Penetration Testing: Hacking for a Cause

Imagine you’re on your way to work. Your train is running late. While waiting on the platform, you whip out your smart phone to make a quick call to the office. Then, you pass some time by updating your Facebook status, logging on to your bank’s Web site to pay bills and checking the weather forecast for the weekend. You suddenly remember it’s your sister’s birthday tomorrow, so you go online to buy flowers to be delivered to her home. Just as you’re clicking “complete purchase,” you hear the rumbling of the train as it pulls into the station. And that’s all before your morning cup of joe.

Our world today is run by networks. We communicate with various technological devices, and these devices communicate with each other. As a result, unprecedented amounts of data — much of it sensitive — are floating about in a virtual world. Without appropriate gatekeepers, these networks could open up users to a world of trouble.

Enter the penetration tester: This IT professional serves as a kind of digital spy, deliberately hacking into companies’ networks to identify weaknesses and fix them, preferably before an actual breach occurs.

“You’ve got to switch your white hat into a black hat,” explained Billy Austin, chief security officer for Saint Corp., a provider of network vulnerability assessment and penetration testing services. “Due to the daunting number of vulnerabilities that come out on a daily basis, we understand that just identifying the vulnerabilities is not good enough. What…


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