Penetration testing, sometimes referred to as “pen testing”, is a white hat cybersecurity tactic that helps to evaluate a system for security vulnerabilities. Through penetration testing, a security operations team can determine how susceptible the system is to cyberattacks and hackers while identifying potential weak spots and entry points that need to be addressed. Vulnerabilities a pen test may find range from software bugs and configuration errors to design flaws.
If you’re in a role related to cybersecurity or want to be a security professional, penetration testing is a fundamental and routine practice that you should familiarize yourself with and ensure your team has implemented.
Why Is Penetration Testing Important?
There are a number of reasons why you should use penetration testing, especially in a “safe sandbox” type of environment. Beyond increasing security, pen testing allows you to:
- Prepare for an attack. By identifying vulnerabilities throughout a system, pen testing allows you to address potential weak spots and monitor them until they can be addressed. This can help you put up “blockades” in critical infrastructure that enable better detection and prevention of threats.
- Upgrade your protocols. Through pen tests, you may discover an area or segment of your organization that’s particularly high risk by identifying a handful of vulnerabilities you previously knew nothing about. This information can guide your decisions and investments when it comes to security tools and other investments.
- Reduce errors. Pen testing, by nature, helps developers identify errors that not only impact security, but also user experience. The identification of these errors helps developers produce and maintain better, stronger systems all while helping users have a more flawless experience.
Penetration Testing Goes Beyond Virtual Entry Points
If you’re new to the concept of penetration testing, you’ll likely be surprised to learn that the term covers a wide range of types of security testing. This may include having someone sit at their computer and try to enter a system or even having an advanced hacker use bots and other firmware against your virtual infrastructure.
A common penetration test used by organizations is giving a team of testers the address of their office building, and challenging them to gain access — be it through virtual means or social engineering tactics (like gaining access through a low-level employee). It’s up to your organization to determine the types of tests you need to carry out, when you need to schedule them, and how often you need to re-test your systems to ensure you’re staying on top of potential vulnerabilities.
When Should You Conduct Penetration Tests?
Ideally, pen tests should be a routine part of your team’s development and maintenance processes. However, some of the most critical times to conduct a penetration test include when your organization has:
- Recently upgraded or significantly altered its applications and/or IT infrastructure.
- Relocated physically to a new location or expanded its physical presence.
- Modified its policies relating to end users.
- Applied security patches.
As an organization, you can determine which type of penetration testing is best suited to your needs. Each type of test grants the “attacker” a different level of access. The frequency with which you conduct pen tests and the number of pen testers you employ depends on your company’s size, budget, strictness of existing regulations, and whether or not your IT operates in the cloud.
The types of penetration tests include:
- Targeted – a targeted penetration test is when the Corporate IT team works together with external professionals to check the vulnerability of systems on an open network, so the team is able to compare their findings and determine the best solutions.
- Internal – an internal penetration test is designed to check and review the extent to which an internal employee could harm the system. This usually assumes the attack would come from inside the company’s firewall.
- External – an external penetration test is designed to check and review the extent to which an external attacker could access or harm the system. This type of test is more focused on external devices/servers, such as firewalls or email/web servers.
- Blind – a blind penetration test is designed to imitate a real cyber attack, except for the fact that the company has authorised it. Limited information is shared with the “attacker”.
- Double Blind – a double blind penetration test is similar to the blind, except for that there is usually only one person in the organization that is aware of the impending “attack”. This type of test provides the company with insight into how effective their monitoring and response protocols are, in addition to the security of their overall system.
Penetration Testing Best Practices
As you explore the concept of penetration testing further, you’ll likely identify a number of penetration testing tools and methods to help secure your organization. It’s important to remember that pen tests are only effective if properly planned and executed. No matter your budget, it’s important that you know what goes into a proper pen test to ensure each one you carry out is as revealing and useful as possible.
The best practices of penetration testing include:
- Using a penetration tester who understands at least two common program languages in your industry.
- Ensuring your penetration tester is familiar with TCP/IP stack and networking.
- Seeking someone with a mastery of your operating systems and OSI model.
- Planning and auditing your penetration tests for maximum vulnerability exposure.
- Conducting follow-up tests to identify additional vulnerabilities and test all patches/fixes.
Penetration testing is far from a one-off activity. Ideally, pen testing will become part of your routine security checks and maintenance practices, but again, you have to run them correctly to see the results you’re after.
You can learn how to plan and execute a penetration testing practice in our Cybersecurity Academy. In addition to expert-led courses and hands-on exercises, you’ll get unlimited access to a live lab environment, so you can practice your skills in a safe sandbox without risking your own sensitive information.
Penetration Testing: Planning and Auditing
Penetration Testing is a multilevel skill set that touches upon the majority of all Cybersecurity domains. An expert Penetration Tester will know at least 2 industry program languages, have a full understanding of the TCP/IP stack and networking, and they will have mastery level skills for all operating systems and know the OSI model by memory. This course will focus on the planning and auditing concepts of penetration testing.