What Is Penetration Testing?
Penetration testing (pen testing) is a simulated and authorized attack against an organization’s systems, infrastructures, and networks to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses that hackers could exploit. The testers employ the same techniques and tools as hackers, such as social engineering , phishing, network scanning, and hacking, to identify these vulnerabilities.
A penetration testing exercise may be described as a black box, white box, or gray box testing, depending on the goal of the test and how much knowledge the tester has of your business systems and processes.
Black Box Testing
Black box testing simulates a scenario where the testers have no prior knowledge of the target systems and is usually conducted by external testers. Black box testers rely on external testing techniques to identify vulnerabilities, just like a real-world attacker would.
White Box Testing
In white box testing (clear box or glass box testing), the pen testers have full knowledge of the internal workings of the systems and the networks being tested. This knowledge allows them to thoroughly analyze and assess the security of the systems from an insider’s perspective, similar to how an attacker with inside knowledge might exploit vulnerabilities.
Gray Box Testing
Gray box testing is a mix of white box and black box testing. In gray box testing, the testers have partial knowledge of the internal workings of the systems and the networks being tested. This approach balances the thoroughness of white box testing and the realism of black box testing.
What Are the Stages Involved in Penetration Testing?
A standard penetration test would usually involve five stages, from reconnaissance to scanning, vulnerability assessment, exploitation, and reporting. Let’s take a look at what happens in each of these stages.
In this stage, the testers gather sufficient information about your business. This may include information on web server technology, network topology, firewall rules, network architecture, and operating system versions and patches.
The tester may also gather employee-specific information such as names, email addresses , and other contact details to test whether your business is vulnerable to a social engineering attack or a targeted spear-phishing campaign.
The information gathered in the reconnaissance stage makes it possible for the penetration tester to identify potential entry points into the system. These entry points may also be referred to as open ports. This scanning aims to identify as many open ports as possible. This stage is usually automated and is sometimes referred to as vulnerability scanning.
The vulnerability assessment stage is where the penetration tester evaluates the vulnerabilities (potential entry points) discovered during scanning to identify each vulnerability’s severity, exploitability, and potential impact.
The pen testers may also conduct additional research and gather information about the vulnerabilities from publicly available sources, vulnerability databases such as the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) , and exploit repositories.
This penetration testing stage is the true test of your business’s security maturity. The exploitation stage of penetration testing is where the tester simulates a real-world attack on your business’s systems and infrastructure. This pen testing stage is also considered the most delicate stage of penetration testing as the tester actively tries to access and breach the system.
The end goal of penetration testing is to strengthen your security posture. Thus, the penetration tester doesn’t just stop at identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities. They also provide a comprehensive pentest report outlining the identified vulnerabilities, their severity, and their potential impact on the system’s security posture.
The report will also include strategic recommendations for mitigation and remediation measures based on industry best practices and threat intelligence analysis.
All of these steps can easily be automated with penetration testing tools , making the pen testing process faster and more cost-effective.
Types of Penetration Testing
You can choose from different types of penetration testing depending on your business security needs. They include:
Network Penetration Testing
Network penetration testing focuses on identifying vulnerabilities in network infrastructure, such as routers, switches, firewalls, and other network devices that bad actors could use to access or modify data, systems, and infrastructures.
Web Application Penetration Testing
Web app penetration testing assesses the security of web applications, such as websites, web services, and APIs. It aims to identify vulnerabilities in the application’s code, configuration, and design that attackers could exploit to gain unauthorized access or manipulate data.
Wireless Penetration Testing
Like in web app pen testing, wireless penetration testing involves assessing the security of wireless networks, such as Wi-Fi networks. This type of penetration testing identifies vulnerabilities in wireless access points, data encryption protocols, and other wireless devices to determine if unauthorized access can be gained or if data can be intercepted.
Social Engineering Penetration Testing
To assess the effectiveness of your organization’s security controls against social engineering attacks—one of the most common cyberattacks, you need to execute a social engineering penetration testing exercise. Social engineering penetration testing could involve phishing, pretexting, or impersonation to test the organization’s employees, processes, and policies.
Physical Penetration Testing
This testing involves assessing the security of physical facilities, such as offices, data centers, or other locations, to determine if unauthorized access can be gained through physical means, such as bypassing access controls, tampering with locks, or exploiting other physical vulnerabilities.
Cloud Penetration Testing
Cloud security is the top priority for many businesses that operate from the cloud, and cloud penetration testing provides that security. This type of testing involves assessing the security of cloud-based environments, such as cloud servers, storage, and services.
The testing identifies vulnerabilities in cloud resources’ configuration, access controls, and other security settings to determine if unauthorized access or data leakage is possible.
Red Team vs. Blue Team Exercises
Red team vs. blue team exercises involve simulated attacks and defenses in a controlled environment. Because of their ease, they are conducted regularly by almost 100% of companies .
The Red Team represents the attackers, who try to breach the organization’s defenses, while the Blue Team represents the defenders, who detect and respond to the attacks. Red team vs. blue team exercises aims to assess an organization’s cybersecurity readiness comprehensively.
What Are the Benefits of Penetration Testing?
A significant percentage (73%) of successful security breaches is due to the penetration of vulnerable web applications. Regular penetration testing reduces these breaches to a large extent, as the vulnerabilities would have been discovered before hackers could exploit them.
In addition to identifying vulnerabilities before they are exploited, penetration testing has several other benefits to businesses and organizations: These benefits include:
A quick and simple penetration test could be the key to preventing cyberattacks like data breaches and system overrides. But this cybersecurity practice is not the only method of protection. The key to ensuring data and system security is a multimodal approach.
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