What is Penetration Testing

What is Penetration Testing

Last updated: Sep 13, 2022

Introduction of pentest:

In this article, penetration testing will be explained in great detail. Along with its definition, the five steps or stages in order to conduct it will be highlighted in this article. The multiple types of penetration testing methods that are utilized by individuals and organizations will additionally be addressed in this article. The differences between penetration testing and a different assessment will be highlighted too and the benefits of conducting each one of them. I will go on to explain it’s great importance and the positive impact it will have on an organization in order to ensure the organization continues to grow, flourish and expand beyond borders. Penetration testing in today’s times are becoming extremely vital. More and more individuals within an organization as well as outside an organization are owning personal IT devices, meaning more people have the ability to hack into an organizations system. It is also important to note that a cyberattack from within an organization is highly common and with more individuals taking home devices that are in connection to the organization that they work at (also due to remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic), it is more and more likely for some sort of insider cyber-attack to occur. This puts organizations at an extremely great risk and thus countermeasures need to be conducted in order to protect themselves.

Penetration Testing Definition:

  • Penetration testing (PT), also known by its acronym “pen-test” or in fact “ethical hacking” is conducted through an intentional launch of a cyber attack against one’s own computer systems, IT infrastructure, networks, applications or websites in order to prepare for any sort of weaknesses, “break-ins’ ‘ and potential vulnerabilities that might be exploited by an external source or individual.
  • A penetration test is conducted in order to figure out the security present for a particular system.
  • This test should not be confused with a vulnerability assessment which will be explained later on in depth in this article, noting the various difference that exist between them.
  • This penetration test is conducted in order to identify, highlight and reveal any potential weaknesses or vulnerabilities of a system, including the chance of an unauthorized individual to gain access into one’s personal system, posing great threats to them.
  • A firewall is a type of security system that manages and controls any network traffic, no matter if it is incoming or outgoing. 
    • Penetration testing enhances this firewall, increasing it and improving it. Any sort of security issues that come about through the results of a penetration test must be reported and told to the system owner straight away.
  • A penetration test (PT) might be able to uncover impacts to an organization and thereafter suggest countermeasures to reduce any sort of risks in order to help an organization continue to function properly and effectively.
  • Even though a penetration testing’s main desire is to uncover any potential security weaknesses or vulnerabilities, pen testing might also be used to examine the robustness (reliability or validity) of a business’s security policy and ability to effectively uncover and respond to future security incidents that might occur by external parties.
  • A pen test might occur in an automated fashion or can be conducted manually by a security expert. 

5 Stages of Penetration Testing:

There are 5 stages of penetration testing, namely; planning and reconnaissance, scanning, gaining access, maintaining access and analysis, we will go into great detail about each one of these 5 stages.

Stage 1 is “planning and reconnaissance”:

  • Defines the goals of the test in question, highlighting which of the systems are going to be tackled and which of the testing methods will be utilized throughout the entire process.
  • Additionally, during this stage, one would gather additional important and imperative knowledge in order to gain a better understanding on how a said target works and any of its underlying weaknesses or vulnerabilities.
  • The information uncovered can be utilized to better attack any target. 

Stage 2:

  • The second stage of penetration testing is identified as “scanning” which is utilized to gain a deeper understanding about how the application which one might be targeting will react to multiple intrusion attempts.
  • This stage utilizes technical tools which in turn greater the attacker’s knowledge about the system, IT infrastructure and data.
  • This is conducted through 2 methods:
    • Firstly through “static analysis”, which involves examining, exploring and looking over an application’s code to attempt to figure out how it might behave whilst it is running. These tools are extremely powerful and useful, scanning the whole of the code present in one single pass.
    • The second method of scanning is “dynamic analysis”. This method involves examining and scanning an application’s code during a current running state.
      • This method is much more practical than the previously mentioned “static analysis” as it allows for a real-time overview and understanding into a set application’s performance and results. 

Stage 3:

  • The third stage of penetration testing involves “gaining access”.
  • During this stage, there is a use of web application attacks, for example SQL injection or cross-site scripting.
  • This uncovers and reveals any of the target’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
  • The testers go on to attempt to exploit any of these weaknesses or vulnerabilities to identify the damage and impairment that they can possibly cause by either escalating privileges, interception traffic, or stealing data. 

Stage 4:

  • The fourth stage of penetration testing is “maintaining access”.
  • The particular desire and objective of this stage is to identify whether or not the weakness or vulnerability can be utilized  to attain and reach a persistent presence in the exploited system for a long enough period for a disadvantageous actor to gain deep access into the system.
  • The overall goal of this stage is to imitate future threats on the system, which might remain for a long period of time to attack or potentially steal an organization’s most sensitive, important data.  

Stage 5:

  • The last stage of penetration testing is the “analysis” part.
  • During this stage, the results and outcomes of the penetration test are reported, including any sensitive data that was able to be accessed, any weaknesses or vulnerabilities that were possibly exploited and lastly, the time period that it took for the pen testers to remain in the system without anyone being able to identify that they were there – which is very dangerous for any organization.  
  • This information is thereafter inspected and studied by security personnel to configure an enterprise’s WAF settings and other security solutions to fix weaknesses or vulnerabilities which in turn can help protect the systems data against any potential future attacks. 

Penetration testing methods:

There are various penetration testing methods that are utilized by individuals, namely: external testing, internal testing, blind testing, double blind testing, and targeted testing.

The different types of penetration testing:

  • External penetration testing targets the assets of a company that one can view on the internet, for example this might include the web application, the website of the company, email or domain name servers (DNS).
    • The goal of this testing is to obtain, acquire and extract valuable data.
  • Secondly, we have internal penetration testing, where the tester who has gained access to an application behind it’s firewall, initiates an attack by a malicious insider.
  • The third method, blind testing, is when the said tester is merely given the names of the enterprise that’s targeted.
    • This might give any security personnel a real time look into how an assault on an application would proceed.
  • The fourth method, the double-blind penetration testing, is conducted by a security personnel who actually has no prior knowledge about the attack.
  • Lastly, the targeted penetration testing is one where both the tester and the security personnel work in cahoots and keep each other up to date with each of their movements.
    • What this does is it allows for a useful training exercise that provides a security team with feedback from the point of view of a hacker.

Cyberattacks and cyberattackers are on the rise, learning new and improved techniques as the years go on. Thus, it is imperative that organizations learn the importance of performing up to date penetration tests, in order to properly reveal any exposure or block holes. Penetration tests ensure that an organization has taken a proactive stance, seeking out vulnerabilities in it’s hardware or software. 

Differences between penetration testing and vulnerability assessments:

  • As previously mentioned, penetration testing (PT) is often confused with Vulnerability Assessment (VA), being viewed as similar processes that might be used interchangeably.
  • However, it is beyond imperative that we understand the distinct differences between them.

First difference:

  • Firstly, both PT and VA assess, judge and rate security and act as assistants when it comes to maintaining and growing an application or softwares security.
  • Vulnerability assessment’s main role is to discover and detect any mishaps in security and forewarn the user about it.
  • Penetration testing, as has been explained in great depth above, makes use of any weaknesses or vulnerabilities but this is done by utilizing the VA to understand the magnitude of the damage that could be done on an application.
    • Penetration tests are usually done by an individual in a manual manner whilst vulnerability assessments are usually automated.

Second difference:

There are differences as well in the types of individuals who conduct each of these assessments.

  • Penetration testing is often conducted by ethical hackers or “white hat hackers”. These types of hackers are in fact security experts but they contribute a human aspect whilst breaking into a particular system.
  • Vulnerability assessments are generally led by qualified technicians utilizing automated tools.
    • Vulnerability assessments are more often than not the first step during penetration testing, which helps the ethical hacker to pinpoint potential hacks, or targets.

Third difference:

The last difference existing between these two types of assessments has to do with the cost of them.

  • Vulnerability assessments are often less costly than penetration tests.
    • This is due to the expansiveness of penetration reports, containing all weaknesses and vulnerabilities, ranking them according to their ease of exploitation, their level of severity and the amount of risk they pose for an organization.
    • Vulnerability assessments simply include a compiled list of security weaknesses and vulnerabilities, a detailed description of them, but with no further detail, it ends there.
  • These two processes, penetration testing and vulnerability assessments are often conducted together, since they compliment each other in nature.
  • The action of conducting them together is called VAPT (Vulnerability Assessment & Penetration Testing) or Security Audit. 

Need for Penetration Testing:

The need for penetration testing is growing as the years go on. Organizations are digitizing the majority of the operations and processes in their organizations and the types of new risks we are being exposed to is growing at a rapid rate. We cannot be naive or underestimate the risk of hackers exploiting weaknesses in our organizations IT infrastructure. Once a hacker has been able to enter an organization’s network, it is not difficult for them to take control over their entire infrastructure, making their work easy to access. In order for an organization to decrease the risk of such a break-in, they need to be able to detect any weaknesses and respond to them in a quick manner.

I will go on to explain the importance of penetration testing, why an organization should consider utilizing this assessment themselves on a regular basis and how this might assist an organization in avoiding these potential risks on their IT infrastructure. 

Reasons:

  • Firstly, it is imperative an organization understands their organizations worth, how imperative their IT infrastructure is and how costly it would be if the infrastructure was attacked, by conducting a “risk assessment”.
    • By doing this, an organization can reveal any weaknesses and risks and can go on to make a decision whether to bring in an expert in the field to discover the risks or conduct a risk assessment themselves.
    • By conducting the risk assessment, an organization can highlight any opening in their infrastructure and prioritize them.
    • Any threats detected must be promptly dealt with if it seems that it can greatly affect the organization.
  • Secondly, whilst conducting the risk assessment, the organization will need to assess the results if they do not comply with laws and regulations by not performing a penetration test on their infrastructure.
    • By not complying, an organization might run into great amounts of fines or potentially lose their licenses to continue to operate thus it is imperative to get legal advice about local regulations and local laws to ensure one’s organization is staying in line with what is expected of them.
    • Most of the time, organizations are required to conduct various security assessments, such as vulnerability assessments and penetration testing on their applications, software and IT infrastructure.
    • As the years go on, data privacy is becoming countries top priorities and thus they are beginning to insist on strict data privacy in order to protect all of their citizens and organizations.
    • These assessments do help organizations reduce the risk of a data breach.
  • The third importance for conducting these types of assessments is the organization’s reputation in the eyes of the people.
    • If a breach in one’s data comes into awareness of the public, the organization’s reputation will greatly suffer and go down.
    • As we can simply guess, this will result in great consequences for an organization, including a decrease in customers, a decrease in customers confidence and an overall drop in profit or revenue for the organization.
    • Share price of an organization will be affected as already existing investors might view the organization as risky or unstable and not be willing to stick around for the impact.
    • Overall this could lead to a complete disadvantage for the company as a whole and cause a great significant loss.
  • Lastly, it is always important to keep rivalry and competition in mind. Losing proprietary data will disadvantage an organization, as the data might be given to potential rival or competitive companies.
    • Competition companies might not actually cyber attack an organization, however they might have ways of gaining your data indirectly if there are weaknesses in the IT infrastructure.
    • Cyber Attackers usually sell the information they gain from cyber attacks on the dark web in forms of cryptocurrencies.
    • The company who might be your rival or competition might gain access to this information, putting your organization as a great risk.

Thus, it is completely imperative for organizations to include penetration tests on a regular basis, as these help lessen and deminist potential cyber threats and risks against their organizations. Good security practices are vital in ensuring the longevity of an organization and ensure your business continues to grow and flourish with no major setbacks, thus they must definitely be adopted on a regular basis.

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