What is Penetration Testing: Definition, Methods, and Examples

The frequency and severity of cybersecurity attacks are increasing with each passing year. That's why many organizations are now putting greater focus on different ways to withstand online attacks. 

There are also regulations like HIPAA, PCI, GDPR, and DSS that mandate periodic penetration testing in order to remain current with all requirements. 

Having said that, organizations still face a lot of challenges and limitations with regard to this defect discovery method - chief among them being the understanding of the process and how it can benefit the company. 

If you are yet to implement pen testing as part of your overall web application security strategy, read the rest of this article to discover everything you need to know about penetration testing, including what it is, different types of tests, best practices, and much more. 

What is Penetration Testing? 

Penetration testing is a sort of security test whereby a company enlists the services of a certified professional to assess the strength of its cybersecurity defences. 

The expert conducts an authorized simulated cyberattack on a specific system to evaluate how secure it is, as well as find any potential vulnerabilities.

This type of test is usually done via on-site audits of the company in question. The tester is provided with some privileged information so they can attempt to use it as a way to gain access to sensitive information.

There are different types of tests that focus on various aspects of an organization's security, including:

Internal Network Penetration Tests: These assess the type of damage an attacker could do if they were to gain access to the company's internal systems.
External Network Penetration Tests: These check for security issues and vulnerabilities in an organization's servers, devices, networks, and hosts. 
Wireless Network Penetration Tests: These tests assess vulnerabilities in Wi-Fi and other wireless systems, rogue access points, weak encryption algorithms, etc.
Web Application Penetration Tests: These look for development practices that are not secure in web design, coding, publishing software, etc.
Phishing Penetration Tests: These tests are designed to assess how susceptible employees are to scam emails.

What is Penetration Testing? 

The penetration test you choose will depend on your specific needs, but regardless of the type of test you conduct, the important thing to keep in mind is that the test should be carried out at regular, set times (e.g. quarterly), or when your company makes major changes to its applications or networks.

Why Do You Need Penetration Testing? 

Penetration testing simulates a wide range of different cyberattacks that could pose a threat to your business. 

It's a good idea to conduct pen tests so you have a clear idea of whether or not your system is robust enough to resist attacks from both authenticated and unauthenticated positions, as well as a variety of system roles.

This way, you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that every aspect of your business has been assessed for vulnerabilities, giving you the chance to fix any issues before they cost you tons more money (or even your business's reputation).

Here are some additional benefits of penetration testing

  • Identify and prioritize weaknesses in any of your business systems.
  • Determine the soundness of your controls.
  • Intelligently manage vulnerabilities and security risks.
  • Eliminate dangerous security flaws before they become problematic
  • Meet security and data privacy regulations like GDPR, PSI, DSS, HIPAA, etc.
  • Provide quantitative and qualitative examples of current security and budget priorities for management.

Must Read: Key Criteria for Choosing Mobile App Security Solution Vendor

Examples of Penetration Testing

Depending on the goals of the penetration test, testers are provided with varying degrees of access to information about the target system. 

Listed below are examples of the different types of pen testing methods for assessing system security.

1. Black Box Penetration Testing

This type of pen testing is where the testing team has no knowledge of the internal structure of the system they are targeting. Their actions are in line with what actual hackers would do when probing a system for external exploitable weaknesses.

Read More: Guide to Penetration Testing

2. Gray Box Penetration Testing 

In this type of testing, the team has knowledge of at least one or more sets of credentials. They also have an idea of the algorithms, code, and internal data structures of the target. The penetration testers might conduct tests based on in-depth design documents like the system's architectural diagrams, etc.

3. White Box Penetration Testing 

White box pen testers are given access to systems and artifacts like source code, binaries, and containers. They may even be allowed access to the servers that run the system. This white-box approach provides the highest level of assurance in the quickest possible way.

Pen Testing vs Automated Testing

For the most part, penetration testing is a manual effort. Testers sometimes use automated scanning and testing tools in the process, but they have to go beyond these tools to use their knowledge of all the latest attack techniques in order to think their way through the security barriers they come across. 

This way, they are able to provide more detailed and in-depth testing than you would get from a vulnerability assessment (that is, automated testing). 

  • With manual pen testing, you can uncover vulnerabilities that aren't commonly found in popular lists such as OWASP Top 10.
  • Manual testing also tests business logic often overlooked by automated testing, such as integrity checks, data validation, etc. 
  • With the manual pen test review, you can identify false positives reported by automated pen testing. 

The bottom line is that penetration testing experts "think" like hackers and they have the ability to analyze data to target attacks and test websites and systems in ways that are beyond the ability of automated testing solutions that follow scripted routines.

Penetration Testing Best Practices

Listed below are a few best practices to keep in mind when conducting penetration tests.

1. Focus on All Phases of Pen Testing

Testers typically aim to simulate cyber attacks exactly how they would be carried out by motivated hackers. 

Penetration Testing Best Practices

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To do that, there are certain steps that they must follow, and it's important to ensure that none of the steps is skipped, otherwise, you won't be able to find all the vulnerabilities in your system. 

These steps include:

Reconnaissance: This is where you gather as much information about the target as possible from both private and public sources in order to inform the attack strategy.
Scanning: The pen tester then uses tools to examine the target system, email client, or website for potential vulnerabilities, including open-source weaknesses, application security issues, open services, etc.
Gaining Access: Whatever the motivations of the hacker, whether it's to steal/change/delete data, move funds, or merely to damage your reputation, they first have to gain access to the system and this is a phase of pen testing that you should get a clear picture on so that you know the tools and techniques used to gain access to the system, whether it's through malware or social engineering, or if it's through a weakness like SQL injection.
Maintaining Access: Once the penetration tester has gained access to the target, their goal is to maintain access long enough for them to accomplish the goals of their simulated attack, such as exfiltrating or modifying data, abusing functionality, etc. The goal here is to demonstrate the potential impact of an attack from motivated adversaries.

 

2. Choose the Right Tools for Pen Testing

There are many different types of penetration testing tools, and the isn't a single solution that is ideal for everyone's needs. Instead, you can choose different tools for different targets, such as port scanning, Wi-Fi break-ins, application scanning, direct network penetration, etc. 

However, broadly speaking there are just a few categories of pen-testing tools:

Vulnerability Scanners: These are used in searching for issues in web apps, network services, APIs, etc.
Reconnaissance Tools: Penetration testers use these to discover network hosts and open ports.
Proxy Tools: For instance, generic man-in-the-middle proxies or specialized web proxies.
Exploitation Tools: These are designed to assist in achieving system footholds or providing access to assets.
Post Exploitation Tools: These tools are for interacting with systems and maintaining/expanding access allowing hackers time to achieve attack objectives.

 

3. Use the Right Professional Services

One of the biggest obstacles in creating a successful cybersecurity program for your business is finding people with the right experience and qualifications. 

Unless you can find qualified security professionals with the knowledge and skills to perform effective tests, you'll just be wasting money on variable expenses that will only produce a false sense of security. 

Ultimately, even if costs more in the short term, performing regular penetration and other security assessments will ensure that your business data and digital infrastructure remains safe from bad actors.

With a professional service like the one offered by Appknox, you get highly qualified professionals to deploy critical penetration testing initiatives that will allow you to deal with any potential cyber threats to your business.

Conclusion

Penetration testing has a lot of benefits. It locates software flaws and security weaknesses (both known and unknown) and allows you to locate even small issues that might not raise much concern by themselves, but could potentially cause serious harm when used as part of a complex attack pattern. 

The right penetration testing method will help you find holes in upstream security assurance practices, including automated tools, coding and configuration standards, and architecture analysis, as well as a variety of other lighter-weight weakness assessment activities.

Now that you understand what penetration testing is and how it's conducted, as well as its challenges and limitations, you're well on your way to protecting your systems by finding ways to mimic the way malicious hackers behave so you can discover and patch up vulnerabilities in your system before the hackers do.

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Published on Feb 3, 2022
Ron Stefanski
Written by Ron Stefanski
Ron Stefanski is an online entrepreneur and marketing professor who has a passion for helping people create and market their own online businesses. Since 2014, he's been able to generate over $1 million from his own business and wants to help others do the same. You can learn more from him by visiting OneHourProfessor.com

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