Penetration testing is the process of assessing the vulnerability of a network, application, human, or software to be compromised, and subsequently intentionally attempting to attack these vulnerabilities.
During penetration testing, the expert will begin by gathering all necessary information about an organization, then the expert will use scanning tools to identify vulnerabilities in the gathered data. After these two stages, the security expert would then attempt to exploit these vulnerabilities to gain access to or attack the organization’s network. The pentester (penetration tester) then creates a back door to cover any traces which could reveal their identity.
Some of the core functions of penetration testing include knowing the security posture of an organization, testing the security controls, and discovering real world vulnerabilities.
Some of the benefits of penetration testing are explained below.
1. Risks can be Identified and Ranked
Penetration tests provide identification of all the security risks faced by an organization and help to arrange these risks according to their severity. This can be achieved by scanning a system with a penetration testing tool that highlights vulnerabilities and then ranks them in terms of severity. Real world risks that could lead to financial and/or data losses can be identified. Penetration testing also ranks the risks from most to least dangerous with reference to both their severity and exploitability. For example, it is possible that a risk considered highly dangerous might be difficult to exploit, and in such cases would not be classified as an important risk over an easily exploitable one. However, this is something that only security experts would be able to identify and rank adequately.
Note:Properly identifying and ranking risks will help the security personnel in an organization to effectively prepare and tackle threats according to severity. Penetration testing will provide detailed analysis of risks encountered and provide guidance to an organization on the best ways to eliminate these risks, ensuring that the most exploitable vulnerabilities are removed, thereby minimizing risks.
2. Vulnerabilities can be Revealed
Penetration testing helps to notice weaknesses that could be exploited in an organization’s software, hardware, or human resources. There are no means of gaining access to an organization’s network or systems that cannot be discovered with penetration testing. For example, human vulnerabilities can only be identified in the event of an actual attack. However, with penetration testing, such vulnerabilities can be easily revealed without exposure to real attacks.
Penetration testing achieves this by scanning all available data or intentionally simulating attacks to identify loopholes and then providing a report of the identified vulnerabilities. Knowing the vulnerabilities in a system is essential in knowing where and how to improve security and defense against hackers.
3. Assess your Abilities to Defend Against Cyber-Attacks
The strength, expertise, and efficiency of a security team is some of the most important information provided by penetration testing. A well developed security system should be equipped to identify attempted attacks, exploit and subsequently block those attacks.
Penetration testing helps to measure how well a security team or personnel can efficiently respond to cyber-attacks either for prevention, blocking, or rectification of attacks. Assessing the defense strengths of an organization with penetration testing can be done using blind or double-blind testing methods in which security experts attack a system without any prior information, or does so with the security personnel of the organization, and then note the speed and accuracy of handling the attack. This is important because it helps to prepare security teams to quickly mitigate attacks. Penetration testing is also essential in this case because the process helps the organization to identify exact areas of weaknesses or strengths in their security and can then take necessary steps for improvement.
4. Maintaining Business Continuity
Security challenges pose one of the biggest threats to the survival of businesses because they have the potential to drastically impact the growth of a business. These breaches can lead to loss of revenue, loss of customers, and even shutdown of operations. Each of these possibilities has a great impact on the continuity of business as 82% of businesses close up as a result of loss in revenue.
Penetration testing helps to put businesses in better conditions to defend against security threats by identifying exploitable security weaknesses in an organization. The insights provided by penetration testing are priceless in ensuring business continuity.
5. Ensuring Trust
Security breaches are dangerous for organizations because they can lead to the exposure of private data or loss of finances which can be concerning for clients. With penetration testing, organizations can assure clients of full safety and security. This helps to maintain the image and reputation of a company, and in turn, builds trust with clients.
6. Comply with All Applicable Regulations and Certifications
There are several security regulatory standards demanded from organizations across technical, health, financial, and other industries such as the PCI-DSS, SOX, or HIPAA regulations. Penetration testing helps to identify the regulations under which an organization falters and create an avenue for remedy. This is essential because organizations can be charged for non-compliance with certain regulations.
7. Obtain the Advice of a Third-party Expert
Penetration testing is done by top-level security experts who are able to identify threats and weaknesses that an organization’s employees may not. Through the experience and tests conducted by these experts, organizations can be certain of valid results and also have access to advice from these experts on the best ways to mitigate perceived threats. This is necessary to efficiently handle vulnerabilities and threats whilst maintaining maximum protection.
8. Comply with Monitoring Requirements and Avoid Penalties
All businesses have strict requirements attached to them, especially in terms of the level of security provided. Compliance with these requirements is essential. Requirements can be external, provided by industry standards and regulations, or internal, to serve as policies. The policies and requirements are designed to reduce risks and prevent attacks to a certain extent. Failure to comply with these requirements not only attracts security risks, but also fines and penalties. With penetration testing, businesses can know how well these requirements are met, or otherwise. For example, the Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) has 3 core requirements including confidentiality and protection of data, availability and protection of network systems using DoS, DDoS, etc., and lastly, integrity and misuse of data. Failure to comply with any of these regulations whether intentional or due to an attack may be in violation of these requirements which makes penetration testing important.
9. Avoid Network Downtime at All Costs
The breach of a security system, data, or servers can have dreadful effects on an organization. Security breaches can cause network downtime either through hardware attacks or ransomware installed via unauthorized access to a network. A successful attack on an organization’s security can cost a lot of time because reversing the attack or its effects could involve bargaining, legal activities in the case of data recovery or misuse of data, financial loss, data loss, etc. All of which could cause a standstill in business operations. In the last quarter of 2021, Mark Zuckerberg lost $7 billion in personal wealth caused by a massive drop in Facebook shares due to a 5-hour network downtime. This further demonstrates the potential negative effects that a network downtime can cause. Penetration testing helps to identify and prevent internal and external weaknesses that can cause network downtime. Penetration testing also helps to recommend the required development in infrastructure or security systems to prevent network downtime or system failure.
10. The Methods of Hackers are Revealed
Penetration testing tools and strategies develop as fast as hacking methods develop to ensure the provision of up-to-date security. Different methods used to hack systems spring up daily and penetration testing helps to constantly reveal these methods so that organizations are aware of the security developments required to prevent such attacks. This is done through the black-hat method where real-world simulations are carried out on a network in the exact way hackers would. Using penetration testing to reveal methods of hackers is necessary for organizations to remain ahead of hackers and insusceptible to their methods.
How are penetration testing tools different from other security tester software programs?Penetration testing tools are software used by security experts to scan systems for vulnerabilities or security threats through planning, scanning, gaining and maintaining access, and analysis. The primary purpose of penetration testing tools is to perform penetration testing which involves using the tools to find system vulnerabilities or security threats in a simulated attack.
Penetration testing consists of vulnerability scanning, ethical hacking, security scanning, risk assessment, security auditing, and posture assessment. These operations are performed for a wide variety of reasons which are detailed below.
Vulnerability scanning refers to the use of automated software to identify vulnerabilities in a network. Security scanning is used to identify weaknesses in software either manually or automatically. Ethical hacking is the identification of weaknesses in a system and replication of hacking attacks through unauthorized access. Risk assessment is the identification and prioritization of risks in a network, web application, or other software. Security auditing is the inspection of applications and operating systems for security flaws internally. Posture assessment is the combination of ethical hacking, risk assessments, and security scanning to determine the general posture of an organization’s security.
Types of penetration testing include social engineering, physical testing, network testing, etc. For vulnerability scanners, the types are network-based scanners, host-based scanners, open-source scanners, web/application scanners, and database scanners. Ethical hacking includes system hacking, web-server hacking, etc. Types of risk assessments are generic risk assessments, quantitative risk assessments, dynamic assessments, network assessments, etc. Security auditing could be both internal or external audits.
The benefits of vulnerability assessments and penetration testing alongside other security testing programs include the provision of in-depth analysis and insights into security, the ability to reveal vulnerabilities, protection against network vulnerability exploitation, prioritization of risks, automatic aid in blocking attacks, and many more.
The methods used by penetration testing for ensuring security include internal and external penetration testing. Internal penetration testing involves the identification of vulnerabilities in a system and exploitation of those vulnerabilities to test the security strength of an organization against security attackers that have internal access to the organization’s network. This testing type is used for vulnerability detection, malware spreading, man-in-the-middle attacks (MITM), information leaks, and several other malicious activities. External penetration testing means testing vulnerabilities exploitable by unknown hackers from security experts who do not have any legitimate access to a network’s data through access to public data. The test is used to build security and measure an organization’s ability to hastily defend against external attacks.
How does the penetration tools’ efficiency change based on types?
Each penetration testing tool functions under a particular type of penetration testing. The types of penetration testing and their corresponding tools are detailed below.
- Network Penetration Testing: Network penetration testing is an internal or external test used to identify vulnerabilities in the infrastructure of an organization’s network such as the firewall, routers, servers, etc. The tools that function efficiently as network testing tools include Wireshark, John the Ripper, Burp Suite, Nmap, etc.
- Web Application Testing: This is the identification and exploitation of weaknesses in a website, web service, or web application that could occur through coding mistakes or poor understanding of cyber-attack vectors. Web penetration testing involves the gathering of information available via the web, finding any vulnerability that could be derived from this information, exploiting the vulnerabilities, and then creating remedies for those weaknesses. The available tools under this type of penetration testing include Wfuzz, W3af, John Ripper, etc.
- Social Engineering Testing: This is a penetration test which focuses on people and the vulnerabilities they are liable to create. Social engineering penetration testing involves the use of different social techniques like smishing, phishing, impersonation or USB drops to attempt malware injection into a system. The purpose of this penetration test is to assess human security understanding levels, and learn the location of vulnerabilities. One penetration tool that functions under social engineering penetration testing tools is Kali Linux.
- Physical Penetration Testing: This is the replication of a real attack that involves a security expert making attempts to access and compromise hardware devices, an organization’s building, or employees in the way that a hacker would.
- Client-Side Penetration Testing: This type of testing is used to identify weaknesses in client-side application programs such as email clients, Adobe Photoshop, Web browsers, etc. Client-side penetration testing is used to identify cyber-attacks like Clickjacking Attacks, Form Hijacking, open redirection, HTML injection, etc. An example of a client-side penetration testing tool is BeEf.
What are the Best Penetration Testing Tools?
There are several types of penetration testing tools in use today. Some of the best penetration testing tools are given below.
- John the Ripper