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What is Pen Testing and Why is it Important to Perform?

pen tester

The ever-growing threat landscape and wide accessibility to the internet around the globe have made it easy for malicious actors to launch cyber-attacks and exploit vulnerabilities within an organization.  Big or small, organizations that possess data can be at risk to cyber criminals who want to gain access to their critical information.  Unfortunately, when a cyber criminal is successful, it causes organizations to lose customers and money.  The number of cyberattacks that have recently occurred (as noted below) is a point of concern, especially due to the scale on which these attacks have taken place.  However, for organizations to keep their information safe, they must have various standardized security methods in place.  One of these methods is penetration testing, which is a process to discover, exploit, and report vulnerabilities found within an organization’s systems.

Recent Cyber Attacks

  • The Colonial Pipeline Attack – One of the most significant cyberattacks of 2021, the attack on Colonial Pipeline that temporarily halted oil and gas operations. Paid 75 bitcoin in ransom.
  • Twitch Data Dump – The attack on Twitch that included 125GB worth of data posted to 4chan.
  • JBS Foods Hack – The attack on JBS Foods, the United States’ largest source of meat. Paid $11 million in ransom.
  • CNA’s $40 Million Ransom – The attack on CNA, a large insurance company that paid $40 million in ransom.
  • The current Log4j flaw – A newly discovered vulnerability involving a single piece of source code that can potentially open every organization to an attack.
  • Citoday breach – A major data breach that impacted over 200 million accounts.
  • The SolarWinds Hack – An advanced persistent threat that infiltrated the supply chain of SolarWinds.

In order to mitigate the risk of a security incident like these most recent cyber-attacks, organizations need preventative controls to remediate network/device vulnerabilities along with regular assessments in order to identify additional unknown vulnerabilities.  Maintaining preventative controls is just as important as the ability to detect, respond to, and recover from attacks.  However, in order to put these controls in place, a penetration test is crucial.

What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing, also referred to as pen testing, ethical hacking, or white hat hacking, can be defined as the intentional launch of a cyber-attack by a penetration tester using strategies and specific tools designed to exploit vulnerabilities.  Often, a penetration test will include a security assessment that encompasses all networks, applications, devices, and physical security components in order to identify the vulnerabilities a malicious actor could exploit.  This type of test improves an organization’s security posture by allowing them to find and remove vulnerabilities through a mimicked cyber-attack.

Why is Penetration Testing Important to Perform?

Penetration testing is performed in a controlled environment by security professionals in order to identify system vulnerabilities and eliminate them.  If vulnerabilities remain in place or go unfixed, an attacker can gain access to the system and carry out malicious acts.  Due to this potential risk, it is important for an organization to perform a penetration test so they can protect their reputation, information, and assets.

Types of Penetration Tests

  • External pen test: An external penetration test assesses the external facing assets within an organization. For example, during an external pen test, an assessor will attempt to gain access into an organization’s internal network by getting through the ‘internet perimeter’ by attempting to compromise email, websites, or file shares.  For most organizations, an external attack is one of the most likely threat vectors, so performing this test can help an organization evaluate its security.
  • Internal pen tests: An internal penetration test can continue to help an assessment by seeing how far an attacker could move through a network once an external breach has occurred. In other words, an internal pen test looks at the security controls within an organization’s network.  Internal threats are often overlooked by organizations; however, through social engineering or a malicious insider, an internal threat can have the most severe impact on an organization.
  • Black box testing: In this type of test, no information is provided to the tester. A black box test can be seen as the most authentic because it follows the path of an unprivileged attacker.
  • White box testing: In this type of test, full network and system information is shared with the tester. A white box test is often used to simulate a targeted attack on a specific system.
  • Grey box testing: In this type of test, only some information is shared with the tester. A grey box test is useful to see how far a privileged user can go and the potential damage it can cause.

The Benefits of a Penetration Test

Penetration testing can help an organization secure its systems from malicious actors.  Hiring professionals whose job it is to think like cyber criminals and breach your security, then provide you with a detailed document of findings so you can fix the security flaws found, can help your organization in preventing monetary loses, preserving reputation, and eliminating risks.