Cyber Technology Security Protection Monitoring Concept Penetration Test

Penetration testing: An in-depth look


Learn about penetration testing and why it is important.

Time: 12 minute read

Organizations that have successfully reduced their exposure to all manner of cyberthreats focus on three key areas:

  1. Employee awareness – Teaching users how to identify and respond to phishing attacks and best practices for network security and passwords.

  2. Threat detection – Using malware and intrusion detection technology to constantly monitor the network and every endpoint for malicious attempts.

  3. Preventative measures – Implementing tools to harden security defenses against new and emerging threats.

This article provides an in-depth look at one of the key preventative measures used to reduce the risk of a successful cyberattack: penetration testing.

What is penetration testing?

A penetration test, or pen test, is a simulated cyberattack against a computer system to check for potential vulnerabilities and security weaknesses against real-world hacking attempts.

Instead of waiting until an attack eventually happens (and it likely will), pen testing probes for vulnerabilities in a safe, controlled environment.

A penetration test doesn’t just reveal vulnerabilities, it also will actively exploit them to demonstrate the extent of damage that is possible.

The concept is for a “friendly hacker” to try to break into an application, mobile device, database, server, or a website without permission or using stolen credentials and show exactly how an actual attacker would attempt to install malicious code, steal and sell customer data, or hold intellectual property for ransom. Pen testers need to think and act like actual attackers.

Once the system, app, or device targeted for initial attack has been breached, it can lead testers down a rabbit hole of access to other networked resources and additional entry points that can be further exploited, digging into escalated levels of assets and user privileges.

After the testers have exposed all potential weaknesses, their findings are delivered to IT staff who will drive the effort to close identified security gaps through measures that include –

  • Software patches and firmware updates. 

  • Closing unguarded network ports and activating endpoint protection. 

  • Removing old user credentials, expired software licenses, and outdated software. 

  • Implementing Least Privilege or Zero Trust policies such as identity and access management (IAM) tools like two-factor authentication and data encryption.

The importance of penetration testing

The purpose of pen testing is to determine the feasibility or probability of a threat actor actually compromising the IT environment – in other words, what are the odds of a hacker successfully targeting the company, which systems are most vulnerable, where will they go first, and how much damage can be done before being noticed?

Pen testing tells IT decision-makers where to best invest their security dollars and prioritizes which vulnerabilities should be addressed first.

In addition to intelligently managing the highest security priorities, periodic pen testing offers other benefits including:

  • Uncovers unknown weaknesses by offering a model to test for new and emerging threats like the latest ransomware. 

  • Reduces the time and cost of network downtime after an attack. A smaller attack surface means easier identification of targeted systems and faster recovery. 

  • Proves the network is compliant with regulatory requirements and insulates the company from damages and penalties in the event of a breach. 

  • Confirms remediation steps are working and effective through re-testing for the same vulnerability. 

  • Improves IT staff response to actual events from increased preparedness through simulated attacks.

In sum, the goal of penetration testing is to help organizations stay one step ahead of the bad guys by finding and fixing security vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.

What's the difference between pen tests and vulnerability scans?

Vulnerability scans are just that – automated inspections of entire IT environments that search for and report on known weaknesses in networked devices, applications, and infrastructure.

There are many vulnerability scanning solutions commercially available, each with different options and feature sets to find different kinds of weaknesses. Organizations many use multiple vulnerability scanning solutions to ensure they are scanning for all types of threats.

One thing most of them have in common is that they use a list of CVE identifiers. CVE stands for Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures. It is an industry standard used by global databases to identify, describe, and classify known vulnerabilities.

Network assets are scanned and checked against a list of thousands of CVEs. A vulnerability score is then assigned to each asset to list and prioritize potential security weaknesses.

Vulnerability scans are a good place to start, but they do not address the cause; they merely inform and rank present risks based on severity.

Even so, a low score does not mean the risk is insignificant. It may still be a doorway to destruction.

Pen testers take vulnerability scans to the next level and add further insight by seeing if the exposed vulnerabilities can indeed result in a breach.

They will poke and prod to discover if the weakness could be leveraged to access the IT environment, or if it is a false positive or dead-end.

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