Penetration Test: Meaning, Examples, Types and Stages

penetration test
Image source: Invicti

Penetration testing is widely used to supplement a web application firewall (WAF) in the context of web application security. A penetration test, also known as a pen test, simulates a cyber assault on your computer system in order to identify exploitable flaws. The penetration test results can then be used to fine-tune your WAF security policies and address found vulnerabilities. Here’s all you need to know about a penetration test, including the various types and methods.

What is a Penetration Test?

A penetration test (pen test) is a legally sanctioned simulated attack on a computer system to assess its security. Penetration testers employ the same tools, strategies, and processes as attackers to identify and show the commercial implications of system flaws. Penetration tests typically replicate a number of assaults that could endanger a company. They can determine whether a system is strong enough to withstand attacks from both authenticated and unauthenticated positions, as well as from a variety of system roles. A pen test can go into any aspect of a system with the correct scope.

What Advantages Does Penetration Testing Provide?

Ideally, software and systems are developed from the beginning with the goal of eliminating potentially dangerous security issues. A pen test offers information on how well that goal was met. Here’s how pen testing can be beneficial to a corporation.

  • Identify system flaws
  • Determine the control’s robustness.
  • Assist with compliance with data privacy and security regulations (for example, PCI DSS, HIPAA, and GDPR).
  • Give management qualitative and quantitative evidence of the existing security posture and budget priorities.

What are the Stages of Pen Testing?

Pen testers act as motivated adversaries to mimic assaults. They usually follow a plan that involves the following steps:

#1. Reconnaissance.

To guide the attack approach, gather as much information on the target as possible from public and private sources. Internet searches, domain registration information retrieval, social engineering, nonintrusive network scanning, and occasionally dumpster diving are all sources. This data assists pen testers in mapping out the target’s attack surface and potential vulnerabilities. Reconnaissance varies depending on the scope and aims of the pen test; it might be as basic as making a phone call to walk through a system’s capabilities.

#2. Scanning

Pen testers utilize tools to look for flaws in the target website or system, such as open services, application security concerns, and open source vulnerabilities. Pen testers employ a range of tools based on what they discover during reconnaissance and testing.

#3. Obtaining entry.

The motivations of attackers might range from stealing, modifying, or destroying data to shifting funds or simply hurting a company’s reputation. Pen testers decide which tools and tactics to use to get access to the system, whether through a flaw like SQL injection or by malware, social engineering, or something else.

#4. Keeping access open

Once pen testers have gained access to the target, their simulated attack must remain connected long enough to achieve their goals of data exfiltration, modification, or abuse of functionality. It is necessary to demonstrate the possible impact.

Penetration Test Types

Before deciding on a provider, it’s crucial to understand the many types of pen tests accessible, as engagements differ in focus, depth, and duration. The following are examples of common ethical hacking engagements:

#1. Penetration Testing of Internal and External Infrastructure

An evaluation of on-premises and cloud network infrastructure, including firewalls, system hosts, and devices like routers and switches. Internal penetration testing, focusing on assets within the business network, or external penetration testing, focusing on internet-facing infrastructure, might be used. To scope a test, you must know the number of internal and external IPs to be examined, the size of the network subnet, and the number of sites.

#2. Wireless Penetration Examination

A WLAN (wireless local area network) test that explicitly targets an organization’s WLAN as well as wireless protocols such as Bluetooth, ZigBee, and Z-Wave. Aids in the detection of rogue access points, encryption flaws, and WPA vulnerabilities. Testers will need to know the number of wireless and guest networks, locations, and unique SSIDs to be assessed in order to scope an engagement.

#3. Testing of Web Applications

An examination of websites and custom programs distributed via the internet to identify coding, design, and development defects that could be maliciously exploited. Before approaching a testing provider, determine the number of apps that require testing, as well as the number of static pages, dynamic sites, and input fields that must be evaluated.

#4. Testing of Mobile Applications

Mobile application testing on platforms such as Android and iOS to uncover authentication, authorization, data leaking, and session handling vulnerabilities. To scope a test, providers must know the operating systems and versions they want an app evaluated on, the number of API calls, and the prerequisites for jailbreaking and root detection.

#5. Review of the Build and Configuration

Examine network builds and configurations for errors on web and app servers, routers, and firewalls. The number of builds, operating systems, and application servers to be tested is critical information for scoping this type of engagement.

#6. Social Engineering

An evaluation of your systems and personnel’s capacity to recognize and respond to email phishing attempts. Customized phishing, spear phishing, and Business Email Compromise (BEC) assaults provide detailed insight into potential dangers.

#7. Testing for Cloud Penetration

Custom cloud security assessments can assist your organization in overcoming shared responsibility difficulties by identifying and addressing vulnerabilities in cloud and hybrid settings that may expose important assets.

#8. Penetration Testing in an Agile Environment

Continuous, developer-centric security assessments aimed to detect and correct security flaws during the development cycle. This agile methodology helps to ensure that every product release, whether a simple bug fix or a large feature, has been thoroughly tested for security.

Methods of Penetration Testing

#1. External evaluation

External penetration tests target a firm’s internet-visible assets, such as the web application itself, the company website, email, and domain name servers (DNS). The goal is to obtain access and extract useful information.

#2. Internal evaluation

In an internal test, a tester having access to an application behind the company’s firewall mimics a malicious insider attack. This is not always emulating a renegade employee. A common starting point is an employee whose credentials were obtained as a result of a phishing attempt.

#3. Blind testing

In a blind test, a tester is merely provided the name of the targeted organization. This provides security personnel with a real-time view of how an actual application assault might occur.

#4. Double-blind Testing

Security workers in a double blind test have no prior information of the simulated attack. They won’t have time to shore up their fortifications before an attempted breach, much like in the real world.

#5. Targeted testing

In this scenario, the tester and the security staff collaborate and keep each other informed of their movements. This is an excellent training exercise that offers a security team with real-time feedback from the perspective of a hacker.

What Is the Role of a Penetration Tester?

A penetration tester, unlike other computer science experts, focuses on a specific aspect of cybersecurity. They aid in the protection of their businesses’ digital information by detecting system flaws before an attack occurs, a process known as vulnerability testing.

Penetration testers can save their organizations from the financial and public trust harm that comes with significant data breaches. To uncover potential flaws and avoid future assaults, these professionals think like dangerous hackers.

Penetration testers are frequently employed by cybersecurity or information technology (IT) teams. Experience with hacking tools, coding and scripting, and a comprehensive understanding of vulnerabilities and operating systems are all important penetration testing capabilities.

Penetration testers benefit from strong communication, interpersonal, and report-writing skills.

How Much Can a Pen Tester Make?

Pen testers can earn a lot of money. According to Payscale, the average penetration tester pay in September 2021 is $87,440. This amount is much higher than the BLS’s May 2020 national median wage for all jobs of $41,950.

Penetration testers at the entry-level earn less than experienced professionals. Pay varies according to education, with higher-level penetration testers often earning more. Location, industry, and specialist area are all factors that can affect compensation.

Salary of a Penetration Tester Based on Experience

Salary ranges for penetration testers vary according to experience level. Penetration testers with 20 years of experience earn an average of $124,610 per year, which is approximately $57,000 more than the average compensation for entry-level workers.

Just having 1-4 years of experience can dramatically raise a penetration tester’s income, from $67,950 for an entry-level penetration tester to $81,230 for an early career expert.

Salary of a Penetration Tester Based on Education

Salaries for penetration testers often rise with the level of degree. Moving from a bachelor’s degree in information security to a master’s degree, for example, can raise average wages by $19,000 per year.

Consider the benefits and drawbacks of extra education by evaluating potential better wages against the time and money required to obtain another degree. Certifications and boot camps are less expensive possibilities.

Penetration testing academic programs often provide degrees in computer science, cybersecurity, or information security. 

Salary of a Penetration Tester by Location

Aside from education and experience, where you live can have an impact on your compensation. A penetration tester’s income can be affected by factors such as employment demand, cost of living, and population density. Consider occupations in higher-paying areas with lower-than-average cost of living statistics to optimize earning potential.

How Much Access Do Pen Testers Have?

Testers are provided varied degrees of information about, or access to, the target system, depending on the goals of the pen test. In certain circumstances, the pen testing team starts with one strategy and remains with it. At times, the testing team’s strategy develops as its understanding of the system grows during the pen test. Pen test access is divided into three levels.

  • The opaque box. The team has no knowledge of the target system’s internal structure. It behaves similarly to a hacker, exploring for any externally exploitable flaws.
  • Semi-transparent box. The staff is familiar with one or more sets of credentials. It also understands the core data structures, code, and algorithms of the target. Pen testers may build test cases from extensive design documentation, like architectural diagrams of the target system.
  • Transparent box. Pen testers have access to systems and system artifacts such as source code, binaries, containers, and, in some cases, the servers that run the system. This method delivers the highest level of assurance in the shortest amount of time.

What Are Penetration Testing Tools?

Penetration testing tools are used as part of a penetration test (Pen Test) to automate specific processes, improve testing speed, and uncover flaws that would be difficult to spot using only manual analytic techniques. Static analysis tools and dynamic analysis tools are two types of penetration testing tools.

What Are The Types of Pen Testing Tools?

There is no one-size-fits-all pen-testing tool. Instead, different targets necessitate different tool sets for port scanning, application scanning, Wi-Fi break-ins, and direct network penetration. Pen testing tools are broadly classified into five groups.

  • Reconnaissance software for locating network hosts and open ports
  • Scanners for vulnerabilities in network services, web applications, and APIs
  • Proxy tools such as specialized web proxies or generic man-in-the-middle proxies are available.
  • Exploitation tools are used to gain system footholds or access to assets.
  • Post-exploitation tools for engaging with systems, retaining and growing access, and accomplishing assault goals

What Distinguishes Pen Testing from Automated Testing?

Pen testers use automated scanning and testing tools, despite the fact that pen testing is largely a manual endeavor. They also go beyond the tools to provide more in-depth testing than a vulnerability assessment (i.e., automated testing) by utilizing their understanding of the current attack strategies.

Manual pen testing

Manual pen testing identifies vulnerabilities and weaknesses that are not included in popular lists (e.g., the OWASP Top 10) and evaluates business logic that automated testing may ignore (e.g., data validation, integrity checks). A manual pen test can also assist in the identification of false positives provided by automated testing. Pen testers can examine data to target their attacks and test systems and websites in ways that automated testing solutions following a predefined routine cannot since they are professionals who think like adversaries.

Automated testing

Compared to a fully manual pen testing approach, automated testing produces results faster and requires fewer qualified individuals. Automated testing programs automatically track results and can sometimes export them to a centralized reporting platform. Furthermore, the findings of manual pen tests can vary from test to test, but doing automated testing on the same system repeatedly yields the same results.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Pen Testing?

With the number and severity of security breaches increasing year after year, there has never been a bigger need for enterprises to have visibility into how they can withstand attacks. Regulations such as PCI DSS and HIPAA need periodic pen testing to ensure compliance. With these constraints in mind, below are some advantages and disadvantages of this type of defect detection technique.

Advantages of Pen Testing

  • Upstream security assurance approaches, such as automated tools, configuration and coding standards, architecture analysis, and other lighter-weight vulnerability assessment tasks, are shown to have flaws.
  • Finds both known and unknown software faults and security vulnerabilities, including minor issues that may not cause much concern on their own but may cause serious harm as part of a larger attack pattern.
  • Can attack any system by emulating how most hostile hackers would behave, simulating a real-world enemy as closely as possible.

The Disadvantages of Pen Testing

  • Is labor-intensive and expensive
  • Does not completely prevent bugs and defects from entering the production environment.

What Are the Two Commonly Used Penetration Tests?

The two most prevalent types of penetration tests are automated and manual. 

Why Do We Use Penetration Testing?

The goal of penetration testing is to assist businesses in determining where they are most vulnerable to attack and proactively addressing those vulnerabilities before hackers exploit them.

To Summarize,

A penetration test (pen test) is a legally sanctioned simulated attack on a computer system to assess its security. Pen tests give extensive information on real-world security threats that can be exploited. By doing a penetration test, you can identify which vulnerabilities are critical, which are minor, and which are false positives.

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