's the difference between ethical hacking and penetration testing?

If you’re the kind of person that thrives on problem solving, cracking seemingly unbreakable codes and drinking large amount of black coffee, then you’ve probably already got an interest in a career in ethical hacking.

The terms ‘ethical hacking’ and ‘penetration testing’ are often used interchangeably but there are actually distinct differences between them and they can lead to very different job roles. In this blog we explore the key differences between them and help you to determine which might suit you best.


Ethical Hacking

The best defence is offence – ethical hackers are hired by businesses and organisations to find weakness in their systems that more malicious hackers, black hat hackers, might exploit for monetary gain.

Ethical hacking is the general term used to describe all hacking techniques used to identify security flaws and vulnerabilities in a system. 

As an ethical hacker you could be doing anything from probing and scanning networks, to hacking into social networking accounts and even attempting to con employees to reveal passwords over the phone.


Penetration Testing

In contrast to ethical hacking, as a penetration tester, or pentester as it’s often referred to, you would be trying to find a specific vulnerability in a target environment.

You might be hired by a bank to hack into their mobile application, or hired by a hospital to hack into their online patient record system. These tests will very often be time sensitive.


The key differences

As well as a difference in the scope that you cover, there are also a number of other key differences in roles as an ethical hacker and penetration tester, including:

  • As an ethical hacker you are required to write lengthy, in depth reports illustrating your findings and solution recommendations. This is not required for penetration testing.
  • There is also a lot of legal paper work that is required for ethical hacking, including legal agreements. Again, this is not required for pentesting.
  • As a penetration tester, there is a lot less time to do the work, and less time is required.
  • You need relevant qualifications to do ethical hacking work, however anyone that is familiar with penetration testing can perform a pen test.
  • A pen tester only needs to know about the specific area they are conducting a pen test on, an ethical hacker requires much wider knowledge.
  • An ethical hacker will have access to the entirety of an organisation’s systems in order to carry out their work, a pentester only needs access to the specific area of interest.

Choosing your career

If you want to get into ethical hacking you could very well start as a pentester. There are a number of free tools such as Fiddler, Burp Suite, Wireshark, Kismet and Metasploit, that can be used for smaller pentesting jobs. These can be learned with simple online tutorials and of course, a whole lot of practice.

Many ethical hackers begin their careers with smaller pentester jobs but in order to have a flourishing career in coding, and earn the big bucks, advance to ethical hacking. This is where we at Learning People can help to make your dream of a career in coding come to life.

To discover how to take the next steps, read more about the fantastic courses that hundreds of the best in the business have taken. Fancy a chat? Give us a call on 01273 907 919 and we can help you to work out the right path for you today.