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In a few short years, the world of cybersecurity has changed significantly. What was once simply protecting corporate networks has become a multimillion-dollar industry with its own set of rules and regulations.

Roughly two years ago, cybersecurity became ground-zero for the COVID-19 pandemic, when virtually every corner of the internet sprang up as a source of potential medical treatments and cures. Now that the world has hopefully settled down once again, we’re taking a look back at the highs and lows of 2020 and how cybersecurity and white hat hacking changed as a result.

Cybersecurity Changes

Since its inception, cybersecurity has evolved from simply securing corporate networks to a sophisticated industry with its own set of regulations, policies, and best practices. This is largely thanks to a few key factors, including:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic that began in early 2020 and put a significant strain on global cybersecurity resources.
  • The increasing sophistication of attackers, who have become far more difficult to catch and contain due to exponentially growing trends in AI, ML, and automation.
  • The rapid rise of public-facing internet of things (IoT) devices, such as Alexa, Google Home, and others, that provide easy access to sensitive information.
  • An escalating arms race between cybersecurity companies and nation-states, who are increasingly investing in advanced AI and machine learning to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

These factors made 2020 a crucial year for cybersecurity. Companies that were unable to keep up with the evolving demands of this ever-changing industry faced extinction. Fortunately, many were able to pivot and forge a new identity as a result of the pandemic. Today, as we enter the second half of the year, cybersecurity is a thriving industry, with many promising startups establishing themselves as leaders in the field and public-facing companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft investing heavily in this area. Even enterprise software companies like Salesforce and Oracle have responded to the changing demands of security professionals with new security solutions.

White Hat Hacking Changes

While cybersecurity became a hot-button issue in 2020, the ethical hacking community didn’t take long to react. Faced with the overwhelming demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, many hackers saw an opportunity to make a buck and turned to freelance hacking and white hacking (or ethical hacking) to establish themselves as specialists in this area.

White hat hackers are generally regarded as hackers that work independently and without malicious intent, testing the security of companies and organizations to find vulnerabilities and then reporting those vulnerabilities to the company so they can be fixed. In some cases, white hat hackers can be paid for their services, but more often than not, the value they provide is invaluable—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when so many traditional security professionals are struggling to find work.

The growing demand for white hat hackers saw freelance opportunities rocket up by 400% in early April as businesses across the world sought to quickly establish an in-house cybersecurity team to deal with the growing number of attacks. As the demand for white hat hackers grew, so did the number of scammers looking to capitalize on the shortage. Naturally, many in the industry became wary of so-called “white hat” hackers, since there is no regulation or governing body overseeing this area. This suspicion turned into near-hysteria in late April when, following a spate of attacks that left hundreds of thousands of Americans without power for hours on end, the FBI issued a warning about the “rampant” criminal activity surrounding ethical hacking. The warning was later rescinded, but it didn’t take long for the ethical hacking community to re-establish its credibility.

The Rise Of “Black Hat”

While many see ethical hacking as a relatively “clean” space compared to the rest of the cybersecurity industry, the opposite is true. In early 2021, as the demand for ethical hackers soared, so did the prices of some of the more “popular” black hat hacker tools, such as SQL injection and Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) kits.

As a result of the pandemic, many traditional security professionals flocked to the dark side, looking for a way to make some extra cash. Naturally, those seeking to break the law and engage in malicious activity found a surge in demand as well. This phenomenon became so prevalent that the cybersecurity industry has begun to see it as a trend as opposed to a short-lived crisis. As a result, many in the industry are now seeking to capitalize on this demand and have begun to take on more of a “black hat” approach, utilizing toolsets associated with “crime” and “prowling” as opposed to “white hat” hacking and security audits.

It’s worth noting that not everyone in the cybersecurity industry has switched to a “black hat” approach. Some security professionals still believe that white hat hacking is the best way to go, but those seeking additional ways to make money have found a lucrative market in selling criminally-oriented tools to hack into networks and systems. This trend has raised some eyebrows among ethical hackers, who worry that the line between “white hat” and “black hat” hacking may become increasingly blurred as more and more security professionals take up the practice, leading to a complete lack of ethical guidelines and potentially dangerous situations.

The future of cybersecurity is unquestionably exciting. As the industry continues to evolve and change, so too will the ways in which professionals in this space try to leverage that change for their benefit. While many in the industry have adapted to the new normal and turned to criminal activity, the ethical hacking community continue to strive to provide a safe and secure space for companies and organizations to operate within.