A “white hat” is an ethical computer hacker who specializes in penetration testing and other testing methodologies to ensure the security of an organization’s information systems. According to the Ethical Hacking Council, “The goal of the ethical hacker is to help the organization take pre-emptive measures against malicious attacks by attacking the system himself or herself; all the while staying within legal limits.” White hat hackers usually present their skills as benefiting their clients and broader society. They may be reformed black hat hackers or may simply be knowledgeable of the techniques and methods used by hackers. However, white hats have been known to offer broader hacking services, such as information gathering about persons or entities at odds with those hiring the white hat. Ethical hackers have been compared to digital versions of private investigators or investigative reporters.

In considering whether to engage a white hat hacker, there are a number of precautions that a company should take to increase the likelihood that the white hat will be credible, professional and ethical and only engage in lawful activities during the course of the engagement.

Credibility. Consider existing relationships, references and certifications. For example, the EC-Council offers a Certified Ethical Hacker accreditation. Many large consulting firms provide ethical hacking services. References from trusted peers are also extremely important.

Background Check. Conduct a thorough background check. Although the white hat may be affiliated with a reputable consulting firm, verify his or her experience and credentials and investigate possible criminal history. Do not assume that what the hacker tells you is true.

Engagement Letter. Have the hacker sign an engagement letter or similar contract that clearly defines the engagement, prohibits any illegal or unethical conduct, and addresses liabilities, indemnification and remedies where appropriate. Specify the hacking methods that are and are not acceptable and which information systems, networks and data may be accessed. Require the hacker to provide proof of adequate professional liability insurance.

Confidentiality Agreement. Require the hacker to sign a confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement that strictly prohibits the use or sharing with others of any information gathered as part of the engagement and that specifies the penalties for violation or references penalties set forth in the primary agreement.

Oversight. Monitor the hacker’s activity and be on the lookout for any suspicious activity—both during and after the white hat’s work. Ensure that the hacker remains within the scope of work defined within the engagement letter. If the scope of work changes, revise the engagement letter accordingly. Keep in mind that access to information systems presents opportunities to set conditions for future remote access or other unauthorized, nefarious activities.

Work Product. Consider the desired work product that will be developed over the course of the white hat’s engagement and whether the white hat should report to the General Counsel or outside counsel to protect privilege. In order to be admissible in evidence in civil litigation, the white hat must be willing to submit a signed affidavit, which describes under oath the results of the investigation, and to possibly testify. Not every white hat makes a good witness.