Digital security affects every aspect of modern business, with recent breaches highlighting the importance of a robust and comprehensive security strategy. To stay on top of cybercrime and identify weak points in your system, it’s important to add penetration testing to your network protection routine. Also known as pen testing or ethical hacking, penetration testing is the professional practice of testing hardware and software to find system vulnerabilities.
Why penetration testing is necessary
With a few exceptions, modern businesses are completely reliant on their computing systems. From communication and marketing to eCommerce and payroll, digital networks and cloud platforms have changed the very nature of 21st-century business. Information has become a critical business asset and digital security has become an important way to mitigate risk and protect assets and individuals.
Along with the identification of vulnerabilities, penetration testing can also help to analyze existing security policies against compliance standards, address staff education and awareness, and highlight disaster response issues.
The situation is critical, with 86% of tested applications having one or more session management vulnerabilities, according to the 2018 Trustwave Global Security Report.
The scope of penetration testing
The scope of a pen testing exercise depends on the business and systems being assessed. While it’s important to uncover any weak points, large systems often need to be broken down according to scale and tested in stages. For example, do you want to test all computers or specific services and applications? Do you want to fix problems immediately or generate reports to address in future security updates?
Penetration testing methods
Different methods are used during testing, with procedures dependent on the type and size of the network and its integration with other networks.
- External testing attempts to exploit assets that are visible on the Internet.
- Internal testing simulates an attack by an employee or a malicious insider.
- Blind testing enables real-time analysis of hacking methods.
- Double-blind testing simulates a real attack and involves no prior knowledge.
- Targeted testing involves the tester and security team working together.
How often should tests be performed?
Penetration testing is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s also not a one-off exercise. While the primary goal of penetration testing is to identify weak points in existing networks, these vulnerabilities often change over time. While it’s important to create a robust operational architecture from the outset, the ever-changing digital landscape demands continual testing from qualified professionals. Yearly testing is recommended for most organizations, with pen tests also needed whenever significant changes are made.
For example, penetration testing is advised whenever network infrastructure or new services are added, applications are modified, or new security patches are installed. It’s also important to carry out tests every time a new office is opened or an existing location is expanded or modified. Hackers are always looking for system vulnerabilities, with significant changes to network architecture or operating models often leaving gaps for hackers to exploit.
Penetration testing stages
According to Imperva, penetration testing can be broken down into five distinct phases.
- The first stage involves detailed planning to define goals and gather intelligence.
The scope and scale of testing procedures will be decided at this stage, along with timelines and compliance standards.
- The second stage involves a number of static and dynamic analytical tools that are capable of scanning and inspecting networks and applications.
By understanding how to gain access, testers can streamline the process and estimate how certain systems are likely to respond.
- The third stage of testing is at the center of the entire procedure, with testers attempting to uncover vulnerabilities and gain access to critical business systems.
Various web application attacks are performed during this stage, simulating real attacks by intercepting data and escalating privileges. According to a report from Positive Technologies,
- The fourth stage attempts to maintain a presence in order to exploit systems and change data.
Real-world attacks are often the result of sustained access over a long period of time, so successful security solutions need to prevent both penetration and unauthorized presence.
- The fifth and final stage involves a detailed analysis, with the results of the penetration test compiled into a report.
The scope of this report can vary widely, with some reports offering updates and solutions and others simply noting vulnerabilities.
Knowing what to expect from penetration testing can help you incorporate the right approach into your cybersecurity strategy. An experienced IT services partner like XSolutions can guide you through your options and support you in designing and running regular testing programs that will keep your business ready for anything.