What Is a Penetration Test?

A penetration test, also known as a pen test, is a method of assessing the security of a computer system, network or web application by simulating an attack from an adversary. This type of testing involves using tools and techniques to attempt to exploit known vulnerabilities or misconfigurations in an organization’s security infrastructure. The goal of a penetration test is to identify vulnerabilities before an attacker does and to provide actionable recommendations for improving security.

Why Conduct a Penetration Test?

There are several reasons why an organization may choose to conduct a penetration test. Here are a few of the most common ones:

  1. To identify security weaknesses. Penetration tests help identify security weaknesses that may not have been discovered during a regular security audit. By identifying these weaknesses, organizations can take steps to remediate them and reduce the risk of a successful cyber attack.
  2. To comply with regulations. Many regulatory bodies, such as PCI-DSS and HIPAA, require organizations to perform regular security testing to ensure compliance. A penetration test can help meet these regulatory requirements and avoid potential penalties.
  3. To validate security controls. Penetration testing can help validate that security controls are working as intended and provide assurance that sensitive data is properly secured.
  4. To improve incident response. By testing the organization’s incident response capabilities during a simulated attack, the organization can identify areas for improvement and ensure that they are prepared to respond to a real attack.

Types of Penetration Testing

There are several types of penetration testing, including:

  1. External Testing. This type of testing involves simulating an attack from outside the organization’s network, typically through the internet.
  2. Internal Testing. This type of testing involves simulating an attack from within the organization’s network such as from a rogue employee or a compromised system.
  3. Web Application Testing. This type of testing focuses on web applications and involves testing for vulnerabilities such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS) and authentication flaws.
  4. Mobile Application Testing. This type of testing focuses on mobile applications and involves testing for vulnerabilities such as insecure data storage and weak authentication.
  5. Wireless Network Testing. This type of testing focuses on wireless networks and involves testing for vulnerabilities such as weak encryption and unauthorized access.

The Penetration Testing Process

The penetration testing process typically involves several steps, including:

  1. Planning and Reconnaissance. This phase involves gathering information about the target system, network or application, including IP addresses, domain names and other publicly available information.
  2. Scanning. This phase involves using tools to scan for vulnerabilities such as open ports, known vulnerabilities and misconfigurations.
  3. Gaining Access. This phase involves exploiting the vulnerabilities discovered during the scanning phase to gain access to the target system or network.
  4. Maintaining Access. This phase involves maintaining access to the target system or network to assess the extent of the vulnerabilities.
  5. Analysis and Reporting. This phase involves analyzing the results of the penetration test and preparing a report that identifies vulnerabilities, prioritizes them based on risk and provides recommendations for remediation.

Act Before an Attacker Does

A penetration test is an essential component of any organization’s cybersecurity strategy. By identifying vulnerabilities before an attacker does, organizations can take proactive steps to remediate them and reduce the risk of a successful cyber attack. With a better understanding of the penetration testing process and the types of testing available, information security engineers can make more informed decisions about the appropriate testing strategy for their organization. Need help acting before an attacker does? We do penetration tests routinely for our clients, who are both in the private and public sectors, and we can do one for you too. Contact us today to begin a conversation.

Laurie Head has more than 25 years of IT industry experience and is a co-owner of AIS Network