What is penetration testing?

Cybersecurity Content Writer

Penetration testing, also referred to simply as “pen testing,” is a specialized form of cybersecurity assessment. In essence, it's about simulating cyberattacks on computer systems, networks, or applications to identify potential vulnerabilities before hackers can take advantage of them. But it's more than just finding weak spots. Penetration testing is all about understanding the potential impact of these vulnerabilities on the business, the data, and the end users.

As obvious by the opening lines, today we’re getting into the nitty gritty of penetration testing. Why is it important to document these tests? What types of pen tests are there? What are the benefits of it all? Get answers to these and other questions in this article.

Why is it important to continuously conduct pen testing?

Change is the only constant in the digital world. Software updates, infrastructure developments, and evolving cyber threats make the digital landscape a dynamic one, to say the least. New vulnerabilities emerge as technology advances, making continuous penetration tests essential.

By continuously evaluating and re-evaluating defenses, organizations can ensure they remain resilient against both existing and — even more importantly — emerging threats. Moreover, as businesses grow and expand infrastructure as well as implement more network solutions, the potential attack surface expands. Regular pen tests ensure that as a business evolves, its defenses evolve alongside.

These days, when we can safely assume that cybercrime is the most lucrative criminal endeavor and is even projected to only grow in sophistication and frequency — pen tests should be an integral part of organizations processes.

Benefits of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing offers a variety of benefits that extend beyond identifying vulnerabilities:

  • Proactive defense. The proactive nature of a pen test is one of its major advantages. Instead of adopting reactive strategies and waiting for a cyberattack to occur, organizations can seek out potential vulnerabilities. This kind of approach ensures that potential threats are identified and mitigated before they can be exploited by bad actors.

  • Informed decision making. With the insights gained from pen tests, organizations can make data-driven decisions with regard to their security strategy. Whether it's allocating resources to specific areas, prioritizing vulnerability fixes, or investing in security tools, a pen test always provides the clarity needed for effective decision-making.

  • Regulatory compliance. For many industries, regulatory compliance is a mandate. Thanks to penetration tests, organizations can adhere to industry-specific regulations in an easier and more efficient manner, avoiding potential legal trouble and hefty fines.

  • Reputational growth. Data breaches and cyberattacks can severely taint an organization's reputation. In some cases, they can even make a company go out of business altogether. By regularly conducting penetration tests and showcasing a commitment to cybersecurity, organizations can improve their reputation and inspire confidence among clients, partners, and stakeholders.

  • Cost savings. While there's an upfront cost associated with penetration testing, the long-term savings can be substantial — especially given the fines that loom in an instance of a data breach. Identifying and addressing vulnerabilities early can prevent the potentially significant financial and reputational losses associated with a data breach.

Types of penetration testing

The digital world is vast and so is the landscape of potential vulnerabilities. Different assets and scenarios necessitate varied types of penetration tests.

  • Network penetration testing. This sort of test can be considered a deep dive into an organization's network infrastructure. It evaluates the robustness of servers, firewalls, routers, and other network devices against potential attacks. The goal of a network pen test is to ensure that data in transit remains secure at all times.

  • Web app penetration testing. Cybercrooks love targeting web applications, given their accessibility over the internet. The web app pen test delves into the intricacies of those applications, from the frontend user interface to the backend databases. It evaluates all aspects of the web app, highlighting potential vulnerabilities.

  • Mobile app penetration testing. The popularity of mobile devices has led to an explosion in mobile apps. This test focuses on both the application and the underlying mobile platform, ensuring that users' data remains secure.

  • Physical penetration testing. Often overlooked, this test evaluates the physical security measures of an organization. It simulates attempts to gain unauthorized physical access to facilities, aiming to identify potential security lapses in areas like surveillance, access controls, and employee security awareness.

Penetration testing methods

Different methods of pen tests can provide unique perspectives, tailored to various scenarios:

  • External testing. This method focuses on evaluating the security of an organization's assets that are visible on the internet and so can be exploited. It's an in-depth assessment of public-facing applications, websites, and servers, providing insights into potential vulnerabilities that external attackers might look to exploit.

  • Internal testing. Not all threats are external. In fact the Gurucul’s 2023 Insider Threat report results indicate that insider threats are a top concern at organizations of all kinds. Simulating insider threats is crucial for gauging the risks posed by potential threats from within the organization, whether it's a disgruntled employee or a third-party contractor with devious intent.

  • Blind testing. During a blind test, testers have limited knowledge about the target. It's a real-world simulation, mimicking scenarios where cybercriminals use various techniques to gather intelligence and launch attacks. It is a great way to understand how cyberattacks work in real time.

  • Double-blind testing. Taking realism a step further, during a double-blind test even the organization's IT and security teams are unaware of the test. This approach evaluates the real-time response capabilities of the organization, providing insights into incident detection and response effectiveness.

  • Targeted testing. This is a collaborative method where both the organization and the tester are aware of the test. It's a transparent approach, often used for educational purposes, to provide a grand view of the security landscape and train internal teams.

The five phases of the penetration testing

In most instances pen testing comprises five phases. Here are the five typical phases of pen testing.

  • Reconnaissance. This is the initial phase during which the penetration tester gathers data about the target. The information could involve IP addresses, domain names, network infrastructure, and even employee details. The aim is to collect data that can be used to find actual vulnerabilities. This phase may involve both passive methods, like studying publicly available information, and active methods, such as directly interacting with the target system.

  • Scanning. The next step after information gathering is to identify potential points of entry. This involves scanning the system in a variety of ways to identify potentially open ports, running services, and applications, along with their versions. The goal is to determine how the target responds to various intrusion attempts, which can provide a roadmap for the actual attack.

  • Vulnerability assessment. With a clear picture of the target's infrastructure, the tester now looks for weaknesses. This phase often involves the use of automated tools, databases, and manual techniques to identify vulnerabilities in the system. The outcome is a shortlist of potential weak spots that could be exploited in the next phase.

  • Exploitation. During this phase, the tester tries to exploit the identified vulnerabilities. The aim is not just to breach the system but to understand the potential impact of each vulnerability. For instance, can the vulnerability be used to gain unauthorized access, manage access privileges, or access sensitive data? This phase provides a clear picture of what a real-world attacker could accomplish.

  • Reporting. After the assessment, the tester compiles a detailed report. This report typically includes a summary of the assessment, vulnerabilities found, data accessed, and recommendations for securing the system. The goal here is to provide the organization with actionable insights that could be implemented to fortify their overall security posture. This phase is crucial because it not only highlights the weak spots but also guides the organization on the steps to take to enhance their security posture.

Bottom line

In the digital landscape, penetration testing should be an integral part of an organization's processes, especially if the company is striving for success. It is important to understand that pen tests are not just about identifying vulnerabilities. These tests are about understanding the broader implications of the vulnerabilities on an organization's overall security posture. By simulating cyberattacks, companies can gain valuable insights with regard to their defenses, allowing them to make informed decisions about where to bolster their security measures.

But while penetration testing provides a deep dive into an organization's vulnerabilities, it's essential not to overlook the basics. Passwords, for example, are often the first line of defense for most digital systems. Their importance cannot be overstated, and yet they remain one of the most commonly exploited vectors for cyberattacks.

This is where NordPass for companies comes in handy. It offers more than just a single secure place to store passwords. It provides an encrypted environment, ensuring that sensitive credentials are protected from prying eyes. Features like the password generator ensure that users create strong, hard-to-crack passwords, while the password health check offers insights into the strength of stored passwords. Additionally, with the data breach scanner, organizations can stay ahead of potential threats by being alerted if their domains or emails have been detected in a data breach.

In the end, if there’s one thing that you ought to take from this post is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to organizational security. While pen tests are crucial and can provide incredible insights, it is essential not to overlook foundational security tools such as NordPass.

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