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What are the pros and cons of hiring an ex-hacker?

Hiring an ex-hacker to join an enterprise security team is a risky move. Expert Mike O. Villegas discusses the potential benefits and drawbacks of this nontraditional hiring move.

I heard that companies are starting to hire more hackers to help with their security programs. While I understand...

hackers come with a skill set that could prove useful, is it a good idea? What are the pros and cons to this strategy? And is there really such a thing as ethical hackers?

If someone broke into your home and stole your precious jewelry, would you hire him years later to safeguard your home, or buy jewelry from him?

Probably the most celebrated hacker-turned-security professional is Kevin Mitnick. He is best known for his high-profile 1995 arrest for various computer and communications-related crimes. Since 2000, Mitnick has been a paid security consultant, public speaker and author. He does security consulting for Fortune 500 companies and the FBI, performs penetration testing services for the world's largest companies, and teaches social engineering classes to dozens of companies and government agencies. One could say he is reformed and contributes to the fight against unlawful hacking and computer crime. Although some would question whether his methods are unethical, they still provide insights that clients would not have otherwise had.

There are three things to consider before hiring ex-hackers to help strengthen and grow the enterprise information security program: ethics, perception and ethical hackers.

Most employers run a criminal background check on new hires. If the potential new hire's background is stained by participation in, arrest or imprisonment for hacking, breaches or fraud, he would not be hired. The ethics of such a person can come into question, and if the employer provides services to a government agency or company that requires top security clearance, ex-hackers could not participate. Additionally, trust will always be an issue. Breaches occur because the hacker subverted a control weakness for financial gain or personal satisfaction, so the organization might struggle to trust the new hire not to do it again. So before hiring an ex-hacker, enterprises should seriously consider whether or not this individual's ethics are an issue.

Ex-hackers became criminals, not just because what they did was unlawful, but because they were caught. Whatever the circumstances for their failure, their technique was not flawless.

Next, there is the issue of perception. Hiring an ex-hacker for security consulting is certainly an attention-getter and potentially newsworthy. Possibly, this is what executive management wants. They may want to convey to shareholders, partners and customers that they are serious about security. They may want to give the impression that they have searched everywhere and have not found cybersecurity experts that can satisfy their very unique protection requirements, so they now resort to hiring an ex-hacker.

That may be the message communicated publicly, but behind closed doors the motive is to manage perception -- and that it will. Executive management will be cautiously impressed, shareholders will be encouraged and customers will be relieved. But who else is affected? The message to internal staff is they are insufficient to meet the demand and their skills sets do not adequately meet their objectives. Unless the organization has existing cybersecurity staff that is willing to work with an ex-hacker, it might need to hire a new set of full-time employees.

One critical point to remember is that ex-hackers became convicted criminals`what they did was unlawful but because they were caught. Whatever the circumstances for their failure, their technique was not flawless. Could an ethical hacker or cybersecurity professional, credentialed, tenured, luminary or pundit do any better? Probably. You don't go to DEFCON to find and hire a CISO or a tenured experienced cybersecurity professional. You go through the recruitment process of hiring candidates with education, certifications, references, knowledge and experience necessary for the job. You hire those that can perform and even exceed skills needed to support the information security program and objectives. There may be a shortage in skilled cybersecurity professionals, but they are still there.

Not all criminal hackers are prone to recidivism. Mitnick appears to be a primary example of an ex-hacker turned for good. Enterprises can hire whomever they wish, including ex-hackers. There are exceptions to every rule, however, but it's not a good idea to hire a Mitnick or ex-hacker reformed criminal as a full-time employee -- and not just because trust is an issue. It is because, simply put, the ex-hacker is a criminal, hiring the ex-hacker will eventually be known by customers and partners, and given a choice, it's better to hire an experienced, competent candidate who has been properly vetted.

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Next Steps

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Discover where all the entry-level security jobs are hiding

This was last published in July 2016

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Has your organization ever hired an ex-hacker? If so, what has been your experience with it?
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It may be possible. Most hackers tend to keep a low profile and would not divulge it during a job interview.
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I don't really think of the term "hacker" as meaning someone who's intentionally malicious. But no, we haven't hired anyone like that. At least, not to my knowledge - I mean, even a hacker usually has a day job, so it's not like you'd necessarily know if you were hiring one. 
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Good advice from the author. It's hard to know whether you can trust an ex-hacker. After the candidate goes through the vetting process, you'll still have to trust your own instincts about your potential new hire. 
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