Penetration testing (also known as pen testing or ethical hacking) is a simulated cyberattack on your IT systems, networks, and applications. The aim is to test and evaluate security levels by attempting a breach using the same approach as a hacker. This helps you spot vulnerabilities and weaknesses that are leaving your business susceptible to cybercrime.
In such a competitive world, businesses are constantly adopting new technology to stay ahead. While digital transformation is great for business, it presents challenges for cybersecurity. New and evolving IT systems can create new vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit and access your business assets. Penetration testing helps you to verify whether your cybersecurity controls and processes are keeping your business protected against an evolving threat landscape. It’s a systematic exercise to uncover areas where your IT security may not be up to scratch.
While many businesses understand the need for pen testing, it can be challenging to scope.
This blog will help you understand a bit more about penetration testing and the different types and approaches to this valuable risk management process.
So, what is penetration testing?
A penetration test (pen test) is an authorised attempt to breach your system’s security using the same tools and techniques as cybercriminals. It provides you with knowledge of the security gaps and weaknesses that leave your business vulnerable to cybercrime. Weaknesses can range from design and configuration errors to software bugs, process flaws, and even end-user behaviour.
Penetration testing can be done manually/ However, software is sometimes used to automatically test and compromise web applications, networks, servers, devices, and other potential exposure points. The primary objective of pen testing is to spot security weaknesses in your IT infrastructure. It can also be used to test your security policies, your ability to identify and respond to threats, and security awareness across your business.
The end goal of pen testing is to use findings to improve your internal vulnerability assessment and management processes. Penetration tests can be used to improve both system security and importantly user behaviour. Remember, your people are your perimeter.
What will a pen test tell you?
Generally, pen tests are used to identify the level of risk system vulnerabilities create. They not only identify weaknesses, but help you prioritise plans based on the threats that pose the highest risk.
If you’ve recently implemented new systems or security controls, penetration testing can give you assurance that they have been configured appropriately and haven’t created new security gaps.
Why is penetration testing important?
Uncover and address real risks – Pen testers attempt to exploit any weaknesses they identify. This gives you the opportunity to see what damage a hacker could do in the real world, and enables you to prioritise and mitigate security risks.
Reveal vulnerabilities – Penetration testing evaluates the existing weaknesses in your IT infrastructure and web applications as well as employee’s daily habits that could lead to a breach. After the assessment, you will receive a report detailing findings and recommendations to improve your security posture.
Test your defence – Your business should be quick to detect and respond to threats. The feedback you receive from a penetration test will show you where your weaknesses lie and how you can bolster your defence.
Ensure business continuity – To stay active and competitive, your systems need to run without disruption. Users need to access critical data resources, whenever and wherever they need. A pen test spots potential threats that would result in unexpected downtime, and addressing these threats will ensure business continuity.
Protect your people and endpoints – Embedding security awareness into your culture is essential. Did you know that 95% of security breaches are caused by human error? Pen testing can help you assess and remediate risk with simulated attacks that help you identify vulnerable users and improve user behaviour with awareness training.
What is the difference between pen testing and vulnerability assessments?
Penetration testing and vulnerability assessments are often mistaken as the same thing. However, penetration testing goes a few steps further.
Vulnerability assessments – Scrutinising an IT environment, with the aim to identify security gaps and weaknesses. Vulnerability assessments can expose thousands of vulnerabilities, but do not aim to exploit them to see their real-life risk. Vulnerability assessments are still a valuable exercise, but a pen testing provides further insights.
Penetration testing – While vulnerability assessments provide you with an overview of your security weaknesses, a pen test adds additional context by testing the possibility of leveraging your vulnerabilities to access your systems and data. Pen tests also add a further dimension by recommending remediation plans based on the threats that pose the highest risk.
What are the different types of penetration testing?
To ensure pen tests are in-depth and effective, there are several types of pen tests that focus on particular areas of an IT infrastructure. They include:
Web application penetration testing is an in-depth examination and simulation designed to discover weaknesses in your browsers, plugins, and other web-based apps and components. Web application tests are much more detailed, intense, and time consuming as web apps are used in business more than ever, and many are complex and publicly available. Though potentially resource-heavy and costly, this form of pen test can prevent extremely expensive and damaging breaches.
This is the most common type of pen test since networks continue to be a main target for cybercriminals. There are two types of network pen tests: internal and external. These tests establish common to critical security vulnerabilities in networks and systems. Experts apply a checklist that includes, SSL certificate scoping issues, test cases for encrypted transport protocols, use of administrative services, and more.
Social engineering tests simulate common attacks targeted at your people, such as phishing and baiting. The primary objective of these attacks is to manipulate employees into clicking malicious links or taking an action that compromises the business network. Social engineering tests can uncover how susceptible your employees are to these types of attacks and verify the need to improve security hygiene and awareness.
Businesses are using more mobile devices than ever but it can be a struggle to secure them. Wireless penetration testing aims to discover and evaluate connections between all the devices linked to your business’s Wi-Fi. All mobile devices, computers, IoT devices and other systems connected to your Wi-Fi are examined. A wireless pen test exploits insecure network configurations and weak authentication.
In a physical penetration test, experts simulate real threats by attempting to compromise physical barriers to access your infrastructure, systems, or employees. During this type of test, experts attempt to gain building access or find discarded information that can be used to compromise security. They may try and gather information by listening into conversations or hiding devices in offices to give remote access to your internal network.
Common pen testing myths
Penetration testing is a complex subject surrounded by many myths and misconceptions. Here are the most common myths debunked.
‘Only large organisations can afford pen testing’
- Pen tests aren’t just for big businesses. The cost of a penetration test depends on the scope and objectives of the assessment. It is also influenced by the size and complexity of your systems and networks.
‘Only enterprises, governments, and financial institutions need pen tests’
- This myth comes from the belief that only businesses that deal with sensitive information need pen tests. In reality, any business that uses IT and web apps can be a target for an attack. Pen tests help any business regardless of its industry to uncover security gaps and help to patch up them.
‘A penetration test will make our network crash’
- Pen tests are performed by experts who use specific tools and techniques designed to prevent any damage to the targeted system. Pen tests are meant to improve security, not make it worse.
Improve your security posture with 848
With the frequency and severity of security breaches increasing year after year, there has never been a better time to prioritise security.
Do you have the in-house skillsets you need to assess your vulnerabilities and secure your infrastructure?
848 has a dedicated cybersecurity practice with a diverse team of IT experts to secure your IT systems, applications, and cloud environments. We work with leaders in the cybersecurity space including Cisco, Fortinet, Blacksmiths, and more. In collaboration with our partners, we design and deliver tailored solutions, frameworks, and processes that keep your organisation protected from evolving and sophisticated threats.
We have the proven methodologies and technology to actively assess your infrastructure and design a security solution that aligns with your business goals and successfully closes security gaps.
For more information, get in touch with our cybersecurity team today.
Kate is a Marketing Executive researching and writing about emerging technologies and the cloud on a daily basis. She creates informative and educational content assets such as blog posts, articles and resources using strategic messaging to illustrate how a modern IT landscape can deliver real business value.