What Is Penetration Testing? A Comprehensive Guide on Its Types, Tools, Steps, and Benefits

Is your organization equipped to defend against the increasing number of cyberattacks? Penetration testing is one of the best ways to evaluate your organization’s IT and security infrastructure as it identifies vulnerabilities in networks and systems. Unpatched vulnerabilities are an open invitation to cybercriminals. The National Institute of Standards and Technology discovered 4,068 high-risk vulnerabilities in 2021 (NIST).

The recent surge in cyberattacks has fueled the demand for penetration testing. In June 2021, the White House released a memo that urged businesses to conduct penetration tests to defend against ransomware threats (The White House, 2021). Security experts need to view networks and IT infrastructure from the perspective of threat actors to successfully prevent, detect, respond to, and recover from cyberattacks. In this blog, we will explore the importance of penetration testing in depth and learn the role of a penetration tester.

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What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is a simulated cyberattack that’s used to identify vulnerabilities and strategize ways to circumvent defense measures. Early detection of flaws enables security teams to remediate any gaps, thus preventing data breaches that could cost billions of dollars otherwise. Pen tests also help assess an organization’s compliance, boost employee awareness of security protocols, evaluate the effectiveness of incident response plans, and ensure business continuity.

National Cyber Security Centre defines a penetration test as a method for gaining assurance in the security of an IT system by attempting to breach the system’s security, using the same tools and techniques as an adversary might (National Cyber Security Centre, 2017). Enterprises can use the findings from a penetration test to fix vulnerabilities before a security breach occurs. Penetration testing is a critical cybersecurity practice across industries, and skilled penetration testers are in high demand in many domains.

What is Penetration Testing

Types of Penetration Testing

Multiple types of penetration tests are available, each with varying objectives, requirements, and scope. Let’s dive into the different types of penetration testing.

  • Social Engineering Penetration Testing

    In a social engineering test, testers attempt to trick employees into giving up sensitive information or allowing the tester access to the organization’s systems. This enables penetration testers to understand the organization’s vulnerability to scams or other social engineering cyberattacks.

    Testers often use phishing scams as part of social engineering tests. Physical testing may be another aspect of a social engineering test: penetration testers can attempt to gain access to a secured building or location for which they don’t have clearance by taking advantage of employees’ ignorance of security protocols.

  • Network Penetration Testing (Internal, External, and Perimeter Devices)

    Here, the penetration tester audits a network environment for security vulnerabilities. Network penetration tests can be further subdivided into two categories: external tests and internal tests.

    An external penetration test involves testing public IP addresses. In contrast, an internal test provides the tester with network access so that they can emulate a hacker who has already penetrated the network’s defenses. Penetration testers focus on firewall configuration, firewall bypass testing, stateful inspection analysis, intrusion prevention system deception, and DNS-level attacks.

    Even though the rise in adoption of cloud and IoT technologies has blurred the lines of the network perimeter, it is still the first line of defense. Regular penetration testing of perimeter devices such as remote servers, routers, desktops, and firewalls can help identify breaches and weaknesses.

  • Web Application Penetration Testing

    Web application penetration testing is performed to identify vulnerabilities in web applications, websites, and web services. Pen testers assess the security of the code, weaknesses in the application’s security protocol, and the design.

    This method of pen testing allows companies to meet compliance requirements and test exposed components like firewalls, DNS servers, and routers. Because web applications are constantly updated, checking apps for new vulnerabilities and developing strategies to mitigate potential threats is crucial.

  • Wireless Penetration Testing

    With wireless technology becoming nearly omnipresent, businesses must identify, evaluate, assess, and defend their wireless infrastructures. Wireless penetration testing identifies security gaps within wireless access points, such as WiFi networks and wireless devices. Assessors look for vulnerabilities like weak encryption, Bluetooth exploits, authentication attacks, and malicious wireless devices to prevent data breaches.

  • IoT Penetration Testing

    IoT penetration testing helps experts uncover security vulnerabilities in the ever-expanding IoT attack surface. This method helps ensure security preparedness by finding misconfigurations and fixing them to make the IoT ecosystem secure. It not only helps prevent security mishaps but also aids in maintaining regulatory compliance and minimizing operational disruptions.

  • OT Penetration Testing

    As Operational Technology (OT) systems become more connected, they become more exposed to cyberthreats. Penetration tests detect the resilience of OT industrial control systems to cyberattacks, provide visibility, identify vulnerabilities, and prioritize areas of improvement.

  • Cloud Penetration Testing

    With cloud computing becoming crucial for businesses’ scalability, organizations must bolster the security of cloud technologies to stay ahead of cyberattacks. Cloud penetration testing is performed to find vulnerabilities in a cloud-based environment. Cloud pen tests provide valuable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of cloud-based solutions, enhance incident response programs, and prevent any outward incidents.

  • Database Penetration Testing

    Database security is of utmost importance to organizations as the end goal of an attacker is to gain access to their databases and steal confidential information. Database penetration testing checks the privilege level access to the database. Pen testers attempt to access your database, identify access points, and afterward, discuss how to secure your database in the event of a breach.

  • SCADA Penetration Testing

    Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems are a form of industrial control system that can monitor and control industrial and infrastructure processes and critical machinery (Cyber Arch, 2021). SCADA penetration testing is an effective method to secure SCADA systems from external threats. It helps gain a comprehensive understanding of any potential risks and security gaps.

  • Mobile Device Penetration Testing

    Given the staggering number of mobile applications available in the market, they are a lucrative target for malicious actors. A recent report that analyzed 3,335 mobile apps discovered that 63% of the apps contained known security vulnerabilities (Synopsys, 2021). Mobile device penetration testing is essential to the overall security posture. It helps assess the security of a mobile device and its applications, discover vulnerabilities, and find flaws in application code.

Penetration Testing Steps

There are five penetration testing steps: reconnaissance, scanning, vulnerability assessment, exploitation, and reporting. Let’s take a closer look at each of these penetration testing steps.

1

Reconnaissance

The first penetration testing phase is reconnaissance. In this phase, the tester gathers as much information about the target system as they can, including information about the network topology, operating systems and applications, user accounts, and other relevant information. The goal is to gather as much data as possible so that the tester can plan an effective attack strategy.

Reconnaissance can be categorized as either active or passive depending on what methods are used to gather information (Braithwaite, 2022). Passive reconnaissance pulls information from resources that are already publicly available, whereas active reconnaissance involves directly interacting with the target system to gain information. Typically, both methods are necessary to form a full picture of the target’s vulnerabilities.

2

Scanning

Once all the relevant data has been gathered in the reconnaissance phase, it’s time to move on to scanning. In this penetration testing phase, the tester uses various tools to identify open ports and check network traffic on the target system. Because open ports are potential entry points for attackers, penetration testers need to identify as many open ports as possible for the next penetration testing phase.

This step can also be performed outside of penetration testing; in those cases, it’s referred to simply as vulnerability scanning and is usually an automated process. However, there are drawbacks to only performing a scan without a full penetration test—namely, scanning can identify a potential threat but cannot determine the level at which hackers can gain access (Agio, 2022). So, while scanning is essential for cybersecurity, it also needs human intervention in the form of penetration testers to reach its full potential.

3

Vulnerability Assessment

The third penetration testing phase is vulnerability assessment, in which the tester uses all the data gathered in the reconnaissance and scanning phases to identify potential vulnerabilities and determine whether they can be exploited. Much like scanning, vulnerability assessment is a useful tool on its own but is more powerful when combined with the other penetration testing phases.

When determining the risk of discovered vulnerabilities during this stage, penetration testers have many resources to turn to. One is the National Vulnerability Database (NVD), a repository of vulnerability management data created and maintained by the U.S. government that analyzes the software vulnerabilities published in the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) database. The NVD rates the severity of known vulnerabilities using the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS).

4

Exploitation

Once vulnerabilities have been identified, it’s time for exploitation. In this penetration testing phase, the penetration tester attempts to access the target system and exploit the identified vulnerabilities, typically by using a tool like Metasploit to simulate real-world attacks.

This is perhaps the most delicate penetration testing phase because accessing the target system requires bypassing security restrictions. Though system crashes during penetration testing are rare, testers must still be cautious to ensure that the system isn’t compromised or damaged (Basu, 2022).

5

Reporting

Once the exploitation phase is complete, the tester prepares a report documenting the penetration test’s findings. The report generated in this final penetration testing phase can be used to fix any vulnerabilities found in the system and improve the organization’s security posture.

What Happens After a Penetration Test?

Penetration test results, which are usually summarized and analyzed with a report, help organizations quantify security risks and formulate action plans. These reports provide a comprehensive view of a network and its vulnerabilities, enabling companies to remediate gaps and strengthen their defense, particularly if a report discovers that a network has been compromised.

Building a penetration testing report requires clearly documenting vulnerabilities and putting them into context so that the organization can remediate its security risks. The most useful reports include sections for a detailed outline of uncovered vulnerabilities (including CVSS scores), a business impact assessment, an explanation of the exploitation phase’s difficulty, a technical risk briefing, remediation advice, and strategic recommendations (Sharma, 2022).

Think of penetration tests as medical check-ups. Consistently checking the robustness of cybersecurity measures is vital for any business. Regular assessment ensures that your company can adapt to the ever- evolving threat landscape.

Benefits of Penetration Testing

In the cyber world, ignorance can be costly and dangerous. Penetration testing provides critical and actionable information that allows companies to stay ahead of hackers. Here’s how pen testing can help scale up your defenses:

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  • Adherence to Compliance Requirements

Penetration testing helps organizations meet regulatory requirements such as PCI DSS, EU GDPR, and ISO 27001. A recent survey revealed that 61% of security leaders listed meeting compliance needs as a factor in conducting pen tests (Bugcrowd, 2021).

  • Identify and Remediate Vulnerabilities

Penetration tests help identify vulnerabilities that adversaries can exploit, enabling security personnel to remediate them. Pen testers present detailed insights into the weaknesses in an IT environment and recommend policies that can strengthen the security posture. According to a report, 70% of organizations perform pen tests for vulnerability management program support (Core Security, 2021).

  • Ensure Business Continuity

An organization’s financial loss during a data breach can be astronomical and disrupt its operations. By conducting penetration tests, companies gain insight into potential risks, which can help minimize damages and ensure business continuity.

  • Enhance Customer Trust

Data breaches can erode customer trust and potentially damage a company’s reputation. Penetration testing minimizes the risk of attacks and assures clients and stakeholders that their data is secure and protected.

Responsibilities of a Penetration Tester

Now that we’ve covered the benefits, types, tools, and steps of penetration testing, let’s look at some of the responsibilities of penetration testers:

  • Conduct threat analysis assessments on applications, network devices, and cloud infrastructures
  • Perform security audits
  • Conduct regular system tests
  • Assess the effectiveness of security measures
  • Plan, implement, and maintain security controls
  • Configure, troubleshoot, and maintain security infrastructure
  • Create, review, and update information security policies
  • Develop business continuity and disaster recovery plans
  • Provide recommendations to fix identified gaps and vulnerabilities
  • Document findings and present them in a clear and concise manner

Is Penetration Testing a Lucrative Career?

As threats continue to grow, the demand for penetration testers will continue to rise. The global penetration testing market is expected to grow from USD 1.6 billion in 2021 to USD 3.0 billion by 2026 (Markets and Markets, 2021). Given the high demand for penetration testers, companies are willing to pay attractive salaries to skilled candidates. The average base salary for a penetration tester is $88,492 in the U.S. (PayScale, 2022). If you have the right skill set, a career in penetration testing can be highly rewarding and open doors for multiple opportunities.

If you need detailed information, visit: https://www.eccouncil.org/cybersecurity-exchange/penetration-testing/five-reasons-career-penetration-testing/

Top Industries That Employ Penetration Testing Professionals [1]

  • Healthcare organizations
  • Banks and financial services providers
  • Cloud services
  • Government agencies and organizations
  • Energy and utility companies
  • IoT devices
  • SCADA systems
  • Retail and Ecommerce
  • IT and ITeS
  • Media Tech

Top Information Security Jobs That Require Penetration Testing Skills [1]

  • Penetration Tester
  • Ethical Hacker
  • Information Security Analyst
  • Security Software Developer
  • Security Architect
  • Chief Information Security Officer
  • Information Security Consultant
  • Security Engineer
  • Security Manager
  • Computer Forensics Analyst
  • Incident Responder

Become an Industry-Ready Penetration Tester With C|PENT

If you want to master advanced penetration testing skills and gain real-world experience, consider EC-Council’s Certified Penetration Testing Professional (C|PENT) program. It offers extensive hands-on training and blends manual and automated penetration testing approaches. The program will teach you to pen test IoT and OT systems, write about your exploits, build your tools, conduct advanced binary exploitation, double pivot to access hidden networks, and customize scripts/exploits to get into the inner segments of networks. A multidisciplinary course, C|PENT is mapped to the NICE framework.

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Insights From Successful C|PENT Students

Look at what some successful alumni who aced the C|PENT exam have to say about the course.

Björn Voitel, an accomplished cyber security consultant, shares his learning experience with EC-Council’s C|PENT program in the video linked below. He praises the program’s iLabs and Cyber Practice Range for providing real-world experience. C|PENT strengthened his understanding of operational technology and widened his knowledge base. He also talks about the unique aspects of C|PENT certifications and the challenges he faced during the exam.

Bjorn

-BJÖRN VOITEL

Cyber Security Consultant and External Data Protection Officer

To hear his valuable insights, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6twu0bsNoM&t

Belly Rachdianto, an IT security consultant, shares his C|PENT certification journey in the video linked below. He says the program equips candidates with the skills required to perform penetration testing in real-world scenarios. Belly calls his experience of teaching C| PENT “fascinating” because of the detailed content. He also advises candidates to complete all the labs and document their findings.

Belly Rachidianto

-BELLY RACHDIANTO

IT Security Consultant

To hear more from Belly, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MlQ3PB_o8A&t

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

What is the difference between vulnerability scans and penetration testing?

Vulnerability scanning involves scanning for vulnerabilities in an IT infrastructure, while penetration testing discovers vulnerabilities and attempts to exploit them.

How often should you conduct penetration tests?

Penetration testing is a recommended best practice to identify and fix any underlying issues or unpatched vulnerabilities before malicious hackers can exploit them. Therefore, penetration testing should be conducted regularly to scale up your defenses. Enterprises conduct periodic penetration tests to meet compliance requirements and identify gaps in security controls. Generally, more frequent penetration tests are planned when new IT infrastructure or web applications are rolled out.

Which is the best web application penetration testing certification?

Finding the right web application penetration testing certification that caters to your goals and needs can be challenging. Check out EC-Council’s Web Application Hacking and Security (W|AHS), a fully hands-on course that helps cybersecurity professionals hack, test, and secure web applications from existing and emerging security threats.

What are the red, blue, and purple teams?

These terms all refer to different functions in an organization’s defense department. The red team simulates attacks on an organization’s networks to identify vulnerabilities and exploit them. The blue team analyzes the efficacy of the security controls and protects against real-world attacks. The purple team combines offensive and defensive methodologies to improve the red and blue teams’ operations and strengthen overall security.

How does penetration testing differ from ethical hacking?

Penetration testers focus solely on carrying out penetration tests as defined by the client. Ethical hacking is not restricted to testing a client’s IT environment for vulnerabilities to malicious attacks. Ethical hackers are crucial in testing an organization’s security policies, developing countermeasures, and deploying defensive resolutions to security issues.

Learn more at: https://www.eccouncil.org/cybersecurity-exchange/ethical-hacking/ethical-hacking-vs-penetration-testing/

References

Agio. (2022, June 8). Vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing.
https://agio.com/vulnerability-scanning-vs-penetration-testing/

Basu, S. (2022, June 29). 7 penetration testing phases for web applications: A detailed account.
Astra. https://www.getastra.com/blog/security-audit/penetration-testing-phases/

Brathwaite, S. (2022, January 6). Active vs passive cyber reconnaissance in information security.
Security Made Simple. https://www.securitymadesimple.org/cybersecurity-blog/active-vs-passive-cyber-reconnaissance-in-information-security

Bugcrowd. (2022). Ultimate guide to penetration testing.
https://view.highspot.com/viewer/61f8567b8f2bc613af073bc9

Core Security. (2021). 2021 penetration testing report.
https://static.helpsystems.com/core-security/pdfs/guides/cs-2021-pen-testing-report.pdf?__hstc=220751815.8e77341734ffef8426e45ca5a8a82a2d.1655876198878.1657689372430.1657691709562.5&__hssc=220751815.2.1657691709562&__hsfp=2589685520

Core Security. (n.d.) Penetration testing.
https://www.coresecurity.com/penetration-testing

Imperva. (n.d.) Penetration testing.
https://www.imperva.com/learn/application-security/penetration-testing/

KALI. (2022, July 12). Hydra.
https://www.kali.org/tools/hydra/

NIST. (n.d.). CVSS severity distribution over time.
https://nvd.nist.gov/general/visualizations/vulnerability-visualizations/cvss-severity-distribution-over-time

National Cyber Security Centre. (2017, August 8). Penetration testing.
https://www.ncsc.gov.uk/guidance/penetration-testing

Shakreel, Irfan. (2016, November 25). Process: scanning and enumeration.
InfoSec. https://resources.infosecinstitute.com/topic/process-scanning-and-enumeration/

Sharma, S. (2022, July 13). Penetration testing report or VAPT report by Astra Security.
Astra. https://www.getastra.com/blog/security-audit/penetration-testing-report/

Synopsys. (2021, March). Peril in a pandemic: the state of mobile application security.
https://www.synopsys.com/content/dam/synopsys/sig-assets/reports/rp-peril-in-pandemic.pdf

PayScale. (2022, June 20). Average penetration tester salary.
https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Penetration_Tester/Salary

The White House. (2021, June 2). What we urge you to do to protect against the threat of ransomware.
https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Memo-What-We-Urge-You-To-Do-To-Protect-Against-The-Threat-of-Ransomware.pdf