What are Penetration Tests?

By Pooja Kotian, ERMProtect, IT Security Consultant

Penetration tests involve performing highly technical tests and simulated attacks to identify the various pathways hackers or insiders could use to penetrate an organization’s cyber defenses. They assess an organization’s ability to protect  its networks, endpoints, assets, and workforce from internal and external data breach threats.

Crucially, penetration tests provide organizations with a vital snapshot of their cybersecurity posture. It is one thing to believe that your organization is secure and another thing to actually test it to gain actual assurance about cybersecurity.

In a world hit by a pandemic, penetration tests have gained a greater significance than ever before. Distributed and remote workforces bring with them lapses in cybersecurity. Regular penetration tests  reveal potential threats so they can be stamped out before something bad happens.

Regulatory compliance is also a big driver of penetration testing across organizations of all industries today. Frequently referenced as “pen tests,” they are a requirement of regulations and standards such as PCI DSS, HIPAA, GLBA, SOX, ISO 27001, and several others.

Why is Penetration Testing Important?

Penetration testing can be performed internally, but most organizations hire an independent, outside firm to test their environment. Certified ethical hackers, such as those employed by ERMProtect, are in the field everyday witnessing vulnerabilities and exploits across multiple industries and types of IT infrastructures.

They use this knowledge to simulate real-world attack techniques that truly test an organization’s defenses against existing and emerging threats. Such an attack-centric way of thinking helps offer deeper insights into information protection than a defense-centric way alone would.

How Do Penetration Tests Differ?

A penetration test could either be a black box test, white box test, or grey box test. A black box test is one where the tester has no prior knowledge about the organization’s network, applications, or information assets. A white-box penetration test is exactly the opposite, where the tester has in-depth knowledge about these. And a grey box test is a combination of white and black box testing, meaning that the tester is provided some limited amount of information regarding the targets.

Let’s take a look at some of the different types of penetration tests that pen testers  could perform:

  • Network Penetration Tests target an organization's networks and can be performed externally as well as internally. External network penetration tests allow organizations to know how well protected their networks are from hackers outside the organization, while internal network penetration tests provide insights into how well the network is protected internally from malicious insiders or hackers who have gained access to internal networks.
  • Web Application Penetration Tests simulate hacker attacks on web-based applications and interfaces, typically externally from the Internet. They analyze if it is possible to bypass the application defenses to steal information, deface the site, or even bring it down and make it unavailable to legitimate users. Similarly, Mobile Application Penetration Tests are performed to assess the security of mobile apps.
  • Social Engineering Assessments are a kind of penetration test where the goal is to test the “human firewall” - the cybersecurity awareness levels of an organization’s employees. The testing techniques used are essentially psychological tactics to manipulate uninformed employees into unwittingly leaking information. Phishing attacks, for instance, are a type of social engineering attack. Such assessments can be invaluable to organizations, especially with large parts of the workforce working remotely. It is precisely at such times that hackers operate in overdrive to target employees.
  • Other Penetration Tests include areas such as wireless networks, cloud infrastructure, Internet of Things infrastructures, industrial control and SCADA infrastructures, and a wide range of other such areas. Effectively, anything that is connected to a network and is capable of exchanging information can and should be tested.

What Happens After A Penetration Test?

A penetration test report by an experienced firm is an important element in achieving your cybersecurity goals. Using the report in an actionable, accountable, and time-bound manner can ensure that over time you are no longer playing catch-up with vulnerabilities in your infrastructure. Instead, you would be looking at new ones that come in and must be addressed.

Penetration tests help drive investment decisions to improve existing cybersecurity infrastructure and also help your cybersecurity staff to improve their skills, knowledge, and awareness of the organization’s information infrastructure. Learn more about our pentesting services here.

These are all outcomes that help organizations reduce their risk of a data breach.

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