What is Penetration Testing? [Types, Pros, and Cons]

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What is Penetration Testing? [Types, Pros, and Cons]

Sameeksha Medewar
Last updated on June 29, 2022

    This digital epoch has made it possible for businesses to digitize their processes and operations. However, they tend to underestimate the risk that comes with new technologies. Though new technologies are boon for businesses, they may be a bane if hackers exploit the security vulnerability that exists within their IT infrastructures.

    Once hackers gain access to the IT infrastructure of businesses, they have full control over it and can do a lot of activities, such as data breaches, data manipulation, and many others. This may result in a severe attack, and companies may get into a great loss.

    According to the study by Microsoft and Frost & Sullivan , a large-scale organization in the Asia Pacific undergoing cyberattacks may face an economic loss of possibly $30 million, which is a lofty amount.

    To avoid economic as well as organizational data loss, organizations should be able to detect security vulnerabilities in their IT infrastructure and prevent potential cyberattacks. This is where penetration testing comes into play.

    It is the process of testing the computer systems, applications, or a network to determine the weaknesses that hackers could leverage to perform cyberattacks. It is a valuable and more powerful process than traditional IT security tools and helps businesses maintain their infrastructure safe and secure.

    Through this blog post, we shall introduce you to penetration testing in detail and its various aspects.

    So, let us begin our discussion without wasting time!

    What is Penetration Testing? [Definition]

    It is a type of security testing or a cybersecurity technique that involves performing an authorized simulated attack on the target system to identify its potential vulnerabilities, weaknesses, threats, or risks that malicious could exploit. It evaluates the security and determines the hackability of an organization’s systems, networks, and web applications. We also refer to this type of testing as pen testing or ethical hacking.

    While performing pen testing, cybersecurity experts use the same processes, tools, and techniques malicious hackers leverage but in a legit manner. They identify whether the system can resist and combat various types of attacks.

    The primary objective of this type of testing is to pick out potential weak and vulnerable spots in the target system to avoid or prevent attacks by the hackers using those spots. Doing this will help organizations determine various security risks and take measures accordingly to prevent cyberattacks.

    Now you might be wondering why the name ‘penetration testing’. The reason is that this type of testing determines the degree to which hackers can penetrate the target system.

    The Need for Penetration Testing

    All internet-based businesses are now at risk due to cyberattacks. The prevalence of cyberattacks like phishing, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), ransomware, and many others has significantly increased along with the growing use of developing technologies. As the technologies emerge, so do the new techniques cybercriminals leverage to perform attacks.

    As a result, organizations use penetration testing with the primary goal of keeping all assets safe and protected from unauthorized access. They identify the parts of their infrastructure that are susceptible to attacks and update or replace those parts to ensure security.

    Not only pen testing helps organizations identify vulnerabilities but also the security posture of their infrastructures and fix issues, if any, to harden security.

    Who Performs Pen Testing?

    Generally, ethical hackers are in charge of pen testing. They are the Information security professionals, also called white hat hackers , who penetrate an organization’s computer systems, web applications, networks, and other computing resources with full authorization.

    Organizations mostly choose ethical hackers to evaluate a specific system for its security who are previously not aware of the system’s security measures. This is because they can identify the security flaws or holes as well as the strengths of the system that its developers fail to uncover.

    How to Perform Penetration Testing?

    Any organization or company can adopt pen testing. However, the use of hacking tools and processes for testing may vary based on an organization’s infrastructure, operations, and standards. It is a well-structured, six-step process, as explained below:

    1. Preparation

    The first step is preparation or planning. However, this step may be simple or complex based on an organization’s needs. This step involves defining the objectives and scope of testing. To define scope, ethical hackers leverage existing security policies. Also, they decide on which testing method to use and what systems to be addressed.

    2. Reconnaissance

    Also known as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) gathering, reconnaissance is a crucial stage in pen testing, where ethical hackers work on collecting the intelligence on an organization, such as mail servers, domain names, network names, etc. Based on this collected information, ethical hackers can have a better understanding of how the target system works and its security vulnerabilities.

    In a nutshell, pen testers gather all the information through which the hackers can gain authorized access to an organization’s infrastructure or any application.

    Some popular and common OSINT techniques include social engineering, domain name searches, tax records, internet footprinting, and the list goes on.

    3. Scanning

    In this step, penetration testers leverage various penetration testing tools to validate the target system with the aim of uncovering vulnerabilities, such as open-source vulnerabilities, application security issues, and open services. They detect all the security gaps that hackers can easily exploit.

    4. Exploitation

    After uncovering all the security gaps, pen testers actually start exploiting them. They do it by unauthorizedly accessing the system, stealing data, intercepting traffic, etc. By doing this, they will understand the nature of those security gaps, to what extent they can cause damage, and the efforts required to exploit them.

    5. Maintaining Access

    Like attackers, pen testers, once they gain access to the target system, keep the channel open for further exploitation. Basically, pen testers install the malware and other programs in the system and check whether it is capable of detecting and removing those programs on its own.

    6. Reporting

    While performing pen testing, testers document every step they perform to fix the security vulnerabilities. Also, they need to be very careful in handing over this document to the owner as it contains highly sensitive information. This document also entails the exploited security vulnerabilities, sensitive data accessed, and the amount of time the tester remained in the system undetected.

    Types of Pen Testing Approaches

    There are three different approaches that pen testers adopt, namely black box, white box, and gray box. These approaches decide what level of information about the system should be exposed to pen testers.

    1. White Box

    In this approach, pen testers have complete knowledge and access to the target system. As a result, they can perform in-depth testing of the target system and gain all the information in detail. We also refer to white box testing as clear box testing, glass box testing, or internal penetration testing.

    As pen testers have access to the system's source code, white box testing involves a wide range of thorough pen tests. The ideal time duration for white box testing is two to three weeks.

    2. Black Box

    White box testing contrasts with black box testing, commonly referred to as external penetration testing. It offers pen testers little to no knowledge regarding the IT infrastructure of a company.

    The major benefit of this testing approach is that it completely simulates the real-world cyberattack as the hackers carry out without having the knowledge of the target system. As a result, pen testers in black box testing act as uninformed attackers. Pen testers, however, need to have a high level of technical knowledge.

    The ideal time duration to perform black-box testing is around six weeks. It is one of the most prolonged types of pen testing. Also, it is more expensive than the white-box approach.

    3. Gray Box

    The gray box testing approach is something between the above two approaches. Here, pen testers have partial knowledge and access to the target system. With limited knowledge of the target system, pen testers identify the areas that are more prone to attacks and avoid any trial and error methods of attacks.

    Popular Types of Penetration Testing

    There are different types of pen testing where each type requires a different set of knowledge, processes, and tools. These types of pen testing are as follows:

    • Network Service Pen Testing

    It is one of the typical sorts of pen testing that involves testing an organization's IT infrastructure. This type of testing primarily aims to identify potential security spots in an organization's infrastructure, i.e., switches, routers, firewalls, workstations, and many others, before hackers can exploit them.

    Performing a network service penetration test avoids any network-based attacks, including router attacks, SSH attacks, proxy server attacks, man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks, and database attacks.

    • Web Application Pen Testing

    This type of testing uncovers vulnerabilities or flaws that comprise the security of web applications. Pen testers leverage various techniques and penetrate web applications to identify areas more susceptible to attacks.

    Moreover, web application pen tests are more targeted and detailed. Here, pen testers identify the endpoints of the target web application from where the end-users interact with it. To do so, it takes a lot of time and effort.

    • Client-Side Pen Testing

    Client-side pen testing involves testing client-side applications to discover vulnerabilities and security spots. Such applications include web browsers, email clients, Microsoft Office Suite, Macromedia Flash, etc.

    This type of testing is essential to protect web applications from different cyberattacks, including Hijacking, cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks, clickjacking attacks, malware injection, and HTML injection attacks.

    • Social Engineering Pen Testing

    Most of the cyberattacks today taking place are based on social engineering . In social engineering, hackers take advantage of human errors and gain knowledge of their confidential information, such as usernames and passwords.

    To avoid social engineering attacks, social engineering pen testing comes in handy. In this type of testing, pen testers leverage various social engineering attacks, including phishing, eavesdropping, name dropping, and imposters.

    • Physical Pen Testing

    As its name suggests, physical pen testing involves comprising the physical barriers to accessing an organization’s IT infrastructure. Many times hackers can physically gain access to the server room of an organization and, in turn, own the network. This may have an adverse impact on the business, employees, as well as customers.

    With the aim to prevent physical access to an organization’s server room, pen testers perform physical pen testing to identify weaknesses in physical controls, such as cameras, sensors, and locks. After identifying, organizations can significantly improve their physical security posture.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Penetration Testing

    Let us now delve into the upsides and downsides of pen testing.

    Advantages

    • It identifies all the potential security vulnerabilities in the target system and protects it from various cyber threats.
    • Locates high-level, complex vulnerabilities that result from the combination of small ones.
    • It mimics the real-world cyberattacks that hackers perform unauthorizedly to determine the intensity of attacks and the ability of the target system to resist them.
    • Pen testing ends with a detailed report containing all weaknesses and corresponding suggestions to fix them.

    Disadvantages

    • It takes a great deal of effort, money, and time.
    • Pen testing implies allowing the other person to hack your system’s security. As a result, you need to have complete trust in the person you hire. Otherwise, you may be at a great loss if you hand over your system to the wrong hands.
    • It requires highly skilled pen testers.

    Conclusion

    This brings us to the end of our discussion on penetration testing. It is a type of security testing that involves hacking into the target system legitly and uncovering potential weak spots that make the system susceptible to cyber threats. With the prevalence of cyberattacks in this digital epoch, pen testing has become essential for organizations to keep their infrastructure safe and secure.

    We hope this article is enlightening and helpful in understanding penetration testing. Still, have any doubts? Share them in the comments section.

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    FAQs


    The frequency of penetration testing depends on parameters, including budget, the size of the testing environment, and the nature of the testing environment. Also, frequently testing will result in less time to fix the previously detected flaws. Meanwhile, testing infrequently will make the system more susceptible to attacks.

    The time required for pen testing depends on various factors, such as the type of test, the size of the testing team, the size and complexity of the testing environment, etc. An approximate time for pen testing is 4 to 6 weeks.

    Penetration testing is crucial because it provides organizations with the security posture of their IT infrastructure and uncovers weak spots that hackers could exploit.

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