Ethical or “white hat” hacking is the process of identifying vulnerabilities in computer systems and networks and then using that information to secure them. As new technologies are developed, so too are new ways to exploit them; and with the ubiquity of technology in our everyday lives (think the Internet of Things), it’s no surprise that ethical hacking has become a popular way to make a living.
To stay ahead of the curve, ethical hackers need to be able to adapt and learn new programming languages quickly. But what are the most effective programming languages for ethical hacking? In this article, we’ll take a look at the top three languages that are most commonly used by ethical hackers. We’ll also provide some resources to help you get started with each language.
- What Is a Programming Language?
- Why Do Hackers Need Programming Skills?
- Top Programming Languages for Hackers
- Best Programming Language for Beginners
What Is a Programming Language?
A programming language is a set of instructions that a computer can understand and execute. There are many different programming languages, each with their own syntax and semantics. Some programming languages are designed for specific tasks (such as SQL for databases), while others are more general-purpose (such as C or Python).
The three most common types of programming languages are:
Machine code. This is the native code that a computer can understand and execute. It’s usually specific to a certain type of processor or hardware architecture.
Assembly code. This is a low-level code that’s specific to a certain type of processor or hardware architecture. It’s usually written in mnemonic form, which makes it easier for humans to read and write.
High-level languages. These are more abstract than machine code or assembly code, and they aren’t tied to any particular hardware architecture. This makes them more portable and easier to write and read.
Why Do Hackers Need Programming Skills?
Programming skills are essential for ethical hacking, because they allow hackers to automate tasks, create their own tools to test systems for vulnerabilities, and understand how systems work. Without these skills, hackers would be limited to using only the tools that are available to them.
In addition, programming languages provide a common language that ethical hackers can use to communicate with each other. By learning a few common languages, ethical hackers can quickly share information and ideas with each other, which helps them stay ahead of the curve.
So if you’re interested in becoming an ethical hacker, or if you’re already one and you want to stay ahead of the curve, then learning a few programming languages is a good place to start.
Top Programming Languages for Hackers
The best language for you will depend on your level of experience, the type of hacking you’re interested in, and the operating system you’re using.
That said, there are some languages that are more popular among ethical hackers than others. Here are five of the most popular programming languages for hacking, along with a brief description of each.
C and C++
C and C++ are two of the most popular programming languages among ethical hackers. They’re both powerful languages that can be used to create a wide range of hacking tools.
C (ISO standard, Wikipedia) is a low-level language, which means it’s closer to machine code than high-level languages like Python. This makes C a good choice for writing system-level software, such as operating systems and network drivers. It’s also relatively easy to learn if you have a background in another programming language.
C++ (official site, Wikipedia) is an extension of the C programming language. It was designed to provide object-oriented programming features, such as classes and inheritance. C++ is a complex language, but it can be used to write very efficient code.
C and C++ are thus two fundamental languages that every hacker should learn. They will give you a good understanding of how computers work and provide a solid foundation on which to build more specific hacking tools.
Assembly (Wikipedia) is a low-level programming language that’s used to write code for a specific type of processor. Assembly code is converted into machine code, which can be run on any computer that has a compatible processor.
Different processors have their own specific assembly languages, which makes it difficult to write code that can be run on multiple processors.
Assembly is a difficult language to learn, but it’s very powerful. It’s often used to write exploits, reverse engineering tools, and low-level system software.
If you’re interested in learning assembly, we recommend checking out the book The Art of Assembly Language Programming by Randall Hyde, considered to be one of the best resources for learning this complex language.
Python (official site, Wikipedia, SitePoint) is a high-level programming language that’s widely used in the hacking community. It’s easy to learn, and it has a wide range of libraries that can be used for tasks such as network analysis, web scraping, and database manipulation.
Python is also a good choice for writing tools that need to be automated. For example, you can write a script that will automatically log in to a website and fill out a form.
Unlike C or Assembly, Python is also portable, which means you can write code on one platform and then run it on another without having to recompile it. This makes Python a good choice for writing cross-platform tools.
In short, Python is a versatile language that can be used for a wide range of tasks, making it a good choice for ethical hackers who are just starting out.
It’s worth checking out the book The Python Apprentice, by Austin Bingham and Robert Smallshire.
Bash (official site, Wikipedia) is a Unix shell, which is a type of program that provides an interface for running other programs. Bash is commonly used as a command-line interpreter (CLI), which means it can be used to execute commands entered by the user.
Similar to Window’s PowerShell, Bash can be used to launch programs, such as shell commands, and it can also be used to execute other Bash scripts.
It also has a programming language built-in — with features such as loops and conditionals — which can be used to write scripts. These scripts can automate tasks, such as setting up a development environment or deploying a web application.
Since Bash is available on all Unix-based systems — such as Linux and macOS — it’s a good choice for writing cross-platform tools. It’s also quite easy to learn and a fundamental part of many ethical hackers’ toolkits.
Check out the book Learn Bash the Hard Way, by Ian Miell, to learn both core principles and advanced shell scripting. Also take a look at Linux Bible, 10th Edition, by Christopher Negus, to further delve into Unix-based systems.
SQL, or Structured Query Language (ISO standard, Wikipedia), is a database query language that’s used to manipulate data stored in databases. SQL can be used to add, remove, and update data in a database. It can also be used to query data from a database, which is useful for tasks such as data analysis.
While it might not be the first language that comes to mind when you think of hacking, SQL can be used to launch attacks against web and mobile applications. For example, an attacker could use SQL injection to insert malicious code into a database, which would then be executed by the application when it retrieves data from the database.
SQL is also useful for ethical hacking tasks such as database security testing and performance testing. For example, an ethical hacker could use SQL to generate a large number of queries to a database in order to test its performance under load.
SQL is thus a powerful tool that every ethical hacker should learn, and it’s not as difficult to learn as some of the other languages on this list.
A great place to start learning SQL is through Simply SQL, by Rudy Limeback.
|Level of Difficulty
|Fundamental languages that every hacker should learn. Useful for writing system-level software and hacking tools.
|Relatively easy (C), Hard (C++)
|A difficult language that’s useful for writing exploits, reverse engineering tools, and low-level system software. Assembly code is specific to a certain type of processor, which limits its portability.
|An easy-to-learn, versatile language that’s useful for a wide range of tasks. Python has a wide range of libraries available for tasks such as network analysis, web scraping, and database manipulation. It’s also portable, which makes it a good choice for writing cross-platform tools.
|Bash is a Unix shell that can be used to launch programs and execute other Bash scripts. It also has a programming language built in, which can be used to write scripts that automate tasks. Since Bash is available on all Unix-based systems, it’s a good choice for writing cross-platform tools.
|SQL is a database query language that’s used to manipulate data stored in databases. SQL can also be used to query data from a database, which is useful for tasks such as data analysis. While it might not be the first language that comes to mind when you think of hacking, SQL can be used to launch attacks against web applications and it’s also useful for ethical hacking tasks such as database security testing and performance testing.
Best Programming Language for Beginners
As you may have guessed if you’ve read this far, the best programming language for beginning in ethical hacking is Python.
- It’s a versatile scripting language.
- It’s widely used in the security community.
- It’s easy to learn.
- It has a wide range of libraries and tools that can be used for security purposes.
If you’re new to ethical hacking, we recommend starting with Python. It’s the most popular language among ethical hackers, and will give you a good foundation on which to build your skills.
Later on, as you up your hacking game, you’ll probably learn C and C++ to get closer to the metal and understand how systems work under the hood. You might even tackle Assembly language to really grasp what’s going on at the lowest level.
And of course, as you progress in your ethical hacking career, you’ll want to learn different languages depending on the specific tasks you want to accomplish.
Alright, it’s time to get opinionated and quickly answer some common questions!
Is C++ better than Python for hacking?
C++ isn’t necessarily better than Python for hacking. But while Python is generally considered to be more user-friendly and easier to learn, C++ will give you more control over memory management and low-level operations.
At the end of the day, if you’re looking to get into hacking, you’ll likely want to learn both languages.
Do hackers use Python?
Yes, many hackers use Python. From the languages we’ve reviewed here, Python is definitely the most versatile, because it can be used for a wide range of tasks from web development to data analysis.
Do ethical hackers need to know the C language in depth?
No, ethical hackers don’t need to know the C language in depth. However, a basic understanding of C will be helpful, especially when it comes to exploit development and reverse engineering.
Furthermore, many of the tools and frameworks used in ethical hacking are written in C, so knowing the language will make it easier to understand how they work and adapt them to your needs. After all, you want to be a hacker, right?
What other skills do you need to be a great ethical hacker?
In addition to being proficient in one or more programming languages, ethical hackers need to have a strong understanding of computer systems and networks. They also need to be able to think like an attacker, which means being creative and resourceful.
Lastly, ethical hacking doesn’t need to be a solo activity. It’s important to be able to work well with others, as many times you’ll need to collaborate with others in order to find and exploit vulnerabilities, and to help to secure systems.
How can ethical hackers make a living?
Ethical hackers can make a living in many ways. Some work as consultants, helping companies to secure their systems. Others work as part of a security team for a company or organization. And still others work independently, contracting their services to whoever needs them.
Some ethical hackers make their living by participating in bug bounty programs like those hosted by HackerOne. These are programs run by companies that want to improve their security, and that are willing to pay for discovering bugs in their systems.
How much income can an ethical hacker make?
This is a difficult question to answer, as it depends on many factors, such as experience, skillset, location, and whether you’re working independently or for a company.
That being said, ethical hackers can make quite a decent living. Some make six figures or more. A good place to start researching salaries is Glassdoor.
Ethical hacking can be a fun and rewarding way to make a living. It’s also a great way to learn new programming languages and hone your skills.
But beware: what you may think is “ethical” hacking may not actually even be legal. Always get permission before hacking systems, whether they belong to you or someone else. And even when you do get permission, check the local jurisdiction and be sure you’re on the right side of the law. (Hint: DDoS attacks can be illegal even when performed for testing purposes.)
The best language for you will depend on your level of experience, the type of hacking you’re interested in, and the operating system you’re using. That said, Python might be a good starting point for a beginner, while C and Assembly just a natural next step.