Why Penetration Test is Important in Cybersecurity and How Does it Work

It feels like every day starts with a new headline about the latest cyber attack. Hackers are stealing millions of records and billions of euros with alarming regularity. The key to combating these machinations is to continuously conduct thorough penetration tests.

Penetration testing is used to test your security before an attacker does. Penetration testing tools simulate real-world attack scenarios to uncover and exploit security vulnerabilities that could lead to records being stolen or credentials, intellectual property, personal data, card data or private protected health information being compromised, data ransomware being extorted or other results harmful to business. By exploiting security vulnerabilities, penetration testing helps you decide how best to prevent cyberattacks in the future and protect your critical business data against them.

What are the phases of penetration testing?

There are five main phases to go through in any typical penetration test:

1. Target exploration and information gathering.

Before the penetration testing team can take action, it must gather information about the likely target. This phase is important for creating an attack plan and serves as a deployment area for the entire mission.

2. Scanning

After the reconnaissance phase, a series of scans of the target are conducted to decipher how the target’s security systems react to different attack attempts. Discovering vulnerabilities, open ports and other weaknesses within a network’s infrastructure can determine how pen testers proceed with the planned attack.

3. Gain access

Once the data is collected, penetration testers use widely used web application attacks such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting to exploit existing vulnerabilities. Now that they have gained access, the testers attempt to mimic the scope of potential damage that could result from a malicious attack.

4. Gaining access

The main objective of this phase is to maintain a constant presence within the target environment. As time progresses, more and more data is collected about the exploited system, allowing the testers to mimic complex and persistent threats.

5. Covering traces/analysis

Finally, once the mission is complete, all traces of the attack must be erased to ensure anonymity. Log events, scripts and other executables that could be discovered by the target should be completely untraceable. A comprehensive report is given to the client with a detailed analysis of the entire mission to highlight key vulnerabilities, gaps, potential impact of an intrusion, and a variety of other important components of the security program.

How does a penetration test work?

Penetration testing can either be done internally by your own professionals using pen testing tools, or you can hire an external penetration testing vendor to do it for you. A penetration test begins with the security professional taking an inventory of the target network to find vulnerable systems and/or accounts. This involves scanning every system on the network for open ports running services. It is extremely rare that all services on a network are correctly configured, properly password protected and fully patched. Once the penetration tester has properly understood the network and the vulnerabilities present, a penetration testing tool is used to exploit a vulnerability to gain uninvited access.

However, security experts do not only examine systems. Often, pen testers also direct their attacks at the users in a network by sending phishing e-mails or trying to manipulate target persons in their favour by telephone or on the internet/intranet (pre-text calling or social engineering).

How do you test the risk posed by your own users?

Your users are an additional risk factor. Attacks on a network via human error or compromised credentials are not new. If the constant cyberattacks and data theft cases have taught us anything, it is that the easiest way for a hacker to penetrate a network and steal data or money is through network users.

Compromised credentials are the most common attack vector among all reported data breaches, as the Verizon Data Breach Report shows year after year. Part of the job of a penetration test is to address security threats caused by user error. A pen tester will attempt to guess passwords from found accounts via a brute force attack to gain access to systems and applications. Although compromising a device may result in a security breach, in a real-world scenario, an attacker will typically use lateral movement to ultimately gain access to a critical asset.

Simulating phishing attacks is another common way to test the security of your network users. Phishing attacks use personalised communication methods to persuade the target to do something that is not in their best interest. For example, a phishing attack might convince a user that it is time for a „mandatory password reset“ and therefore to click on an embedded email link. Whether clicking on the malicious link drops malware or simply opens the door for attackers to steal credentials for future use: A phishing attack is one of the easiest ways to exploit network users. If you want to test your users‘ vigilance against phishing attacks, make sure the penetration testing tool you use has these capabilities.

What is the importance of penetration testing for a company?

A penetration test is a crucial component for network security. Through these tests, a company can identify:

  • Security gaps before a hacker finds them
  • Gaps in information security compliance
  • The response time of its own IT security team, i.e. how long it takes the team to realise that there has been a successful attack and limit the impact
  • The potential impact of a data breach or cyber attack in the real world
  • Practical advice for countermeasures

Through penetration testing, security professionals can effectively identify and test security measures in multi-layered network architectures, custom applications, web services and other IT components. Penetration testing tools and services help you quickly gain insight into the highest risk areas so you can effectively plan budgets and projects for your security. Thorough testing of an organisation’s entire IT infrastructure is essential to take the necessary precautions to protect critical data against hacking while improving IT response time in the event of an attack.

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