Home Features The 7 Steps of Ethical Hacking

The 7 Steps of Ethical Hacking

Most companies don’t need a full-time team of ethical hackers in-house, so this is a cost efficient way to get expertise within the financial constraints of your business.

To beat hackers at their own game, you need to think like them. They’re going to probe your software systems to find security vulnerabilities; you need to do this too.


If you’re like most people, you struggle to understand how attackers think, how they operate, and how they break systems. Worst of all, you may struggle to know what to do about it.

Believe it or not, there’s a method to the madness, and I’m going to show you exactly what it is.

By Ted Harrington, Bestselling author and Executive Partner at Independent Security Evaluators

1Step One: Hire an External Security Partner

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Your first step is to hire an external security partner to do the hacking. You might think “we can handle this in-house,” but your ethical hackers offer several unique benefits.

You want complete independence. An external expert provides an unbiased view; they’ll tell you exactly how it is, even if it isn’t what you want to hear. They didn’t build your code, so they have no attachment to it.

By hiring an external partner, you capitalize on subject matter expertise that you probably don’t have in-house. You get both the breadth and depth that come with a diverse team of experts, which most companies don’t staff in-house. And you get all of that when you need it, and don’t pay for it when you don’t. Most companies don’t need a full-time team of ethical hackers in-house, so this is a cost-efficient way to get expertise within the financial constraints of your business.

Beware, however, that not all partners are the same. Specializations and levels of skill vary widely, so make sure to vet potential security partners in order to hire the specialization and skills you need (if you struggle with this part, chapter 1 of Hackable explains in-depth how to do this).

2Step Two: Analyze the Design

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To understand how to break the system, your partner needs to understand how it’s supposed to work. That’s why the next step is to analyze the design.

Your security partner should learn the fundamentals of the software: the features, how users navigate through it, how access is provisioned, and where users can input values. They need to understand why it exists, what business problems it solves, and what it protects.

They’ll also want to evaluate for design flaws, which are vulnerabilities inherent in the system’s design. Give your partner time to analyze these flaws before moving on.

Unfortunately, many security approaches overlook this step. For example, if your partner is just running an automated scanner and that’s all, it won’t matter how the system works or why it works that way. Yet, the most important vulnerabilities tend to be impacted heavily by those factors.

3Step Three: Run Scans

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Next, your security partner should run scans, which are an efficient and inexpensive way to gain information that helps in later assessment stages. Scans quickly reveal the obvious issues that would require enormous effort to do manually. Most attackers run scans first, so it’s a good idea for you to do this, too. You want to see what they’ll see.

Keep in mind that scanning is not a comprehensive effort to find your security vulnerabilities; it’s just one piece of the overall puzzle. However, many security approaches try to do exactly that. Reject that.

4Step Four: Look for Known Vulnerabilities

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Attackers want the best results for the effort they invest, so the logical place to start is by looking where most people make mistakes. They seek these out as a shortcut to their success. Many software systems suffer the same mistakes, and so attackers explore the likely assumption that yours did too.

To defend successfully, your testing must check for common issues, including things like Injection Attacks, Broken Authentication, and Broken Access Control. This is just a sampling of the ever-evolving types of issues your attackers know to look for. Your security partner should, too.

5Caution: There’s a Capability Gap

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Unfortunately, most security testing calls it quits at this point. Many approaches don’t even hit all of the steps mentioned so far: they rely solely on scans and fail to analyze the design.

The testing discussed so far requires minimal to moderate skill and experience and can be performed with a heavy emphasis on automated tools. But what comes next—the stuff that really matters — requires high skill, deep experience, and a manual emphasis.

When you vet your partner — and then later agree on scope and methodology — make absolutely sure you’re going to be getting everything that comes next. If you won’t, choose a different partner.

Your security partner should go beyond the fundamentals previously discussed and into the advanced tactics we’re about to get into.

6Step Five: Abuse The System’s Functionality

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Now that you’ve made sure to cross the capability gap, the next thing your security partner does is abuse the system’s functionality. This uses an application’s own features in an attack.

An example might be abusing the way a system treats integers: if the system is expecting positive integers, but negative integers are used instead, what happens? Or alternatively, can one user manipulate the password reset functionality to reset passwords for other users, thereby taking over their account?

Attackers want to abuse your system’s functionality. That means you need to have your partner look for this too. By finding these vulnerabilities first, you can fix them and prevent abuse.

There’s no tool for this. You can’t automate it. You must do it manually.

7Step Six: Chain Exploits

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The next step is exploit chaining, which is combining two or more vulnerabilities in order to multiply impact. Like timing jumps on a trampoline with a friend to send each other rocketing to new heights, chaining exploits enables attackers to cause even more damage.

In isolation, a couple of vulnerabilities might not be bad. In combination, they might be catastrophic. Vulnerabilities must be considered in the context of each other, rather than in isolation. Attackers seek to chain exploits, and you should, too. There’s no tool for this. You can’t automate it. You must do it manually.

8Step Seven: Seek the “Unknown Unknowns”

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Lastly, your security partner will want to seek out “unknown unknowns,” which are flaws so unexpected you don’t even consider them.

This comes in numerous forms, including novel versions of common vulnerabilities and previously unknown attack methods. Dealing with unknown unknowns is the absolute pinnacle of security testing. It entails the most important issues you’ll face.

To find the unknown unknowns requires skilled manual investigation. It is the only way to solve this part of the security puzzle, so vet your security partners before any of this work begins and make sure they’re up to the challenge.

9Put it All Together

If you have valuable digital assets that are worth protecting, then you want to make sure you fix your security vulnerabilities before your attackers exploit them. To do that, you need a skilled, external partner helping you by investigating your system with the same malicious viewpoint your attackers would have.

They need to go beyond the basics, and execute the advanced tactics. All of them.

If you get the right partner and have them do the right testing, you’ll know exactly how to deal with your concerns about getting hacked.


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This article was adapted from the book “Hackable” written by Ted Harrington.

About the Author

Ted Harrington is the #1 best-selling author of “Hackable: How to Do Application Security Right,” and is the Executive Partner at Independent Security Evaluators (ISE), the company of ethical hackers famous for hacking cars, medical devices, and password managers.



Views expressed in this article are personal. The facts, opinions, and language in the article do not reflect the views of CISO MAG and CISO MAG does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.