April 18, 2023

What is Penetration Testing?

Table of Contents

Key takeaway

Penetration testing, also known as "pen testing" or "pentesting," is a crucial component of maintaining robust cybersecurity. Testing helps organizations proactively identify vulnerabilities in their systems, networks, and applications before cybercriminals exploit them by simulating an attack on the system. This can be especially important for organizations that store sensitive data, such as financial institutions and government agencies, but is also a best practice for any organization digitally storing information.

In this article, we delve into the fundamentals of penetration testing, its various types, benefits, tools, and risks, as well as the regulatory requirements and the future of the practice.

Understanding the Basics of Penetration Testing

The main goal of penetration testing is to simulate real-world attacks by mimicking the techniques and tactics that cyber criminals use. Penetration testing may be performed by internal security teams or outsourced to specialized third-party organizations (i.e., penetration testing service providers). 

One of the key benefits of penetration testing is that it enables organizations to identify vulnerabilities before attackers can exploit them to mitigate risks and prevent data breaches. In addition, conducting regular penetration tests helps organizations:

  • Identify vulnerabilities before attackers exploit them, reducing the risk of breaches and data loss
  • Ensure compliance with regulatory requirements or industry standards, including those that require periodic penetration testing
  • Build customer trust by demonstrating a commitment to securing sensitive information and maintaining robust security
  • Train the internal security teams by exposing them to real-world attack scenarios and enhancing their skills
  • Support informed decision-making on security investments by providing insights into the most pressing security weaknesses and gaps

Penetration testing is not a one-time event but an ongoing process to stay ahead of potential attacks. As new vulnerabilities are discovered and new threats emerge, engineering teams must continually assess and improve their security. Penetration testing can be conducted using a variety of techniques, including:

  • Vulnerability scanning uses automated tools to identify known vulnerabilities in systems and applications
  • Network mapping to identify all devices and systems on a network and assess their security posture
  • Social engineering employs psychological manipulation to trick individuals into divulging sensitive information or performing actions that could compromise the security

Penetration Testing Frameworks

Several methodologies and frameworks guide penetration testing efforts. Among the most notable and widely adopted is the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), the Penetration Testing Execution Standard (PTES), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). These frameworks provide comprehensive guidelines for different stages of the process, from planning and scoping to data analysis and reporting.

7 Common Types of Penetration Testing

There are various types of penetration testing based on the scope, target, and knowledge of the tester. Tests may also focus on specific areas, such as networks, applications, or physical security. By utilizing a combination of different types of penetration tests, organizations can ensure that their systems are secure and protected. Let’s dive into the seven most common categories of penetration testing.

1. White Box Testing

White box testing involves the tester having complete knowledge of the target's internals, including source code and network infrastructure. Also known as “clear box testing,” this is usually conducted by internal teams or security experts who have access to the system's architecture and design. White box testing is especially useful for identifying vulnerabilities that may be hidden from external attackers and for testing the effectiveness of security controls.

2. Black Box Testing

Also known as blind testing, black box testing involves the tester lacking any prior knowledge of the target. The tester must discover vulnerabilities using publicly available information and simulates a real-world attack scenario where the attacker is outside of the organization. Black box testing is useful for identifying vulnerabilities that may be missed in white box testing and for testing the effectiveness of security controls against external threats.

3. Gray Box Testing

As its name suggests, gray box testing is a combination of white and black box testing. The tester has partial knowledge of the target's internals, which simulates a situation where an attacker already gained limited access to a system or network. Gray box testing assesses both the code (internal) layer of security as well as the external.

4. Network Penetration Testing

Network penetration testing identifies vulnerabilities in the network infrastructure of an organization, including routers, switches, firewalls, and other network devices that could be exploited by attackers.

5. Application Penetration Testing

This type of testing focuses on identifying vulnerabilities in web or mobile applications that could be used to steal sensitive data or launch attacks on users. It involves testing the application's functionality, input validation, authentication mechanisms, and data storage to identify weaknesses that could be exploited by attackers.

6. Wireless Penetration Testing

Wireless penetration testing, as its name implies, focuses on identifying vulnerabilities in wireless networks, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It involves testing the network's encryption mechanisms, authentication protocols, and access controls to identify weaknesses that could be exploited by attackers.

7. Physical Penetration Testing

Physical penetration testing identifies vulnerabilities in the physical security of an organization. It involves testing the organization's access controls, surveillance systems, and other physical security measures to identify weaknesses that could be exploited by attackers. 

Tools Used in Penetration Testing

Penetration testers rely on several tools to probe networks, analyze applications, and exploit vulnerabilities. While some of these tools are commercial, many open-source options have earned industry-wide recognition for their effectiveness. Examples of popular penetration testing tools include:

  • Nmap – An open-source network scanner that helps identify network devices and their open ports
  • Metasploit – A widely-used exploitation framework for developing and executing exploit code against various targets
  • Burp Suite – A comprehensive web application testing toolkit with features such as a proxy, scanner, and intruder
  • Wireshark – A powerful network packet analyzer that captures and dissects network traffic for analysis
  • SQLMap – An automated tool designed for detecting and exploiting SQL injection vulnerabilities in web applications

Risks of Penetration Testing

While penetration testing is critical to maintaining security, there are some risks, including:

  • Unintended service disruptions due to aggressive testing techniques, putting an excessive load on target systems
  • Accidental disclosure of sensitive data during the testing process
  • Legal repercussions if testing extends beyond the agreed-upon scope or violates applicable laws and regulations
  • Costs associated with engaging third-party penetration testing service providers

It's important to assess these risks in the planning phase to reduce potential negative impacts.

Regulatory Requirements for Penetration Testing

Many regulatory bodies and industry standards mandate penetration testing as part of their requirements. Non-compliance can result in significant fines, legal penalties, or reputational damage. Notable examples include:

Exploring the Future of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing continues to evolve alongside the ever-changing cybersecurity landscape. Notable trends include:

  • The increasing reliance on new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the speed and efficiency of penetration tests.
  • The growing popularity of continuous penetration testing provides organizations with ongoing security assessments to promptly address emerging threats and vulnerabilities.
  • The expanding focus is on targeting Internet of Things (IoT) devices and critical infrastructure as they become more integrated into daily life and operations.

The future promises significant advancements for penetration testing as organizations prioritize cybersecurity to protect valuable assets and ensure operational integrity. Comprehensive, regular penetration tests will continue to be a vital component of any organization's security strategy.

Harness Security Testing Orchestration (STO) makes it possible to identify and remediate application security vulnerabilities before they make it to production. STO includes intelligence and automation that provide development teams with a prioritized list of vulnerabilities to fix and won’t let them deploy apps that have not been fixed yet. Your security and development teams will gain a unified view of vulnerabilities across all the applications and services throughout the delivery lifecycle, making it easy to assess overall risk at any moment.

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