What is penetration testing?

2024 03 21 · 5 min read

As malicious hackers evolve even faster, business leaders prioritise cyber resilience by conducting regular security assessments throughout their IT environment.  

A recent report on penetration testing in the US and Europe found that 92% of companies are increasing their IT security budgets, with 86% allocating additional funds specifically for penetration testing. This underscores the growing importance of penetration testing as a crucial strategy for identifying vulnerabilities in computer systems, networks, and applications. But what does penetration testing entail, and why is it essential for protecting your organisation’s cyber security?  

In this blog post, our penetration tester Rimantas Milieška discusses the significance of penetration testing, covering its benefits, limitations, and more. Get a clear view of penetration testing and stay one step ahead of potential cyber threats. 

What is penetration test, and why is it important?

Penetration testing, often referred to as pentesting or ethical hacking, is a simulated cyber attack on a computer system, network, or application to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious hackers. Cyber security experts take on the role of hackers, using advanced tools to uncover vulnerabilities in the target’s computer systems. They look at everything from login systems to network setups, testing how well the system can handle different threats. By doing this, organisations learn about their weaknesses and can strengthen their defences against cyber threats. 

Think of it as hiring ‘burglars’ to break into your virtual vaults. If they succeed in breaking into the systems – it is not a failure but a chance to learn and improve. Penetration testing helps organisations patch up holes, tighten security, and stay ahead of digital adversaries. It is not just about finding flaws but building more robust defences in the face of ever-changing cyber threats

What are the benefits of penetration testing? 

Penetration testing is a pillar of modern cyber security, delivering advantages that bolster organisations against dynamic threats. 

  • Security risk assessment. Penetration testing thoroughly evaluates an organisation’s defences against both internal and external threats, meticulously identifying vulnerabilities and prioritising them for effective remediation efforts; 
  • Proactive security management. By pinpointing weaknesses in IT environments, penetration testing empowers organisations to take proactive measures to strengthen their security posture, ensuring robust protection against potential cyber threats; 
  • Security measure validation. Penetration tests serve as critical assessments of the effectiveness of existing security policies and tools, offering valuable insights that enable informed decision-making regarding resource allocation for enhanced defence mechanisms; 
  • Cyber resilience. Regular penetration testing provides invaluable hands-on experience through real-world simulations of cyber attacks, instilling confidence in security strategies and equipping organisations with the readiness to respond effectively to any potential threats; 
  • Regulatory compliance. Penetration testing is crucial for meeting compliance requirements by uncovering vulnerabilities and demonstrating proactive initiatives, ensuring the integrity of security controls and effectively meeting regulatory requirements. 

With its detailed evaluations and proactive approach, penetration testing ensures organisations remain resilient, compliant, and primed to tackle emerging cyber challenges head-on. 

What are the types of penetration testing? 

Penetration testing offers a multifaceted approach to assessing an organisation’s security, covering everything from network infrastructure to social engineering tactics. The following penetration test types are common: 

  • Network penetration testing. This involves assessing on-premise network infrastructure, firewalls, and system hosts. It can be conducted internally, focusing on assets within the corporate network, or externally, targeting internet-facing infrastructure; 
  • Wireless penetration testing. This penetration test targets an organisation’s WLAN or wireless protocols. It helps to uncover weaknesses in encryption, rogue access points, and vulnerabilities in WLAN; 
  • Web application testing. The assessment delves into websites and custom applications delivered over the web and its API, seeking out coding and design flaws that could be exploited maliciously; 
  • Mobile application testing. Penetration test for mobile applications on various operating systems, such as Android or iOS, to identify authentication, data leakage, and session handling issues; 
  • Social engineering. It encompasses tactics beyond email phishing, such as phone calls, USB drops, Tailgating, impersonation of delivery services, and pretexting during interviews. It also involves evaluation of IT systems and personnel to detect and respond to email phishing attacks, including customised phishing and BBEC attacks; 
  • Cloud penetration testing. Custom assessments to address vulnerabilities across cloud and
  • hybrid environments, overcoming shared responsibility challenges. 

Organisations can uncover vulnerabilities across attack vectors by employing various penetration testing types, ensuring a robust defence against evolving cyber threats. 

Who performs penetration tests? 

Ethical hackers, often referred to as white hat hackers or penetration testers, are skilled cyber security experts responsible for conducting penetration tests. This can include in-house security teams, external cyber security vendors, or independent security consultants. These professionals are experts in cyber security and employ hacking techniques to evaluate the security measures of organisations’ infrastructures.   

In contrast, malicious hackers, also known as black hat hackers, exploit vulnerabilities in systems without permission for personal gain or malicious intent. When it comes to penetration testing, organisations enlist ethical hackers to identify and address potential weaknesses before they can be exploited by malicious actors. The selection of the ideal candidate to perform a penetration test depends on the specific needs and objectives of the organisation undergoing the assessment. 

What are the steps involved in a penetration test? 

In penetration testing, various key steps are followed to check the security of systems thoroughly. Below, we present the core testing phases: 

  • Reconnaissance. In this initial phase, testers meticulously gather information about the target system, including network topology and user accounts, to formulate an effective attack strategy. This involves passive extraction from publicly available resources and active interaction with the target system; 
  • Scanning. Testers employ various tools in this phase to identify open ports and analyse network traffic, which is crucial for identifying potential entry points for attackers; 
  • Vulnerability assessment. Testers identify and assess vulnerabilities by leveraging data gathered earlier, providing insights into potential security risks. While vulnerability scanning alone lacks the depth of human intervention offered by penetration testing, this phase ensures a thorough evaluation of system vulnerabilities; 
  • Exploitation. Tester’s exploit identified vulnerabilities in this phase, emulating real-world attacks to assess system resilience. Caution is essential here to prevent system compromise or damage; 
  • Reporting. This phase involves documenting all findings, detailing uncovered vulnerabilities and their business impact, and providing remediation advice and strategic recommendations for enhancing security. These comprehensive reports serve as actionable insights for organisations to strengthen their defences against cyber threats; 
  • Retesting. The last phase involves verifying whether vulnerabilities detected in previous assessments have been successfully addressed by the client. It serves as a crucial follow-up to ensure that the recommended security measures have been implemented and effectively mitigate potential risks to the organisation’s infrastructure. 

After finishing all the phases, organisations gain valuable information into their security weaknesses, helping them make informed decisions to enhance their protection against evolving cyber risks

How long does a penetration test typically take?  

The duration of a penetration test depends on factors such as the scope and complexity of the test, the size of the target environment, the availability of resources for testing, and any time constraints imposed by the organisation. For example, a penetration test on a small web application may take a few days to complete, while a penetration test on a large enterprise network spanning multiple locations and environments may require several weeks of testing and analysis. Here is a typical timeline:  

  • Planning (2-3 weeks). Includes contract execution, resource scheduling, and project Rules of Engagement review; 
  • Execution (1-2 weeks). Actively testing all in-scope targets, with the duration dependent on project size and scope; 
  • Documentation (2-3 days). Preparation of documents like the Executive Summary Report and Technical Findings Report, along with minimal testing and manual interactions for validation; 
  • Presentation of findings (1 day). A final review session will address questions and conclude the project.   

This structured timeline ensures thoroughness and efficiency in the penetration testing process. 

How often should penetration testing be conducted? 

The frequency of penetration testing depends on various factors, including industry regulations, changes in the IT environment, and the organisation’s risk tolerance. Generally, it is recommended to perform penetration testing regularly, typically annually, to ensure ongoing security and identify new vulnerabilities. However, organisations may need to increase the testing frequency after significant changes to the network infrastructure or applications, implementation of new security controls, or following a security incident.  

Industries subject to strict regulatory standards or handling sensitive data may require more frequent testing to maintain compliance and mitigate risks effectively. Ultimately, the frequency of penetration testing should be determined based on a comprehensive security risk assessment and the organisation’s specific security needs and objectives. 

What are the limitations of penetration testing? 

While penetration testing is an invaluable tool for evaluating cyber security measures, it is essential to acknowledge its limitations. Here are some key constraints to consider: 

  • Time constraints. Penetration testing often operates within a predefined timeframe, which may limit the depth of assessments compared to real-world attacks; 
  • Scope limitations. Resource constraints may lead organisations to selectively test security measures, leaving certain areas unchecked and potentially vulnerable; 
  • Access restrictions. Ethical hackers may face limited access to target environments, hindering their ability to identify vulnerabilities across the entire network; 
  • Methodological limitations. Penetration testers must adhere to specific methods to avoid system downtime or crashes, restricting the range of potential exploits. 

Therefore, organisations should be mindful of these limitations and consider supplementary penetration testing methods to ensure comprehensive cyber security measures. 

Vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing: what is the difference? 

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are distinct strategies for assessing and mitigating security risks within an organisation’s infrastructure. While vulnerability scanning focuses on identifying potential weaknesses in network devices and applications, penetration testing involves actively attempting to exploit these vulnerabilities to evaluate their actual impact. Vulnerability scanning is typically automated, facilitating easier scoping and execution, but it does not include exploiting identified vulnerabilities. Penetration testers verify the existence of vulnerabilities identified by scanners. While scanners may flag potential issues, they can sometimes produce false positives, indicating the presence of vulnerabilities that do not actually exist. 

Conversely, penetration testing demands detailed planning and execution, often encompassing physical and technical assessments, including attempts to gain unauthorised access. Both methods are essential for identifying and addressing security threats, with vulnerability scanning acting as a detective control and penetration testing providing a more thorough evaluation of security posture. 

Overall, penetration testing serves as a vital tool for enhancing cyber security resilience by uncovering vulnerabilities and empowering organisations to fortify their defences. By adopting a proactive approach to security testing and addressing identified weaknesses, organisations can stay ahead of evolving cyber threats and maintain robust protection against potential attacks. 

If you want to discuss your case, contact our cyber security team and get all the needed consultations. 

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