Penetration Testing: Everything You Need to Know

December 16, 2020
penetration testing

penetration testing

Each year, cyber-attacks are getting more complex. Organizations cannot afford to implement security tools without validating that they are properly performing. Ineffective controls and human error can expose the most sophisticated systems to breaches, which often go undetected for months or even years. The best way to be proactive against the threat of a cyber-attack is to invest in penetration testing. Penetration testing is designed to simulate real-world attacks and determine how secure your systems really are. While no security system is guaranteed to be impenetrable, Penetration Testing is the first step in shoring up your defenses so hackers look elsewhere for an easier target.

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Where are the Vulnerabilities? 

A vulnerability is a security gap in any digital or physical asset that the business has in its possession. This is how NIST defines a vulnerability: “It is a weakness in an information system, system security procedures, internal controls, or implementation that could be exploited or triggered by a threat source.”

Security gaps can occur in any of the following:

  • Databases
  • Servers
  • Networks (e.g. firewalls, routers)
  • Shared resources (that employees access on a daily basis in order to do their jobs)
  • Email 
  • Wireless devices
  • Software applications
  • Physical access points to the business
  • Authentication mechanisms
  • Source code for web applications
  • Security Controls 

The above list is just a small example of where the gaps may lie, there are obviously many others. It is important to keep in mind that these vulnerabilities can be either be known or unknown (e.g. Zero-Day Exploits). Whatever the situation is, it is important to discover these vulnerabilities and remediate them as quickly as possible.  

What is Penetration Testing?

Many organizations confuse Penetration Testing with vulnerability assessments.  Some experts like to think that the two are completely apart in scope and nature, while others view them as going hand in hand.  The truth of the matter is that as cyberattacks have become more sophisticated, Penetration Testing has grown in scope to encompass many of the aspects that Vulnerability Assessments once covered exclusively. This is especially true when it comes to the human equation and the mobile aspects of Cybersecurity.

Penetration Testing involves a comprehensive and coordinated examination of the businesses’ lines of defense, both externally and internally. The primary objective is to ascertain exactly where the vulnerabilities are in the organization's network, systems, applications, and defenses. The type of Penetration Test is largely dictated by the needs of an organization. A Pen Testing team takes the mindset of a real-world cyber attacker and tries to break into anything possible.

Penetration Testing is also referred to as “Ethical Hacking”. The goal is to identify all vulnerabilities with recommended solutions that can be implemented for quick remediation. Both manual and automated testing tools are utilized, and, with the latter, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has started to take a more prominent role.  

The Benefits of Penetration Testing

After conducting a comprehensive Penetration Testing program, organizations should realize the following benefits:

  • As mentioned, all types and kinds of vulnerabilities are discovered. In many ways, conducting a Penetration Test is much like conducting an angiogram on the heart – it is the only sure-fire way to know for sure where the blockages are in the coronary arteries, and to determine the best course of action to remediate the threats that are discovered.
  • These tests do not merely expose weaknesses; they simulate real-world attacks to show how sensitive data, business systems, and an InfoSec team would fare in the event of a real attack.
  • It demonstrates the capability of people and systems to detect breaches, whether internal or external
  • Penetration testing relies on both automated tools and on experienced professionals who are skilled at hacking into systems. These professionals are able to analyze the target organization’s systems in the same way that hackers would; laying your vulnerabilities bare so they can be addressed.
  • These exercises go beyond validating individual security tools. It tests the security posture of the entire organization and will expose gaps between tools that don’t work well together. 
  • Ethical hackers come in with a fresh viewpoint and conduct a thorough, unbiased test of the systems. Having an independent viewpoint can reveal vulnerabilities that were overlooked by the organization’s InfoSec team.
  • It allows organizations to compare the results against industry regulations, allowing time to shore up weak areas and comply with applicable laws.
  • Running these exercises prepares a team for future attacks and should improve response times and reduce downtime. Surprise and preparation very rarely go together.
  • Your organization will gain better insight into the current levels of effectiveness of security technologies, and thus, you will be able to formulate a strategy in order to increase and yield a greater Return on Investment (ROI) from them.
  • You are provided with a set of unbiased and neutral recommendations from an independent third party. 
  • You will be able to create much more effective Incident Response/Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity plans that will let you minimize downtime if you experience a security breach.

Parting Thoughts

After conducting a Penetration Testing exercise, you may find that your security policies and procedures are in need of some tweaking, or even complete revamping. Pen testing will highlight areas in which improvement is needed.

  • Does each member of your InfoSec team know their role in the event of an incident?
  • What is the chain of command during the incident response?
  • What are the policies and procedures to manage communication with both your team and leadership? 
  • Does your InfoSec team have the proper skills?
  • What training do your employees need to improve security awareness?

The results of these tests will help your IT staff identify and address your risks in an orderly fashion. They will also give you an indication of how quickly and efficiently your IT team could respond to an attack.



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