penetration testing

Penetration Testing Demystified

Penetration testing, pen testing, ethical hacking. These are all terms you’ve no doubt heard being thrown around the water cooler when the conversation turns to cybersecurity. As that conversation becomes more prevalent and necessary, it is likely you’ll come across them more and more!

Today we’re going to throw some light on what penetration testing is. The greater your knowledge about cybersecurity, the better equipped your business will be at navigating the digital jungle out there! (Plus, you won’t be that person in the office nodding in agreement without knowing what anyone is talking about!) So, let’s dive in.

Penetration Testing Definition

Penetration testing is also referred to as pen testing or ethical hacking. It’s a means of testing your IT infrastructure for any vulnerabilities that could be exploited by less ethical hackers.

The pen test is a simulated attack designed to replicate how hackers would try and infiltrate your system. It uses the same techniques and tools and processes, allowing the tester to gauge how much success a hacker with malicious intentions would have. This provides powerful insights into the robustness of a business’s cyber defences, pinpointing any weaknesses that need to be fixed before a real attacker can exploit them.

The Importance of Penetration Testing

Penetration Testing is an important brick in the ‘wall’ of cybersecurity surrounding your business for several reasons. Let’s look at some of them:

Identify flaws in existing system: Isolating issues in your existing defences before they can be exploited by malicious actors is far preferable to picking up the pieces after a cyber-attack.

Test any new additions to your system: If you’re expanding your IT infrastructure, pen testing any new software or hardware will ensure there won’t be any nasty surprises after implementation.

Social testing: You can use penetration testing to identify security weaknesses in your team too, as they form a big part of your IT security. Simulated phishing attacks will help identify which staff members are susceptible to being scammed, and additional training can be provided.

Compliance: Most industries today have strict regulations around data security. Regular pen testing will support your compliances with any rules and standards in place, while highlighting your commitment to taking data security seriously.

Assure customers: Allied to the above point, clients want to know their data is in safe hands. If you’re compliant, have a good track record and can show customers that protecting your data and theirs is a priority, customer will enjoy greater peace of mind and show more loyalty.  

Real-world testing: Penetration testing is one of the few ways to test your security defences under real-world conditions. Automated systems and audits cannot replicate the creativity and unpredictability of a human attacker as effectively as a skilled penetration tester.

The Four Stages of a Pen Test 

There are multiple ways to carry out a penetration test, all of which get to the same outcome of identifying vulnerabilities in your IT systems. These four stages are broad in scope and will apply to most ethical hacking methods:

  1. Reconnaissance: This stage lays the foundations for the testing and defines the scope and goals. It’s used to gather as much information as possible about the target system, from operating systems to user accounts and network details. The more information the tester has, the better they can plan an effective attack strategy.
  2. Scanning: Once enough information has been gathered, various tools are used for an in-depth examination of the target system. This is similar to an automated scan that an antivirus program would perform, except having a human at the helm to identify potential hacker entry points makes the scan much more effective.
  3. Exploitation: The vulnerabilities have been identified, now it’s time to exploit them. On this stage the tester actively accesses the target system, gaining an understanding of the extent of information an attacker could gain and how much damage they would be able to cause.
  4. Reporting: The final stage involves analyzing the results of the penetration test, documenting the exploited vulnerabilities and their potential impacts. Recommendations are made, access points are patched up and your company’s cybersecurity posture is improved!

Types of Penetration Testing

One way of classifying the types of penetration tests is by focussing on the systems they target. These include:

Web Application Testing: Includes testing web apps for flaws and vulnerabilities such as SQL injection or XSS; verifying accounts so data can’t be compromised; and securely configuring web browsers.

Internal Network Pen Testing: What could a hacker who already has insider access achieve? Tests done from the POV of an authenticated and a non-authenticated person are done.

External Network Testing: Identify security vulnerabilities that would allow attackers to gain access from outside the network.

Social Engineering Testing: Testing the susceptibility of your team members to scammers, phishing and social engineering.

Wireless Network Pen Tests: Identify weaknesses in your Wi-Fi network by analysing encryption weaknesses, access control measures and so on.

Got Cybersecurity Questions?

We hope that helps give you a good background understanding of penetration testing. There’s a lot more to it, so if you’re left with any questions, or want to gain a deeper understanding of how it can help your business, contact Smile IT. We’ve got a team of cybersecurity experts waiting to help you out!

When he’s not writing tech articles or turning IT startups into established and consistent managed service providers, Peter Drummond can be found kitesurfing on the Gold Coast or hanging out with his family!