What Is Penetration Testing in Cyber Security? All you need to know

At Cyber Guard, one of the most frequent questions we hear from our customers is: What is penetration testing? In our over five years of service, we have performed thousands of penetration tests, and we believe we can provide you with the most authentic insights about the role and importance of penetration testing in the context of cyber security. This blog gives you a comprehensive picture of the topic.

Meaning Of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing is a security exercise performed on a computer system to identify if the system is susceptible to any vulnerabilities. It is carried out by authorized professionals. There are both manual and automatic techniques used in the penetration tests. The pen testers decide on the techniques depending on the nature of the weaknesses present.

What Is A Penetration Tester?

A penetration tester, also known as a pen tester, is a trained IT professional authorized by a company to conduct security checks on its IT resources to identify potential security loopholes. The penetration testing process begins with reconnaissance and concludes with the issuance of a detailed pen testing report to the client.

Why Is Penetration Testing Important?

Reports indicate that cyberattacks could cost businesses nearly 6 to 8 trillion USD in 2024. This shows the gravity of such attacks. Hackers use every possible means of advancement in technology to perform an attack. To prevent such attacks, the system owners need to be counteractive. Pen testing helps in identifying and diffusing such attacks. Below are some reasons highlighting the importance of penetration testing.

To Anticipate Vulnerability:

By conducting frequent pen testing by experts, system owners can pinpoint vulnerabilities before a potential hacker notices them and get assurance of safety from their attacks. 

To Stay Ahead of Hackers:

Pen testing is done by ethical hackers or experts who can think just like hackers and beat them in their own game.

To Protect Data:

What is the purpose of penetration testing? The answer is another question: which is the most valuable asset? Data is more valuable, and pen tests help protect data.

To Optimize IoT:

With IoT devices common today, frequent cyberattacks make pen testing essential for security in this segment.

To Comply With Regulation:

In many countries, companies are required to run penetration testing mandatorily to get a license.

What Are The Types Of Penetration Testing

As you navigate penetration testing, you are likely to notice that there are different types of them. Before choosing to perform a particular type for your organization, understand what each test involves and whether it suits your context.

Here  are the types of penetration testing  : 

  • Network Penetration Testing:
  • Wireless Penetration Testing:
  • Social Engineering Penetration Testing:
  • Mobile App Penetration Testing:
  • Web Application Penetration Testing:
  •  Physical Penetration Testing:
  •  IoT Penetration Testing:
  • APIs Penetration Testing 
  •  Cloud Penetration Testing 
  •  Mobile Devices
  •  Red Team Penetration Testing

Let’s now try to understand each of these types with more details and context below. 

Network Penetration Testing:

Network pen testing is designed to exploit vulnerabilities in a network infrastructure. Various network components like firewalls, servers, and switches are exploited via database attacks, proxy server attacks, DNS-level attacks, and so on. 

Wireless Penetration Testing:

Wireless networks can expose a company to cyberattacks. In wireless penetration testing, such vulnerabilities are identified, exploited, and reported. This allows the stakeholders to steer clear of reauthentication attacks, misconfiguration of wireless routers, session reuse, etc. 

Social Engineering Penetration Testing:

Social engineering is an act of deception that hackers use to trick them. They use various methods, like USB dropping, spoofing, phishing, etc., while targeting their victims. In social engineering penetration testing, the assigned penetration testers use these methods to educate as well as expose exploitive scenarios.

Mobile App Penetration Testing:

Companies or services that offer mobile applications for their customers are vulnerable to cyberattacks targeted at their apps. The ethical hackers who conduct mobile app penetration testing identify and expose vulnerabilities within mobile apps, such as source code, metadata, app code, and other application vulnerabilities.

Web Application Penetration Testing:

In web application pen testing, a penetration tester will identify a vulnerability within a web application and subject it to exploitation. Web app databases and their source code get exposed during this targeted exploitation.

Physical Penetration Testing

Physical penetration tests focus on identifying vulnerabilities found in various physical infrastructures used in an organization’s IT systems. This may include doors, locks, cameras, sensors, etc.

IoT Penetration Testing:

IoT (Internet of Things) refers to the various hardware devices that use software and can access the Internet. Hackers get access to the organization’s IT resources through such venues. 

API Penetration Testing

API is the interface that serves as a link between the end applications and the software components enabling the application to function. Through this penetration testing, pen testers will identify and remove threats from APIs and improve the application’s security.

Cloud Penetration Testing

Cloud penetration testing involves a series of streamlined tests focused on pinpointing the weaknesses present in the cloud system. Through a set of planned procedures, the pen testers would verify if the system requires enhancements in security posture. 

Mobile Devices

In mobile device penetration testing, the assigned pen testers assess the security of mobile devices and applications by simulating attacks. If any vulnerabilities or weaknesses are identified, they suggest enhancements like encryption to improve security. 

Red Team Penetration Testing

Red team penetration testing is a more rigorous approach to penetration testing. Here, the pen testers use real-world attacks on an organization’s security across their network, infrastructure, and systems. The purpose is to identify how far a company can go in safeguarding itself through its existing defense mechanisms.

What are the Phases of Penetration Testing?

To understand what is penetration testing in cyber security, one must know the five crucial phases of it. Each phase is important and equally contributes to the accuracy of the result.

penetration testing
  1. Gathering data (reconnaissance):

In the first phase of penetration testing, the pen tester gathers as much data about the target systems as possible. This includes data about user accounts, range and type of devices, operating systems, network types, and other key information. 

  1. Scanning:

Scanning is the second phase in penetration testing. In this, the tester uses automated tools to identify potential threats. This is not a complete test or evaluation but a preliminary test to identify key areas where further tests can be done to identify the full gravity of the issue.

  1. Weakness evaluation:

The potential loopholes identified through reconnaissance and scanning are carefully assessed by the pen testers. They check whether the identified issues can be exploited by a hacker in a possible attack scenario. If there is scope for exploitation, it is recommended to the next stage.

  1. Simulated Exploitation:

This is the most crucial phase in pen testing. Here, the pen tester initiates simulated exploitation of the identified loopholes. Various tools, techniques and strategies that hackers use in real-world cases are utilized here to identify to what extent the attacks can go and cause damage to the system owners.

  1. Report generation:

With more and more cyberattacks being reported each day and strict compliance protocols like PCI DSS and HIPAA mandate, many organizations are forced to conduct penetration testing even though some of them are not willing to. In this context, it is interesting to know whether penetration testing is helpful or whether it comes with any disadvantages. The truth is it has both benefits and drawbacks.

How much access is given to pen testers?

Depending on the goals of a pen test, testers are given varying degrees of information about, or access to, the target system. In some cases, the pen testing team takes one approach at the start and sticks with it. Other times, the testing team evolves its strategy as its awareness of the system increases during the pen test. There are three levels of pen test access.

Opaque box.

 The team doesn’t know anything about the internal structure of the target system. It acts as hackers would, probing for any externally exploitable weaknesses.

Semi-opaque box.

The team has some knowledge of one or more sets of credentials. It also knows about the target’s internal data structures, code, and algorithms. Pen testers might construct test cases based on detailed design documents, such as architectural diagrams of the target system.

Transparent box.

Pen testers have access to systems and system artifacts including source code, binaries, containers, and sometimes even the servers running the system. This approach provides the highest level of assurance in the smallest amount of time.

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Jim Jacob

Jim Jacob is the founder of Cyberguard. He is an IT professional who has 21 years of professional experience in the tech field. Cybergurad is the product of his vision to share the knowledge gained from his career through the power of words. He is an expert at explaining complex tech concepts in simple language and has written numerous articles on IT and Cybersecurity.

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    What Tools Are Used for Penetration Testing

    Several tools are used today for Vulnerability Assessment Penetration Testing (VAPT). Take a look at the seven most popular tools recommended for use in 2024.

    Cobalt Strike:

    Cobalt Strike is an advanced pen testing tool that is mainly used for exploitation purposes. Pen testers can use it to simulate application, network, and systems attacks. It also comes with the option to mimic various types of security attacks based on which testers can identify loopholes. 

    Kali Linux:

    Kali Linux is a penetration testing toolkit that offers access to more than 600 diverse tools. Beyond the tools themselves and the minute testing features they offer, what makes them an essential commodity for pen testers is the availability of numerous well-documented resources as to how to get started, use each tool and analyze the reports generated by them.

    Nessus:

    Nessus is a vulnerability scanner and is available as a free open-source version as well as in a premium version. While the former comes with limited features or options, it is still useful for beginners or companies that are budget-conscious. In the premium version, you get to test about 50,000 diverse vulnerability scenarios. 

    Nmap:

    Network Mapper, commonly known as Nmap, is a popular tool used by pen testers. The main reason for its popularity is its high customization features and options to configure. It’s an open-source tool that is free and can be used in a variety of scenarios like scanning, identifying open ports and active hosts etc, and across operating systems like Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X.

    Wireshark:

    Wireshark comes with several advanced and user-friendly features that make it easier to use and understand. On the interactive interface it offers, testers can see real-time updates of the various examination areas like timestamps, destination source, etc. The data collected this way can be used to quickly identify the origin of cyberattacks

    Metasploit:

    Metasploit is another popular pen testing tool that is recommended for advanced pen testing. Ranging from weak vulnerabilities to sophisticated vulnerabilities, this tool helps identify maximum loopholes in a digital system. 

    Intruder

    The developers of Intruder claim that it can conduct over 10,000 checks to identify mild to serious malware threat scenarios. It is an automated penetration testing tool that runs compatible across all operating systems and all types of cloud ecosystems. For an organization that wants to get started with an effective and proactive security protocol against threat and vulnerability, this is a recommended pen-testing tool. 

    What Are The Benefits of Penetration Testing

    Penetration testing guarantees multiple benefits ranging from helping one understand the gravity of vulnerabilities they are exposed to helping take precautions to thwart any future attacks. Here are the most common benefits you will get by performing penetration testing for your IT resources.

    Helps Protect Business Reputation:

    A business that is exposed to cyberattacks will not have any reputation among people or customers. By performing penetration testing, you can foresee whether any attacks linger. It is quite like an insurance policy against an accident.

    Ensures Legal Compliance:

    In most countries, companies are legally required to conduct penetration testing at regular intervals. For instance, the UK GDPR. This is because governments give high priority to the safety of their citizen’s data.

    Provides Neutral Assessment Of Existing IT security:

    No organization would admit that its IT security is below average. However, only an external evaluation can affirm the same. Penetration testing acts as an objective assessment of a company’s IT system and gives an unbiased report. 

    Improves Response Capabilities:

    It is reported that companies that perform penetration testing in collaboration with their staff are in a better position to respond quickly to any attempts of attacks. They already know how attackers would target their systems.

    Exposes Even Trivial Loopholes:

    Cybercriminals have conducted most of the large-scale cyber attacks after intensifying trivial security loopholes. Oftentimes, these loopholes would have been the ones left unattended by the organizations dismissing them as trivial.

    Helps Ensure Proper System Configuration:

    Performing a pen test after a major system change will help you identify whether the network infrastructure, systems, and various other resources have been configured correctly or not.

    What Are the Limitations of Penetration Testing?

    While pen testing can help one deal with a large volume of common vulnerabilities through its streamlined pen testing solutions, there are certain limitations too.  

    • Pen testers get limited time for carrying out testing, which restricts the coverage of system components and their functionality. 
    • Penetration tests alone can’t address all defects comprehensively. Businesses must use it in collaboration with other data privacy and security mechanisms and regulations. 
    • Restricted permissions given to pen testers limit their access to certain areas, authentication, integrity checks, and data validation during this security exercise.
    • Heavy scanning and automation involved in the tests may cause sudden technical incidents, leading to business impacts.

    Conclusion

    It is possible to run pen testing while letting them have controlled access to your computer systems. This not only helps you have peace of mind but also avoids any potential chances of misconduct. Moreover, it is highly recommended to associate with a reputed pen testing service provider to ensure the accuracy of the reports and the safety of your systems.

    FAQ

    No. Penetration testing is recommended for all types of businesses – small, medium and large enterprises. However, it is important to customize the test according to the type, size and nature of the business. 

    It is recommended to conduct pen testing at least once a year. However, if your organization has a major change in the IT infrastructure within the cycle of a year, it is recommended to conduct the pen test as early as possible to avoid any potential attacks.

    While having an active firewall and antivirus program is essential for safeguarding your systems, they alone can’t give any guarantee that your systems remain sealed against cyberattacks. Through penetration testing, you can get to know about the potential vulnerabilities and implement steps to ensure more safety of your systems.

    It is impossible to give an exact timeline for penetration testing without taking an assessment of the scope and complexity of it in the specific business context. Nevertheless, you can expect a pen test to be completed within a few days to a week time.

    Before conducting a penetration test, verify the authenticity of the company that runs the test. Also, get recommended sanctions or authorization from the concerned IT department and define the access level to pen testers. Closely monitor the activities during the testing process and execute the remedial measures suggested by the report as early as possible after the test is concluded.