Two men are standing in a server room, holding and discussing data on clipboards. One wears a light blue suit and the other a green jacket. They appear engaged in a conversation, possibly about the server’s operational technology security. Network cables and equipment form the backdrop.

Written by Alan Moffat

Today, cyber threats are constantly evolving, where businesses need to continually improve their security posture.

As part of your cyber security strategy, penetration testing is critical for understanding how to fortify your cyber defences.

Often referred to as ethical hacking, penetration testing of your systems, networks and applications using techniques and procedures adopted by real world hackers, helps not only to identify vulnerabilities but understand how these vulnerabilities can be exploited to gain access to your most sensitive data and digital assets.

Understanding this helps you optimise your cyber security budget to focus on mitigating the risk of a potential breach by would be attackers.

What is the difference between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Management?

Penetration testing and vulnerability management are both critical components of a cyber security strategy, but they serve distinct purposes.

Vulnerability management is an automated scanning process of identifying, classifying, and reporting the vulnerabilities within your organisation’s systems and networks. Vulnerability assessments are often run continuously across a company’s infrastructure to identify if new vulnerabilities are present.

Penetration Testing goes further using simulated attacks to exploit these vulnerabilities to see how far a would-be attacker could gain access to your sensitive corporate assets and assess the effectiveness of a company’s security controls.

For example, in recent years we have seen a serious zero-day vulnerabilities associated to Log4j (Logging for Java) that was present on millions of computer systems worldwide. Vulnerability management would identity all the systems on your network where the vulnerability was present and report it as a critical vulnerability, whereas an ethical hacker, using penetration testing techniques, would attempt to exploit the vulnerability such as using a Java API to access users’ personal data or even run executable programs on your server, highlighting the potential of a major data breach or denial of service.

The additional advantage of conducting regular penetration testing is to monitor your Incident Response process and Security Operations Centre (SOC) procedures to ensure they identify, detect, and defend from would-be-attackers.

Penetration Testing encompasses various methodologies, each tailored to address specific aspects of an organisation’s security. Here are few of the common forms of Penetration Testing Available:

  • External testing simulates a cyber-attack on your organisation’s external-facing systems. In today’s connected world, most companies are exposed to the internet, which would-be-attackers can analyse for weaknesses to the front door to your company’s infrastructure.

  • Internal Testing assesses the security from an insider’s perspective, whether it is disgruntled employee or a malicious hacker who has gained access to your internal network.

  • Web Application Testing focusses specifically on identifying vulnerabilities in web applications. Most ethical hackers will include testing based on the Open Web Application Security Project’s (OWASP) Top Ten most critical security risks, relating to areas such as access control, cross-site scripting, insecure design, or misconfiguration to name a few. OWASP regularly update this list based on their detailed analysis and findings.

  • Network Service Testing to verify the security posture of firewalls, routers, and switches.

  • Wireless Testing is conducted on your Wi-Fi networks to assess for vulnerabilities and the ethical hacker will deploy different exploit techniques such as spoofing and session hijacking, simulating where the attacker gains access to your network by assuming the identity of a valid user. Due to the nature of how wireless networks work it is easy to conduct a man-in-the-middle attack by convincing wireless users to connect to rogue access point, allowing the attacker to collect credentials of valid users trying to access corporate sites.

  • Social Engineering testing is based on the manipulation of humans to conduct an action that will allow a would-be attacker access to places within your organisations that would normally be prohibited. This may be through a Phishing attack using well-crafted emails to encourage an end user to click on a link or attachment that deploys a payload onto their computer system. They will use Open-Source Intelligence (OSInt), where the attacker gathers information about their proposed victim to instill trust in the victim that the email is from a genuine third party encouraging them to click on the malicious link in an email.

  • Breach Attack Simulation (BAS) is a combination of Threat Intelligence assessment to identify specific threats to your organisation and the deployment of the same tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by Advance Persistent Threat (APTs) groups. This can be done as an individual test of specific attack vectors or as part of a larger Red Teaming exercise to assess your security controls including but not limited to:

    • Next Generation Firewalls (NGFW)
    • Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS)
    • Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS)
    • Anti-virus and anti-malware software
    • Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR)
    • Data Leakage Prevention (DLP)
    • Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solutions
    • Email Gateways
    • Security Operations Centre (SOC) processes

  • Red Teaming Penetration Testing simulates a real-world cyberattack mixed with physical penetration of offices and locations. Usually coordinated with a small team within the target organisation and without prior knowledge to key departments to assess overall detection and response capabilities. Additionally, there is Purple Teaming exercise where there is greater collaboration between the internal security teams (blue team) and the penetration testing team (red team) to enhance your overall detection and response capabilities.

In summary, choosing the right combination of penetration testing depends on your business requirements, the motivation and capabilities of threat sources who would gain from accessing data or disrupting services relating to your organisation.

The above is a subset of the types of testing that should be part of your cyber security strategy to identify and mitigate the risks relating to your company’s capability to detect, protect, respond, and recover from cyber-attacks.

If you are interested in finding out more about Penetration Testing, speak to one of our experts today.

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