What is Penetration Testing?

It seems like every day dawns with a new headline regarding the latest cybersecurity attack. Hackers continue to steal millions of records and billions of dollars at an alarming frequency. The key to combating their efforts is to conduct thorough penetration tests throughout the year.

Penetration testing is designed to assess your security before an attacker does. Penetration testing tools simulate real-world attack scenarios to discover and exploit security gaps that could lead to stolen records, compromised credentials, intellectual property, personally identifiable information (PII), cardholder data, personal, protected health information, data ransom, or other harmful business outcomes. By exploiting security vulnerabilities, penetration testing helps you determine how to best mitigate and protect your vital business data from future cybersecurity attacks.

What are the 5 Stages of Penetration Testing?

With any typical pen test, there are five key stages that must be completed:

1. Recon and information gathering

Before any action can be taken by a penetration testing team, suitable information gathering must be completed on the prospective target. This period is vital to establishing an attack plan and serves as the staging ground for the entirety of the engagement.

2. Scanning

Following the reconnaissance stage, a collection of scans are performed on the target to decipher how their security systems will counter multiple breach attempts. The discovery of vulnerabilities, open ports, and other areas of weakness within a network’s infrastructure can dictate how pen testers will continue with the planned attack.

3. Gaining access

Once data has been collected, penetration testers leverage common web application attacks such as SQL Injection and Cross-Site Scripting to exploit any present vulnerabilities. Now that access has been obtained, testers attempt to imitate the scope of the potential damage that could be generated from a malicious attack.

4. Maintaining Access

The main goal of this stage is to achieve a state of constant presence within the target environment. As time progresses, more data is collected throughout the exploited system which allows the testers to mimic advanced persistent threats.

5. Covering Tracks/ Analysis

Finally, once the engagement is complete, any trace of the attack must be eliminated to ensure anonymity. Log events, scripts, and other executables that could be discovered by the target should be completely untraceable. A comprehensive report with an in-depth analysis of the entire engagement will be shared with the target to highlight key vulnerabilities, gaps, the potential impact of a breach, and a variety of other essential security program components.

How is Penetration Testing Done?

Penetration testing can either be done in-house by your own experts using pen testing tools, or you can outsource to a penetration testing services provider. A penetration test starts with the security professional enumerating the target network to find vulnerable systems and/or accounts. This means scanning each system on the network for open ports that have services running on them. It is extremely rare that an entire network has every service configured correctly, properly password-protected, and fully patched. Once the penetration tester has a good understanding of the network and the vulnerabilities that are present, he/she will use a penetration testing tool to exploit a vulnerability in order to gain unwelcome access.

Security professionals do not just target systems, however. Often, a pen tester targets users on a network through phishing emails, pre-text calling, or onsite social engineering.

How Do You Test the "User Risk" to Your IT Security Chain? 

Your users present an additional risk factor as well. Attacking a network via human error or compromised credentials is nothing new. If the continuous cybersecurity attacks and data breaches have taught us anything, it’s that the easiest way for a hacker to enter a network and steal data or funds is still through network users.

Compromised credentials are the top attack vector across reported data breaches year after year, a trend proven by the Verizon Data Breach Report. Part of a penetration test’s job is to resolve the aforementioned security threat caused by user error. A pen tester will attempt brute-force password guessing of discovered accounts to gain access to systems and applications. While compromising one machine can lead to a breach, in a real-life scenario an attacker will typically use lateral movement to eventually land on a critical asset. 

Another common way to test the security of your network users is through a simulated phishing attack. Phishing attacks use personalized communication methods to convince the target to do something that’s not in their best interest. For example, a phishing attack might convince a user that it’s time for a "mandatory password reset" and to click on an embedded email link. Whether clicking on the malicious link drops malware or it simply gives the attacker the door they need to steal credentials for future use, a phishing attack is one of the easiest ways to exploit network users. If you are looking to test your users’ awareness around phishing attacks, make sure that the penetration testing tool you use has these capabilities.

What Does Penetration Testing Mean to a Business? 

A penetration test is a crucial component to network security. Through these tests a business can identify:

  1. Security vulnerabilities before a hacker does
  2. Gaps in information security compliance
  3. The response time of their information security team, i.e. how long it takes the team to realize that there is a breach and mitigate the impact
  4. The potential real-world effect of a data breach or cybersecurity attack
  5. Actionable remediation guidance

Through penetration testing, security professionals can effectively find and test the security of multi-tier network architectures, custom applications, web services, and other IT components. These penetration testing tools and services help you gain fast insight into the areas of highest risk so that you may effectively plan security budgets and projects. Thoroughly testing the entirety of a business's IT infrastructure is imperative to taking the precautions needed to secure vital data from cybersecurity hackers, while simultaneously improving the response time of an IT department in the event of an attack.

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