Using penetration testing to fight for a safer tomorrow

Edward G. | June 10, 2020

Penetration testing (or pen testing) is a simulated attack against a specific technology or service. Companies perform these tests to challenge their infrastructure’s immunity against hackers’ attempts to invade networks and systems. Hence, they help detect vulnerabilities, backdoors, or other gaps in the current defense mechanisms. Penetration testing is not something that companies should take lightly. Investing in these security exercises can prevent devastating data breaches and other severe invasions.

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing (or pen testing) is an attack performed by cybersecurity specialists, focused on detecting and reporting vulnerabilities. Companies can initiate such simulations themselves like setting up honeypots. In most cases, ethical perpetrators design attacks against software, applications, or networks. However, penetration testing can challenge the personnel’s vigilance when it comes to convincing social engineering scams.

These non-malicious attackers attempt to discover real-life scenarios when a specific computer system or network becomes vulnerable. Penetration testing is universal, meaning that experts can test various applications, anti-virus software, firewalls, VPNs, databases, websites, etc. Thousands of big and small companies invest in pen tests by hiring professional testers. They can provide in-depth risk assessments and critical insights that allow companies to detect and patch loopholes.

Types of penetration testing

  • Black-box pen tests

This type of penetration testing simulates a realistic situation when hackers attempt to pursue malicious attacks. Ethical perpetrators do not get access to the company’s assets, applications, systems, or networks. Instead, they need to launch an attack externally, without special access privileges. Hence, this penetration testing is time-consuming but can provide more accurate and realistic results. However, such ethical hacking attempts can present inconclusive results as the penetrators might not take into account the potential vulnerabilities within the internal network.

  • White-box pen tests

White-box penetration testing is the opposite. The attackers get full access and all available information on the targeted network or application. Hence, such attacks are less complex and require a smaller time frame. By knowing all about the system’s internal configuration and communicating with developers, testers can analyze a variety of factors. As a result, perpetrators can discover many vulnerabilities and collect insights for future pen tests.

  • Gray-box pen tests

Gray-box penetration testing is a middle ground between black-box and white-box attacks. Perpetrators get limited access to a part of the network instead of approaching a system or network fully externally or internally. Usually, partial access might include a variety of variables: lower-level credentials, software code, or other infrastructure elements. Hence, such penetration testing can contribute to finding vulnerabilities that appear when real attackers manage to get access within the organization.

  • Covert pen tests

This type of penetration testing attempts to catch specialists off guard. Testers do not notify them about the tests. Instead, scheduled attacks attempt to evaluate the personnel’s capability to respond and handle such incidents. As a result, companies can discover the gaps in their security management, response procedures, and overall cybersecurity mechanisms in place.

  • Blind testing

In such scenarios, testers usually have no additional information or resources of the company, only its name. Then, the perpetrators evaluate the possible routes for hacks and attempt to find security vulnerabilities to exploit. Similar to black-box testing, blind tests also reflect real-life situations. Hackers might not have many leads or extensive knowledge of the company. Still, they might try to penetrate the company’s infrastructure.

The stages of penetration testing

  1. Planning and reconnaissance

During this stage of penetration testing, ethical hackers attempt to gather information about their target. According to the collected data, testers decide on the route they will take, applicable methods, and potential vulnerabilities. Setting goals and scoping is an essential part of the process. For instance, at this stage, the team should decide on whether the test will attempt to invade a system internally or externally.

  1. Scanning

This step of the penetration testing oversees how code works, and how it responds to potential intrusions. This review shows the potential security gaps and might influence the way simulated attacks work. For instance, during the inspection of code, testers can determine the elements that are most likely to have exploitable vulnerabilities.

  1. Launching attacks

At this stage, testers start the penetration testing according to the gathered data, vulnerability assessment, and selected method. The attacks might be aggressive, aiming to thoroughly test the human factors, software security, and previously undetected vulnerabilities. Selected goals might be different: to steal confidential information, launch a phishing scam, implement brute-force attacks, etc.

  1. Staying undetected

There are real-life situations when hackers monitor a system or network for months until a company detects and deals with the invasion. Therefore, testers can attempt to hold the gained access for as long as possible. As a result, they can evaluate the detection strategies in place and determine whether new approaches are necessary.

  1. Final analysis and conclusions

The last stage of penetration testing involves reviewing the existing vulnerabilities, mitigation techniques, detection strategies, etc. Overall, the test highlights the need for improvement in certain areas and emphasizes the flaws that could lead to devastating security violations. Usually, ethical hackers can provide extensive reports explaining the attack, and offering possible solutions. Therefore, penetration testing improves the way applications or networks operate and influences decision-making processes in the future.

Edward G.

Edward G.

Cybersecurity Researcher and Publisher at Atlas VPN. My mission is to scan the ever-evolving cybercrime landscape to inform the public about the latest threats.



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