What is Penetration Testing?
Penetration testing is a security evaluation method used to identify vulnerabilities in target systems. A penetration test is performed by exploiting the weaknesses and evaluating the defense of a system. Typically, the penetration tester or pentester will simulate an attack using one or more tools designed to exploit specific vulnerabilities on the target system(s), then recommend actions that eliminate them.
In essence, a penetration test is a legally authorized cyber attack.
Most companies tend to overlook apparent vulnerabilities on their systems and networks, such as password strength or improper use of encryption. That is why your business needs penetration testing. A penetration test can give you detailed information on your network and systems, thereby allowing you to make proper changes to protect it from real-world hackers.
It is common for pentests to be conducted by an outside party, such as a security firm or auditor. The use of external penetration testing firms has been steadily increasing over the years due to several reasons; including the benefits associated with using an external party such as:
- External parties are not restricted by the IT policies in place at the organization.
- They are independent and have no bias when it comes to choosing a penetration testing tool.
However, external pentesting firms do come with their own limitations, such as the inability to test specific parts of the organization due to restrictions in place or scheduling a pentest around the limited availability of one or more employees.
An internal pentesting team provides benefits such as:
- The team is already familiar with the network and systems, thereby increasing efficiency and reducing the overall time required for completion.
- Ability to test all aspects of the company’s network or system (i.e., employee desktops, sensitive information, etc.).
- Operate without any limitations on tools used for the test. For example, many companies prohibit certain types of tools from being used, such as password crackers.
Although there is no right or wrong way when it comes to choosing a pentesting approach. You can consider an outside party if the test will be run as an audit to ensure compliance with certain regulations or if a specific organization cannot use or possess the tools required for pentesting.
Why Pentesting is Important to Meet Compliance
Achieving compliance with security regulations and standards is not an easy task. A lack of expertise and resources, combined with confusing and ambiguous regulations, often leads to sub-par results.
In addition, traditional penetration tests may focus on critical infrastructure or limited scope within the network rather than a holistic assessment of entire enterprise networks. It makes compliance auditing challenging for most organizations, as many standard penetration tests require manual processes and are not scalable to large enterprise networks.
For example, achieving compliance with ISO/IEC 27001 requires an organization to monitor its information security controls continuously. It ensures that any vulnerabilities found during the process can be resolved or contained within 12 hours. To achieve this, it is crucial for organizations to first have suitable security control systems in place and then perform penetration testing exercises that can be adjusted based on these existing policies.
As vulnerabilities identified during penetration tests are reported from a risk perspective (i.e., they pose the most significant risks), auditors will then focus on mitigating those risks with the most significant impact on the organization.
Within this context, auditors will rely on findings from penetration tests and other audit methods such as vulnerability assessments (VA) and source code analysis to ensure no gaps in security measures around the network. The use of penetration testing allows auditors to be more confident in their risk management approach when conducting these audits.
Benefits of Pentests for Compliance and Audits
In recent years, organizations have started performing penetration tests to ensure they are meeting compliance requirements. These assessments can range from checking whether an organization has the policy to validate its compliance with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) to ensure financial institutions can effectively manage the transmission of information related to credit cards. Or, for example, assessing whether the Information Security Management System (ISMS), as per ISO 27001, includes adequate security controls.
Penetration testing can support and complement an organization’s quality assurance, vulnerability management, or information security program. Using penetration testing in conjunction with other methods allows testers to identify real-world threats, understand the impacts of vulnerabilities based on risk assessments and prioritize these risks accordingly. Penetration testing can also provide information that is not available through other testing methods, such as the ability to identify attacks without evidence of malicious activity (i.e., zero-day attacks) and the use of automated tools to compromise an organization’s security controls.
The primary advantage of penetration testing is that it can be performed on an ongoing basis and will provide more timely information about an organization’s security posture than other methods would. It is especially important for organizations that must undergo regular compliance audits to prove their system is secure.
Penetration testing also provides organizations with a way to test the effectiveness of countermeasures implemented due to an assessment. It can provide information regarding the security posture of a system after implementing new patches or updated configurations. It can also validate that security controls are being implemented as designed.
One of the biggest challenges for organizations is making sure penetration tests are effectively performed to deliver the insight needed to make critical security decisions. It is vital for penetration testing to be conducted on an ongoing basis to provide a continuous stream of information about the security posture of an organization’s systems and the impact of potential vulnerabilities.
An organization’s business cannot afford to be exposed to any threats. Still, penetration testing can provide organizations with an independent assessment of their system that will help them secure their data more effectively while ensuring they meet compliance requirements without disrupting normal operations.