With the growth of the Internet, computer security has become a major concern for businesses and governments. They want to be able to take advantage of the Internet for electronic commerce, advertising, information distribution and access, and other pursuits, but they are worried about the possibility of being “hacked.” At the same time, the potential customers of these services are worried about maintaining control of personal information that varies from credit card numbers to social security numbers and home addresses.
In their search for a way to approach the problem, organizations came to realize that one of the best ways to evaluate the intruder threat to their interests would be to have independent computer security professionals attempt to break into their computer systems. This scheme is similar to having independent auditors come into an organization to verify its bookkeeping records. In the case of computer security, these “tiger teams” or “ethical hackers” would employ the same tools and techniques as the intruders, but they would neither damage the target systems nor steal information. Instead, they would evaluate the target systems' security and report back to the owners with the vulnerabilities they found and instructions for how to remedy them.
This method of evaluating the security of a system has been in use from the early days of computers. In one early ethical hack, the United States Air Force conducted a “security evaluation” of the Multics operating systems for “potential use as a two-level (secret/top secret) system.” Their evaluation found that while Multics was “significantly better than other conventional systems,” it also had “ … vulnerabilities in hardware security, software security, and procedural security” that could be uncovered with “a relatively low level of effort.” The authors performed their tests under a guideline of realism, so that their results would accurately represent the kinds of access that an intruder could potentially achieve. They performed tests that were simple information-gathering exercises, as well as other tests that were outright attacks upon the system that might damage its integrity. Clearly, their audience wanted to know both results. There are several other now unclassified reports that describe ethical hacking activities within the U.S. military.
With the growth of computer networking, and of the Internet in particular, computer and network vulnerability studies began to appear outside of the military establishment. Most notable of these was the work by Farmer and Venema, which was originally posted to Usenet in December of 1993. They discussed publicly, perhaps for the first time, this idea of using the techniques of the hacker to assess the security of a system. With the goal of raising the overall level of security on the Internet and intranets, they proceeded to describe how they were able to gather enough information about their targets to have been able to compromise security if they had chosen to do so. They provided several specific examples of how this information could be gathered and exploited to gain control of the target, and how such an attack could be prevented.
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