Tech Insight : What’s Involved In a ‘Pen-Test’?

26th July 2023

If you’d like to know what a ‘Pen Test’ is and the sorts of things you can expect from one, this article will give you a helpful overview.

Pen Tests 

Put simply, pen testing is short for “penetration testing” and in a virtual situation (we’ll concentrate mostly on virtual in this article) acts like a security health check for computer systems and networks. Just as a person may go to the doctor for regular check-ups (if you can get an appointment!) to catch any health issues early, businesses and organisations use pen testing to find and fix potential weaknesses in their digital defences before bad actors can exploit them.

Physical pen tests essentially refers to experts creating simulated attacks that mimic criminals’ actions to gain (unauthorised) physical access to things such as sensitive equipment, data centres or sensitive information. Examples of how this is done could include testing barriers, doors and locks, fences, alarm system, or conducting tests involving security guards and other employees to try and gain access.

Why Are Pen Tests Needed? 

The main reason why pen tests are needed is due to the increaslingly high levels of cybercrime and the wide variety of cyber threats that businesses face daily. Within this broader context, there are a number of other reasons why businesses need pen testing. For example, these include:

– Helping businesses to discover the kinds of weaknesses and vulnerabilities in their computer systems, networks, applications, and other digital assets that may be unknown (as yet) to the business but could potentially be exploited by cybercriminals.

– As a way of proactively assessing defences to identify potential entry points before malicious hackers find them, thereby staying one step ahead of cyber criminals.

– To comply with specific data protection and security regulations and standards, and to demonstrate a commitment to safeguarding sensitive data.

– To protect customer data by helping to prevent data breaches. Many businesses handle sensitive customer data (e.g. personal details and financial data) and a successful cyberattack could lead to a data breach, compromising customers’ trust and resulting in legal, financial, and reputational repercussions.

– Cyberattacks can lead to significant financial losses, including costs associated with data recovery, system restoration, legal actions, and potential damage to a company’s reputation. Pen tests, therefore, can help prevent these losses by mitigating security risks.

– Businesses may have valuable intellectual property such as trade secrets or proprietary information that needs protection and pen testing helps ensure that unauthorised access to this such sensitive data is minimised.

– For businesses that collaborate with third-party vendors or partners who might have access to their systems, pen tests can help assess the security of these partners and identify potential risks to the business and value-chain.

– Demonstrating a commitment to security by conducting regular pen tests can enhance a company’s reputation and build trust with customers, clients, and stakeholders.

– Pen tests can also help businesses evaluate their incident response procedures. By Identifying and addressing any security gaps, businesses and organisations make changes that can enable them to respond more effectively to any real cybersecurity incidents.

Regular Testing Is Needed 

Since cybersecurity is an ongoing process, conducting regular pen tests allows businesses to continuously improve their security measures and adapt to new threats and technologies.

What Kinds Of Cyber-Attacks / Cybercrime Can Pen Tests Help Protect Against? 

The types of cyber-attacks regular pen testing can reduce the risk of include:

– Malware Attacks, by assessing the effectiveness of defences against malware, such as viruses, ransomware, and trojans. Testers can try to infiltrate systems with various types of malware to evaluate how well the organisation can detect and prevent such threats.

– Phishing and Social Engineering, by simulating these attacks to check if employees are susceptible to social engineering techniques. These tests help businesses and organisations to educate their staff about potential risks and reinforce security awareness.

– Brute Force and Password Attacks. For example, testers can attempt to crack passwords using brute force or other password-guessing methods to assess the strength of authentication mechanisms and password policies.

– SQL Injection, by identifying any vulnerabilities in web applications that cyber criminals could try to use to target databases.

– DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) Attacks. In this case, pen tests can evaluate how well an organisation’s network and infrastructure can withstand DDoS attacks, which aim to overwhelm systems and disrupt services.

– Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) Attacks. Here testers can attempt to intercept and manipulate data between two parties to assess the effectiveness of encryption and network security measures.

– Privilege Escalation, by helping to identify any vulnerabilities that may allow attackers to gain unauthorised access to higher levels of privileges within a system, which could potentially leading to more extensive compromises.

– Zero-Day Exploits. Since these are attacks target previously unknown vulnerabilities with companies having no time (i.e. ‘zero days’) to do anything about them, pen tests can be used to possibly identify similar types of vulnerabilities to zero-day exploits.

– Insider Threat, by helping to assess how well a business / organisation is protected against internal threats posed by employees or contractors with malicious intent or simply making accidental but dangerous mistakes.

– Data Breaches. Pen tests help to identify security weaknesses and prevent unauthorised access to sensitive data, reducing the risk of data breaches and safeguarding customer information. Reducing the risk of data breaches can save businesses a lot of expensive damage.

– IoT (Internet of Things) Vulnerabilities. With the increasing use of IoT devices, pen tests can evaluate the security of these interconnected devices and their potential impact on the overall network.

Who Carries Out Pen Testing? 

Penetration testing is typically carried out by skilled cybersecurity professionals known as “penetration testers”, “ethical hackers” or “security consultants.” These are experts in the field of cybersecurity and have in-depth knowledge of various attack techniques and security best practices.

There are essentially two primary categories of professionals who conduct penetration testing:

1. Internal Penetration Testers. These are cybersecurity specialists employed directly by the organisation or business they are testing. They work as part of the organisation’s security team and have a good understanding of the company’s systems, networks, and applications. Internal penetration testers are familiar with the organisation’s security policies and protocols and may focus on assessing specific internal threats and risks.

2. External Penetration Testers. As the name suggests, external penetration testers are independent third-party experts or cybersecurity firms hired-in by businesses and organisations to conduct (hopefully) unbiased assessments. They are outsiders with no prior knowledge of the company’s infrastructure, mimicking the perspective of an external attacker. The advantage of external testers is that they can bring a fresh and objective view to the evaluation, helping to identify potential blind spots that internal teams might overlook.

In some cases, a combination of both internal and external testers may be the best way to conduct comprehensive assessments.

Recent Advances In Pen Testing 

This year, penetration testing has seen several notable advancements aimed at improving the accuracy and effectiveness of assessing cybersecurity defences. For example, four notable trends are:

– Realistic Simulation Scenarios. Pen testers are increasingly focusing on mimicking real-life cyberattack scenarios to gain a better understanding of an organisation’s vulnerabilities. This approach encompasses technological weaknesses and human factors like employee behaviour, providing a clearer picture of potential risks.

– Automated Testing Tools. Automated penetration testing tools have become essential in streamlining vulnerability detection. They can efficiently scan networks for known flaws and misconfigurations while keeping up to date with emerging threats, reducing manual workloads for security teams.

– Social Engineering Testing. With cybercriminals employing psychological manipulation, social engineering testing has become vital. This approach identifies weaknesses in employee awareness and response strategies against targeted attacks, helping raise organisational preparedness.

– Machine Learning and AI Integration. Inevitably, pen testing incorporating machine learning and artificial intelligence is being adopted to achieve more sophisticated vulnerability detection and response capabilities. This includes identifying unusual patterns in network traffic, adapting to emerging threats, and simulating potential future attacks.

Drawbacks of Pen Testing 

There are, of course, some drawbacks to pen testing. The include, for example:

– Limited Scope. Pen tests focus on specific areas, potentially missing vulnerabilities elsewhere.

– Point-in-Time Assessment. They provide a snapshot and may not address emerging threats (hence the need to keep conducting them).

– Disruption and False Positives. Testing can cause disruptions and lead to false alarms which can be stressful and waste time and resources.

– Cost and Resource Intensive. Pen testing can be expensive and requires skilled professionals.

– Lack of Real-World Impact. It could be true to say that some controlled tests may not fully replicate actual attacks and, therefore, may lack real-world value.

– Human Error and Subjectivity. It’s possible that in some cases, tester expertise can influence results.

– Overconfidence in Security. Successful tests can lead to unwarranted confidence which can lead to businesses making themselves vulnerable by essentially letting their guard down to an extent.

– Legal and Ethical Considerations: Unauthorised testing can have legal repercussions! I.e. pen testing requires authorisation from the business – they must be asked first.

Examples Of Virtual and Physical Pen Tests Your Business Could Use 

Here are summarised examples of the kinds of virtual and physical pen tests that could be used (by cybersecurity professionals) on your business.

In a virtual penetration test, cybersecurity experts simulate cyberattacks on an organisation’s digital infrastructure without physically accessing their premises. Examples of virtual pen tests include:

– A Network Vulnerability Assessment. This is where testers use automated tools and manual analysis to identify weaknesses in the organisation’s network, such as open ports, misconfigurations, and outdated software.

– Web Application Testing. In this stage, security professionals assess web applications for vulnerabilities like SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and insecure authentication mechanisms.

– Phishing Simulation. Here ethical hackers send bogus phishing emails to employees, testing their susceptibility to social engineering and identifying areas where security awareness training is needed.

In a physical penetration test, experts try to gain unauthorised access to the organisation’s physical premises and sensitive areas. Examples of physical pen tests include:

– Social Engineering. In the physical scenario, testers use various techniques to manipulate employees, such as tailgating (following authorised personnel into secure areas) or pretexting (posing as legitimate individuals to extract sensitive information).

– Physical Access Control Testing. This is where security professionals assess the effectiveness of physical security measures like access badges, CCTV surveillance, and door locks.

– Dumpster Diving. Although an American term, this means testers examining the physical waste (going through the bins) to find discarded sensitive information that could be exploited by attackers.

Report 

Companies typically receive a detailed report at the end of a penetration test. The report outlines the findings, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses identified during the testing process. It provides a comprehensive overview of the organisation’s security posture, detailing potential entry points and areas that need improvement.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

Regardless of whether the testing is carried out internally or by external professionals (which can sometimes be expensive) the goal of penetration testing is a worthwhile one – to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the digital infrastructure of a business, thereby helping businesses to bolster their security defences before attackers get there first.

Both virtual and physical penetration tests provide valuable insights into security weaknesses and in doing so, can help a business strengthen its overall cybersecurity posture. Combining both approaches can, of course, create a more comprehensive assessment of a business or organisation’s resilience against cyber threats.

Even though, as highlighted above, pen testing can have its drawbacks, it’s always better to be prepared and, if a business knows more about its weaknesses, it at least has the opportunity to reduce known risks and avoid some of the very painful consequences, e.g. legal, financial, and reputational of data breaches and other potentially devastating attacks.