As the world moves to the online space, it opens up more avenues for cyberattacks. Therefore, it is important for organizations to improve their penetration testing approach to ensure that their systems and applications stay updated with the latest technologies and potential attacks.
Penetration tests can deliver varying results depending on the standards and methodologies they leverage. For instance, updated penetration testing methodologies provide a viable option for an organization looking to secure its systems and remediate its cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Therefore, installing and implementing a penetration testing methodology is one step to achieving this effectively and safely.
In this article, we discuss the top penetration testing methodologies to help you find the areas to pen test and the different stages and their requirements.
What Is Penetration Testing Methodology?
A penetration testing methodology is a specific course of action taken to organize and execute a penetration test. Various penetration testing methodologies can be used to identify security vulnerabilities in an organization depending on the target business category, the goal of the pen test, and its scope. Every methodology outlines the guidelines a company should take to discover vulnerabilities.
Penetration Testing Methodologies
There are five pen testing methodologies that guarantee a return on your investment. However, these methodologies are not a one-fits-all package. Therefore, it is important to understand them and carefully consider which penetration testing methodology offers a suitable level of assessment for your organization.
The Open Source Security Testing Methodology Manual (OSSTMM) framework is one of the industry’s most recognized penetration testing methodologies. It aims to provide a scientific approach to network penetration testing and vulnerability assessment. OSSTMM contains a comprehensive guide for penetration testers to identify security vulnerabilities within a network from different potential angles of attack.
OSSTMM is not a standalone penetration testing; rather, it was developed as a security methodology to assess against regulatory and industry requirements. Also, it is peer-reviewed and maintained by (ISECOM), the Institute for Security and Open Methodologies.
Unlike the majority of security manuals, the OSSTMM’s peer-reviewed framework provides an accurate picture of the operational security strength that supports network development teams. It allows organizations to customize their pen tests to fit their specific needs. With this set of standards, you can access an accurate overview of your network’s cybersecurity and reliable solutions to help you make the right decisions to secure your networks.
With a combination of customizability for several environments, technical direction, and broad support for different organization types, this framework is a general go-to among penetration testing methodologies.
Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) is a set of standards and guidelines for the security of web applications. It provides a methodology for web application penetration testing that can identify vulnerabilities found within mobile and web applications and complicated logic flaws that stem from unsafe development practices.
The OWASP Top 10 improve the security posture of both external and internal web applications by equipping organizations with a comprehensive list of vulnerability categories for web applications and ways to mitigate them.
With this methodology, organizations are well-equipped to secure their web applications from common mistakes that can cause a potential threat to their business. Also, organizations looking to develop new web and mobile applications should consider incorporating these standards during the initial phase to avoid introducing common security threats.
During an application security assessment, the OWASP standard should be leveraged to ensure no vulnerabilities are left behind and that your organization gets realistic recommendations adapted to the exact features and technologies used in the applications.
The PTES (Penetration Testing Execution Standard) framework highlights what organizations should expect from a penetration test. It is a comprehensive methodology that guides testers on seven steps of a penetration test, including planning, intelligence gathering, threat modelling, vulnerability analysis, exploitation, post-exploitation, and reporting. These seven phases guarantee a successful pen test offering a common language scope that organizations and security service providers can rely on to make decisions.
With this penetration testing methodology, testers familiarize themselves with the organization and its technological context as much as possible before focusing on exploiting the vulnerable areas. This allows them to identify the most up-to-date attacks that could be attempted. Also, the testers are provided with guidelines to perform post-exploitation testing to allow them to validate that the previously identified vulnerabilities were successfully fixed.
The Information System Security Assessment Framework (ISSAF) is a penetration testing methodology supported by the OISSG (Open Information Systems Security Group). It links each penetration testing step with relevant tools and aims to provide a comprehensive guide to performing a pen test, enabling organizations to develop their own penetration testing methodology.
The ISSAF splits the pen testing process into three key aspects, planning and preparation, assessment and reporting, and cleanup and destroying artifacts. The key characteristic of the ISSAF is that it provides complete technical guidance on testing. For every vulnerable area of your system, ISSAF offers complementary information, various angles of attack, and possible outcomes when a vulnerability is exploited. In some cases, pen testers may also find information on elements real attackers usually use to target these vulnerable areas.
However, while this methodology is a valuable reference source providing foundational and comprehensive guidance for individuals in the industry, it is not updated anymore. Hence, it is likely to become increasingly outdated.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) offers more specific guidelines for pen testers to follow to improve the accuracy of the test. It provides a manual best suited to manage and reduce an organization’s cybersecurity risks.
With this framework, different industries, including banking, communications, and energy, can leverage NIST to perform a penetration test to guarantee information security. Large and small firms can customize the standards to meet their needs.
To meet the NIST standards, companies should perform penetration tests on their networks and applications following a pre-established set of guidelines.
The latest version of NIST puts more emphasis on critical infrastructure cybersecurity, reducing the risks of cyberattacks. With exceptional standards and technology, NIST significantly contributes to cybersecurity innovation in many industries.
Stages of a Penetration Testing
The specific steps of a penetration test may vary depending on what is being tested. But pen tests generally follow similar phases, which include;
1. Pre-engagement and Planning
Planning is a critical step in the penetration testing methodology. A properly curated plan enables the identification of the appropriate type of assessment and understanding of the complex IT structure of an organization. To create a plan, you need to understand the organization and its operations completely.
Also, knowledge of the systems and applications is essential; for instance, it is important to identify any security controls setting that may interfere with testing efforts. These security controls should be disabled for the pen tester because they may detect the process and shut it down.
In this stage, the full remit and goals of the penetration test are defined. This includes listing the systems and applications to be assessed and the suitable testing methodology to be used. Stating objectives of the pen test means that only the required areas are covered, and the penetration test is conducted in line with proper authorization.
2. Intelligence Gathering
Scanning your network for vulnerabilities in the systems is important for an effective penetration test. Testers collect information using open-source techniques and network and vulnerability scanning to gain an in-depth view of an organization’s infrastructure. By using several manual and automated penetration testing tools, pen testers will check the system to identify and assess vulnerabilities. The testers would later use these in further steps. Tools commonly used for this step include Recon-Ng, Nmap, Spiderfoot, Metasploit, and Wireshark.
3. Vulnerability Analysis and Exploitation
After the potential vulnerabilities are discovered, testers will analyze the systems to identify vulnerabilities and ways to exploit them. Some engagements may require the use of actions that cybercriminals take against organizations, like vulnerability exploitation. This would provide a better understanding of how much a vulnerability can allow a cybercriminal to compromise an organization.
All tools, procedures, locations, and entry techniques for a particular issue are properly documented to capture the entire process for further review. As a stage in penetration testing methodology, the security issues are ranked based on the damage they can cause and their ease of exploitation. This enables the organization to prioritize the fixes.
4. Solution Development
Once security vulnerabilities are analyzed, testers devise strategies and solutions to fix them. Pen testers combine the information and knowledge of the new adversarial tactics, procedures, and techniquesused in exploiting vulnerabilities identified.
These solution steps are compiled with additional recommendations to help keep the system safe.
5. Reporting and Debriefing
Reporting and debriefing is an important final stage in the penetration test, regardless of the methodology. It involves delivering a stakeholders report, outlining the vulnerabilities identified, their impact, how they were discovered, and the potential consequences of not rectifying them. This final report should also specify the sensitive data accessed and how long the testers stayed undetected.
Also, a good pen test report should include an analysis of the potential business impact of issues identified. Additionally, it should include suggestions for remediation, with guidelines on the required actions and the technical information to share with vendors to allow them to address vulnerabilities in their systems and applications.
Importance of Pen Testing Methodologies
Penetration testing methodologies are a great way for companies to implement regular security assessments into their organization. Using these established methodologies allows for easy implementation in companies where experience and knowledge of penetration tests may be limited, or the existing infrastructure has made penetration testing difficult in the past. Like any solution to security threats, caution is needed to ensure that the methodology used is suitable for the needs of the organization.
Penetration testing methodologies are broadly applicable to most organizations. While there might be a need for newly designed methodologies in organizations with niche or obscure software necessities, installing an independent methodology should be used as a last resort to avoid unnecessary research and work for IT personnel.
These penetration testing methodologies provide an excellent standard to assess your cybersecurity and offer recommendations for your specific context to protect you from hackers. A penetration testing methodology should be flexible enough to account for various organizations and their requirements. It should also have a strong foundation for covering all the critical areas and aspects. Using a methodology such as this guarantees you a comprehensive penetration test that safeguards your IT infrastructure.
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