Each day, fresh malware strains and cyber-threat vectors are being authored, developed, and distributed in the wild. Fledgling hackers and “hacktivist” groups are learning the ropes. No matter how many security protocols and policies you have in place – and even regardless of the strength of your anti-virus, anti-malware, and other security software – there exists the possibility that someone, somewhere has the key to penetrating your defences.
Stolen or corrupted data, the siphoning of funds, the theft of credentials or user identities, infiltration of networks, espionage, sabotage, and mayhem could result – unless you have the means to identify potential vulnerabilities in your systems, and prevent threats from being enacted before they can occur.
That’s where penetration testing comes into the picture.
What is Penetration Testing?
Penetration testing (also referred to as pen testing or pentesting) is a form of in-house or paid “ethical hacking”.
With permission from the host organization, members of its own IT staff or specialists from a trusted third party are given the mandate to use any means necessary to gain access to protected systems and networks, to exploit software and hardware for any vulnerabilities found, or to perform any other activity usually engaged in by malicious intruders, insider threat actors, and cyber-criminals.
Hiring a consultant isn’t cheap; most specialists bill by the hour, with rates dependent on their level of experience and expertise. But you can expect to pay a minimum of about $2,000 for the exercise. For this reason, many enterprises choose to do their testing in-house, employing the talents of their existing IT personnel.
There are also software products that conduct automated pen testing – the likes of Canvas, Metasploit, and Core IMPACT. But these programs may lack the human elements of adaptation and spontaneity needed to truly simulate the actions of hackers in the wild.
Penetration Testing – A Multi-Part Process
A penetration testing procedure should be ordered after each significant alteration to your organization’s IT infrastructure, and at least once a year. The testing should consist of several elements, including:
- Real-world and Online Reconnaissance: The testers search the trade literature, media, contacts, and online resources to establish how much information may be gleaned about your organization from these avenues.
- Probe for Points of Access: The testers will try to discover ways of physically getting into your network, such as open ports.
- Attempts at Vulnerability Exploitation: Rigorous testing, using specialist software tools.
- Brute Force Penetration Attempts: Sustained hacking of user credentials and passwords.
- Social Engineering Tricks: An assortment of phishing ploys, to get email recipients to download attachments or click on baited links.
- Network Infiltration: Testers will attempt to gain login rights to a computer in your network, and take control of it.
- Pivoting: Having taken over a network resource, the testers will use it as a springboard to search for value targets elsewhere.
- Collection of Corroborating Evidence: The testers will extract something from your network, to prove that they successfully got in.
- Reporting to Management: The testers should present a documentary record of all their activities during the test.
- Recommendations and Remediation: Based on their findings, the testers will identify points of weakness, and what needs to be done to fix them.
Black and White
There are two major classes of penetration test.
Black box testing occurs when the third-party testers are not given any prior information about the nature of the target network or system. This more accurately simulates conditions in the wild, as external hackers are required to probe and pry at their real-life targets, in an effort to find access points and weaknesses.
This contrasts with white box testing, in which testers are provided with network diagrams, passwords, application source code, IP addresses, etc., in an attempt to pinpoint existing vulnerabilities in a known configuration.
A Necessary Evil
Some due diligence needs to be engaged in, before agreeing to a third-party test. Pen testing is described as ethical hacking, but the testers involved are typically “White Hat” hackers – who presumably honed their skills by indulging in some unethical hacking activities, before “going legit”. So it’s a good idea to ask around and check their credentials, past work and testimonials online, before choosing a contractor.
Caution aside, the penetration testing process yields multiple benefits, for an enterprise.
1. Plugging the Gaps
The issues thrown up by a penetration test will highlight the existing weaknesses in your system configurations and network infrastructure, as well as any lax practices on the part of your staff that could lead to data breaches, malicious infiltration, or worse. These can then inform the amendments you make to your security protocols, and suggest software and hardware alterations that can be made to plug these security gaps.
2. Ensuring Continuity
Network availability, 24/7 communications, and customer or user access to the resources you provide are essential to your business operations. Any disruption to this continuity (say, a data breach, or Denial of Service attack) will have a negative impact on your operations and your bottom line. Penetration testing can throw up potential threats to all these areas, and help ensure that your business doesn’t suffer from unanticipated downtime or inaccessibility issues.
3. Meeting Compliance
Industry and legal requirements dictate that a certain level of pen testing is compulsory. For example, the ISO 27001 standard requires all managers and system owners to conduct regular penetration tests and security reviews, using competent testers. PCI DSS also demands penetration testing for relevant systems.
4. Maintaining Trust
Falling victim to a cyber-assault or data breach is a sure-fire way to lose the confidence and loyalty of your customers, suppliers, and partners – especially if the damage affects them, personally. But being known as an organization that regularly conducts security reviews and penetration testing can effectively reassure all stakeholders that their data, transactions, and your business are all sound.
5. Enhancing Quality Assurance
If your organization deals in software, consumer goods, or other products dependent on a strong IT infrastructure to drive innovation and development, a secure production environment subjected to regular pen testing will enhance your standing in the market, and assure your buyers of a consistent and high standard.
6. Rounding Out Your Defences
Penetration testing is a powerful weapon in your security arsenal; it’s an ideal training tool for network security personnel, and their automated security systems and software. But it shouldn’t be relied on in isolation. Instead, pen testing should be employed as part of a suite of measures including updates and security patches for operating systems, Web browsers, and office software, user education, security software provision, threat intelligence, and the drafting of strong policies.
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