The threat of cybercrime looms large in this digital age. Everyone from small startups to tech giants to even governments rely on technology—which means they are vulnerable to it being compromised. Instead of waiting for a cybercriminal to probe and find weaknesses in your infrastructure, one of the best controls is to be proactive and embed penetration testing within your security processes.
This technique typically revolves around a qualified cybersecurity professional scanning your network and applications for vulnerabilities while adopting an attacker’s viewpoint. The aim is to find any exploitable weaknesses before a cybercriminal does, and then remediate them promptly. Penetration testing is not a technical control, but a process that must be matured and improved over time. This article reviews the importance of penetration testing within cybersecurity and how you can improve and refine this process.
How Penetration Testing Works
Penetration testing, often used interchangeably with “ethical hacking”, involves choosing a target or “scope”, which can range from an application to a web server to even an entire network, and then simulating a controlled cyberattack on it. The aim is to try and exploit vulnerabilities and bypass the security controls that are present so that these weaknesses can be discovered and subsequently fixed.
Penetration testing, in its simplest form, involves scanning or gathering information about the target, identifying what services are running, attempting to exploit any weaknesses within these services, and reporting on what was successfully done. Penetration testers usually stop short of actual exploitation that might result in issues with production systems; however, they usually take evidence to show that the attack could have been successful if it was an actual attacker carrying it out.
Penetration testing can broadly be categorized into the following methodologies:
- Black Box Testing: The penetration tester has zero knowledge of the target, which represents how an external attacker would view a system.
- Gray Box Testing: The penetration tester has some knowledge of the target system and can represent those attackers who might have some level of access to the system.
- White Box testing: The penetration tester is given full knowledge of the system’s inner workings via documentation, walkthroughs, etc. The attack simulates what someone with authorized access might be able to accomplish.
Choosing which methodology to use depends on the security maturity of the company and its specific requirements. It’s a good idea to use multiple methods and more detailed testing for more critical systems. Regardless of the type of penetration testing, it is crucial to get started as soon as possible and gradually mature over time; as the next section shows, ignoring penetration testing can have severe implications.
The Importance of Penetration Testing
Penetration testing should not be considered a one-off thing that is done and forgotten, but rather a crucial part of your overall cybersecurity strategy. By proactively identifying weaknesses that could be exploited, you can reduce the chances of a successful data breach or incident.
Unfortunately, some companies do not recognize the critical role that penetration testing plays in preventing security breaches. They may not feel the need to carry these tests out regularly, citing cost reasons. They fail to realize that the cost of a successful data breach is far greater than that of a penetration test exercise. This would not be limited to just financial costs, but would also involve a loss of customer trust and reputation over time.
The importance of penetration testing can be summed up through the following benefits:
- An objective assessment of your systems lets you know what is and what is not working from your security controls. Even if you have mature security processes, a penetration test can reveal glaring vulnerabilities that were missed by everyone. This allows teams to prioritize and focus on those issues that require immediate remediation.
- Penetration testing also provides companies with insight into the impact that a cyberattack might have if successful. An experienced penetration tester can show the pathways an attacker could take and the amount of damage they could do within a network if not stopped in time. This allows cybersecurity teams to focus on and justify investments in future security controls.
Take the example of the SolarWinds attack in 2021, which is one of the most devastating cyberattacks on record. A penetration test could have discovered the entry vector in their software processes that allowed the attack to succeed. Typically, unpatched vulnerabilities and vulnerable services allow attackers to gain a foothold within networks; timely penetration tests can help identify these issues.
Considering all this, it becomes clear that penetration testing is necessary for any mature cybersecurity framework, and companies that ignore it do so at significant risk.
Penetration Testing as a Regulatory Requirement
Another benefit of penetration testing is that it allows companies to demonstrate compliance with various regulations and standards that mandate it. Take the example of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), which applies to any company that stores, processes, or transmits cardholder data. The standard mandates regular internal and external penetration tests of networks within the scope of its requirements. Other standards, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), also mandate healthcare providers to carry out regular penetration testing to protect their medical data.
These standards help cybersecurity teams get the necessary management buy-in and budgets for a successful penetration testing program. They should be leveraged whenever possible. Avoiding these requirements can result in failed audits and regulatory fines. Auditors usually rely on them to assess the efficacy of the technical controls implemented to protect against cyberattacks.
Maturing Penetration Testing as a Process
Penetration testing, like any process, needs to be matured over time. It is possible for companies not to see immediate benefits and make common mistakes by not using qualified resources, scheduling tests properly, investing in the proper tools, etc.
For penetration testing to be successful, a few key things to keep in mind:
- Use qualified professionals who have experience with penetration testing. Using external resources to get a fully independent viewpoint is recommended instead of relying on internal resources.
- Ensure that tests are appropriately scheduled. Choose the scope, the type of methodology that should be used, and the formalize the scope before starting the exercise.
- CISOs should receive take the time to review management summary reports and presentations in which the penetration testers give them an executive-level overview of what happened and what level of success they achieved.
- Penetration testing should not be a one-time activity that is done and forgotten about for a year or more. It is essential that penetration testing is carried out routinely and after significant network changes to identify if new vulnerabilities have been introduced. Even a month-old penetration test report can become out of date due to regular changes that have been introduced into a network.
- As your penetration testing program matures, it is recommended to incorporate other processes like bug bounty programs to help increase the frequency and number of tests. Penetration tests and bug bounty programs can complement each other, as they allow the target system to be tested by thousands of security testers. Including critical applications in the scope of a bug bounty program is recommended as it increases the chances of critical issues being identified before they can be exploited.
The Future of Penetration Testing
Penetration testing is not static and has evolved along with technology. Initially, only networks were considered within the scope of such tests; however, the field has grown to encompass web applications, API, mobile applications, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, and so on.
With the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can expect new attacks to emerge and be tested, such as membership inference, data poisoning, model poisoning, etc. AI will also empower penetration testing tools to become more effective and give them the ability to “learn” the target environment like humans can.
Cyber threats are not going away anytime soon—they will only increase as technology becomes more advanced. Penetration testing is a key aspect of an effective cybersecurity strategy that should never be ignored. At the same time, like any other process, it must be improved, monitored, and matured over time to provide proper value. Companies should invest time and effort in making penetration testing a continuous process that adapts to new technologies and tools as they emerge.
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