Penetration testing meaning
Penetration testing is a type of ethical hacking also known as pen testing, security pen testing, and security testing. It refers to the deliberate initiation of simulated cyberattacks by “white hat” penetration testers employing tactics and tools meant to access or exploit computer systems, networks, websites, and apps.
Although the primary goal of pen testing is to identify exploitable vulnerabilities so that effective security controls can be implemented, security professionals can also use penetration testing techniques and specialized testing tools to evaluate an organisation’s security policies, regulatory compliance, employees’ security awareness, and its ability to identify and respond to security issues and incidents, such as unauthorized access.
As a simulation of a cyberattack, ethical hacking techniques assist security experts in evaluating the efficacy of information security measures within their organisation. The penetration test seeks to breach an organisation’s cyber defenses by searching for exploitable flaws in its networks, web applications, and user security. The idea is to identify system vulnerabilities before attackers do.
In the case of networks, the overarching objective is to improve security posture by closing unused ports, debugging services, adjusting firewall rules, and closing all security gaps. In the case of web applications, Pen testing is designed to uncover, analyze, and report on common online application vulnerabilities, including buffer overflow, SQL injection, and cross-site scripting, to mention a few.
Pen testing can also be used to try to acquire privileged access to sensitive systems or to steal data from a supposedly secure system. In the context of web application security, penetration testing is frequently employed as a supplement to a web application firewall (WAF).
Penetration testing stages
The process of pen testing can be divided into five stages:
1. reconnaissance and planning
Determining the scope and objectives of a test, including the systems to be examined and the testing methodologies to be employed, is the first step. Gathering information (e.g., network and domain names, mail server) to better comprehend how a target operates and its potential weaknesses.
The next stage is to determine how the application of interest will react to various intrusion attempts. This is often achieved by:
Static analysis, by inspecting an application’s source code to estimate its running behavior. These technologies are capable of analyzing the full source code in a single pass; or
Dynamic analysis, which entails examining the code of a running application. This method of scanning is more efficient because it provides a real-time view of an application’s performance.
3. Gaining access
This phase employs web application assaults such as cross-site scripting, SQL injection, and backdoors to determine a target’s weaknesses. Then, testers attempt to exploit these vulnerabilities, often by escalating privileges, stealing data, intercepting communications, etc., in order to determine the potential harm they can create.
4. Maintaining access
The purpose of this phase is to determine whether the vulnerability can be exploited to establish a persistent presence in the compromised system — long enough for an adversary to get in-depth access. The goal is to simulate advanced persistent threats, which frequently remain in a system for months in order to steal a company’s most sensitive data.
The penetration test results are then compiled into a report outlining:
- Identifiable flaws that were exploited
- The sensitive information accessed
- The length of time the penetration tester was able to remain undiscovered in the system.
- Security specialists evaluate this data in order to configure an enterprise’s WAF settings and other application security solutions in order to patch vulnerabilities and prevent further attacks.
Penetration testing methods
External penetration tests target the internet-accessible assets of an organisation, such as the web application, the company website, and email and domain name servers (DNS). The objective is to gain entry and extract important information.
A tester with access to an application behind its firewall simulates an attack by a malicious insider during an internal test. This is not always a simulation of a disgruntled worker. A common starting point is an employee whose credentials have been compromised by a phishing assault.
In a blind test, the tester is just provided the name of the targeted business. This provides security personnel with a real-time view of how an actual application attack would occur.
In a double-blind test, security professionals are unaware of the simulated attack beforehand. As in the real world, they will have little opportunity to strengthen their defenses prior to a breach attempt.
In this scenario, the tester and security officers coordinate their movements and keep each other informed. This is a fantastic training exercise that delivers real-time feedback from a hacker’s perspective to a security team.
The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) provides penetration testing methodology, manuals, a framework, and a Penetration Testing Execution Standard (PTES). PTES divides penetration testing into seven phases, which serve as a road map for worldwide organisations managing pen-testing operations:
- Pre-engagement interactions
- Intelligence gathering
- Threat modeling
- Vulnerability analysis
- Post exploitation
How a DPO can help organisations
A Data Protection Officer (DPO) oversees data protection responsibilities and ensures that organisations comply with the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA). Furthermore, every Organisation’s DPO should be able to curb any instances of data breaches as it is the officer responsible for maintaining the positive posture of an organisation’s cybersecurity.
For instance, at Privacy Ninja, part of our scope of work is to conduct comprehensive penetration testing to check whether there are any vulnerabilities within the organisation. This is done to patch any loopholes that the bad actors may exploit. This is also done to have a summary report of the total cybersecurity hygiene of the organisation to serve as a guide of what actions should be done next to protect the organisation from any future breaching attempts.
DPOs complement the efforts of organisations in making sure that the personal data collected and used is accurate. This is because when there is an instance that the obligation has been breached, DPOs ensure that a protocol for dealing with it has been established and can be employed.
As a consumer who provides my very own sensitive information to each organisation I encounter or have a transaction with, I would feel safe if an organisation would take the extra mile to ensure that my data is safe from any future breach by bad actors.