What is Penetration Testing?

Whether for a start-up or a well-established organization, data security is critical. The question that runs through the vast majority of business minds remains to be: “What is the real-world effectiveness of existing security controls against a skilled, active, human attacker?” Therefore, it is important that these companies implement security practices such as penetration testing (or ‘pen testing’) to maximize their defenses. But before we establish what penetration testing is, let’s establish what it is not.

Often, penetration testing is defined as either conducting a “vulnerability scan”, “security assessment” or “compliance audit”. But penetration testing stands apart from all these in several ways.

How is Penetration Testing Different?

  • A pen test does not simply uncover system vulnerabilities as depicted by vulnerability scans. It ensures that those vulnerabilities are actively exploited to determine whether unauthorized access is possible and to identify which system flaws pose an ongoing threat. Although the test may involve the use of automated tools and process frameworks, penetration testing’s ultimate differentiator lies in the fact that examination of weaknesses involves a team of experts. The unmatched skills and experience of these individuals together with automated pen testing tools introduce a blend of advanced and sophisticated countermeasures..
  • Penetration testing contrasts with compliance audits as it goes beyond the boundaries of the company’s compliance, and delves into the potential manipulation of not only your staff but the overall vulnerabilities of your environment. Even a company that is 100% compliant is subject to failing a penetration test.

Pen testing is unique since it allows for multiple attack vectors to be explored against a specific target. It includes information gathering about the target (reconnaissance), identifying possible entry points, break-in attempts, and finally a findings report.

Types of Penetration Testing

Security weaknesses are the main focus of penetration testing. Sometimes known as “white hat” attacks, pen test strategies vary but often include:

Blind testing

A blind test is an approach that resembles a real attacker by allowing the penetration testing team to simulate his/her actions and prosses. This is done by severely limiting the information given to the expert or team of experts performing the test. Often the only news given is that a simulated attack may occur over some period to evaluate the environment.

Double Blind Testing

This strategy takes the blind test to a to the next level where only one or two key people within the organization will be aware that a test is being conducted. Double blind tests are useful, particularly in testing an organization’s security monitoring and incident identification capabilities – as well as the company’s response procedures – without warning.

Targeted testing

Targeted tests are performed by the organization’s IT department collaborating with the expert penetration testing team. Other people refer to this testing strategy as a “light-turned-on” approach due to the fact that every related party can see the test as it is being carried out.

Internal testing

Internal tests simulate an inside attack carried out by an authorized user with standard access privileges behind the firewall. Some organizations prefer these tests because they are useful when dealing with estimations concerning how much damage a dissatisfied employee could cause the company.

External testing

An external test is a pen testing strategy that focuses on a company’s external servers / visible devices as well as domain name servers (DNS), web servers, e-mail servers, or firewalls. The main objective here is to discover if an outside attacker can penetrate the system and how far they can penetrate once they gain access.

Apart from testing the ability of network defenders to successfully detect and respond to attacks, penetration tests will provide evidence to support increased investments in security and technology.