Penetration testing, also known as a security pen test or white-hat hacking, is an exercise to simulate a cyberattack against a company’s infrastructure. Organizations hire security experts or ethical hackers to launch an attack against their IT infrastructure to identify misconfigurations and existing vulnerabilities in web applications, networks, and on the user’s end.
It also aims to evaluate the effectiveness of an organization’s defensive mechanism, security policies, regulatory compliance, and employee awareness. For instance, a web application pen test aims to identify, test, and report on APIs, backend, and frontend vulnerabilities to fine-tune web application firewall (WAF) policies and patch identified security issues.
Hence, the scope of pentesting can vary from simple web application pentesting to full-scale penetration testing of entire organizations.
Penetration testing requires specialized expertise and is considerably more complex than teaching yourself to code, so the target or client organization hires penetration testers to perform the task of vulnerability identification and exploitation.
However, before beginning any of the stages, they sign legal papers that define the scope of their test and non-disclosure of sensitive information.
Penetration testing is a step-by-step process that begins way before the actual attack simulation. The pre-attack pen testing phase allows ethical hackers to examine the whole infrastructure, gather information, and identify strengths or weaknesses to find the right set of tools and techniques to proceed with the attack.
We can divide the penetration testing process into five main stages:
The penetration testing process begins with planning and gathering information to simulate a malicious attack. It’s the most time-consuming phase in which the ethical hackers define the scope of the test by inspecting devices and noting vulnerabilities and the devices’ reaction to system breaches.
The information-gathering process includes active or passive reconnaissance techniques such as network/port scanning, social engineering, OS fingerprinting, and dumpster diving.
After gathering sufficient information, ethical hackers explore system/network weaknesses and vulnerabilities for potential exploitation. The scanning phase helps determine open ports services running on the targeted host.
The vulnerability assessment enables ethical hackers to evaluate application weaknesses and responses to possible intrusion attempts. This phase informs us about the possible techniques an attacker can use to access the internal environment and determines the success rate of the subsequent stages.
After scanning the system services and understanding open security vulnerabilities, pen testers try to infiltrate the infrastructure. This is the phase where the attack becomes active after vulnerability exploitation.
Infiltration helps them understand and demonstrate how deep they can go into the system by using techniques such as privilege escalation, lateral movement, nefarious tools installation, and certificate modifications.
This phase determines the potential influence an attack can cause to the client. After gaining a foothold, the ethical hacker attempts to maintain constant access to the targeted host and simulates an attack that accomplishes malicious intruder goals.
This allows them to collect as much information as possible about the system, its network, and available services for maintaining constant access.
The security team compiles an analysis report to describe the penetration testing process, detailing:
- The scope of penetration test
- Vulnerabilities found and exploited
- The tools for targeted host exploitation and maintaining system access
- Remediations and recommendations
The analysis provides security personnel with the information to patch security vulnerabilities and avoid future attacks. The report is equally important for the pen testers to demonstrate adherence to the client’s penetration testing requirements.
Given the inclination of business operations digitization, we underestimate the risk of new technologies. Moreover, the chances of system control are extremely high after intruders access the internal network. Hence, it’s necessary to prepare for any risk of the security incident and avoid the cost of a cyber attack.
The vulnerability assessment and scanning phase help you identify the likelihood and impact of the threat. Pentesting allows companies to manage vulnerabilities by identifying them as critical or false positives. Hence, it enables businesses to reconsider and prioritize their objectives, remediations, and resources to improve their security posture.
The regulatory compliance standards require companies and businesses to meet their laws and regulations. To ensure that they comply with them, security assessments in the form of penetration testing help provide general auditing to check if they meet the industry’s best practices.
In the era of advanced and persistent threats, there is no one solution to prevent a breach. Similarly, the presence of defensive tools like SIEM solutions, antiviruses, and encryption is not enough to eliminate all the security risks and vulnerabilities. Hence, penetration testing is a proactive approach that identifies risks and suggests possible remediations.
The loss in the company’s reputation due to a data breach or any successful attack significantly influences the customer’s confidence and the economic state. Hence, penetration testing helps avoid such security incidents and maintain the reputation intact.
A penetration test can use the automated tools or simulate the attack manually to achieve the end goal of fine-tuning security policies. With the increase in sophistication of cyber attacks, organizations must take a proactive approach to identify the loopholes and entrance points. Besides the pressure of complying with HIPAA, PCI_DSS, and other regulatory bodies, it is mandatory to perform periodic penetration testing to remain updated with changing security dynamics.