Understanding the Steps of Footprinting: A Guide for Penetration Testers
To properly mitigate the risks of malicious hacks, cybersecurity professionals need to understand the different techniques that attackers use. One of these techniques is footprinting: the process of collecting data about an organization or other target with the intent of committing a cyberattack.
In this article, we’ll look at what footprinting is, its relationship with penetration testing, the steps involved in footprinting, and—most importantly—how to prevent and mitigate the risk of cyberattacks resulting from successful footprinting.
What Is Footprinting?
In short, footprinting refers to the process of collecting data over time in order to make a targeted cyberattack (GeeksforGeeks, 2021). Footprinting involves gathering information about a target—typically related to its network infrastructure, systems, and users—without actually committing an attack.
Footprinting can be performed manually or using automated tools. It may involve scanning for open ports, identifying user accounts, and mapping network topologies. By understanding the layout of the target’s infrastructure, attackers can identify potential vulnerabilities that may be exploitable. Additionally, by gathering information about users (including usernames and passwords), attackers can access sensitive data or even take over user accounts for malicious purposes.
In the ethical hacking context, footprinting is often used as part of a penetration test: a type of security measure that simulates a real-world cyberattack to assess the strength of an organization’s cybersecurity posture. Penetration testers use footprinting at an early stage in the assessment process to gather as much information about the target organization as possible. For those looking to gain the skills necessary to conduct footprinting, EC-Council’s Certified Penetration Testing Professional (C|PENT) training program is an excellent place to start.
Types of Footprinting
There are two main types of footprinting: passive and active.
- Passive footprinting involves collecting data without actively engaging with the target system. Under this approach, information is collected through crawling websites and social media platforms, among other methods. For example, tools like tcpdump and Wireshark can be used to capture packets sent and received by the target system.
- Active footprinting involves interacting with the target system to gather information. This can be done manually or using automated tools like Nmap and Nessus. Active footprinting is more intrusive and can potentially cause harm to the target system if not done carefully, but it can also gather information that can’t be collected through passive footprinting.
What Information Is Collected in Footprinting?
The goal of footprinting is to gather as much information about the target as possible in order to increase the likelihood of success when actually planning and executing an attack. This includes identifying any security weaknesses and gathering contact information for system administrators and other users who may access sensitive data. During footprinting, various types of information may be collected (Ghahrai, 2019).
- Network topology. Collecting this type of information involves identifying the IP addresses and hostnames of all systems on the network and mapping out the connections among them.
- Operating systems and applications. Information about the target’s operating system and applications can be used to identify potential security vulnerabilities. For example, if a company uses an outdated version of Windows, it may be vulnerable to specific attacks that are not possible against newer versions.
- User accounts. Footprinting can reveal usernames and passwords for user accounts on the target system, which can be helpful in the later stages of an attack.
- Web servers. This includes the servers’ software versions, installed modules, and enabled features.
Steps in Footprinting
Several steps need to be followed during footprinting to collect all relevant information.
1. Identifying Targets
The first step is to identify which systems or organizations to footprint by scanning networks for open ports or performing reconnaissance using Google searches and tools like Shodan.
2. Gathering Information
After the target has been identified, the next step is to gather as much information about it as possible using tools like Nmap, Netcat, and Whois to identify open ports and services, usernames and passwords, web server information, and more.
3. Analyzing Results
After all relevant data has been collected, it needs to be analyzed to determine the most vulnerable points. This is done by identifying common weaknesses across multiple systems or comparing results against known exploits.
4. Planning Attacks
The final step is to use the information gathered during footprinting to plan a successful attack against the target’s systems, networks, and devices. This may involve developing custom exploits or choosing a suitable attack vector based on the data collected.
How Footprinting Is Used in Penetration Testing
The goal of footprinting is simple: Gather as much information about the target as possible. An attacker will try to exploit any discovered vulnerabilities to collect information about the target. Successful penetration tests can enable organizations to fix vulnerabilities before an attack can occur.
Penetration testing, often known as pen testing, involves making an authorized attack on a computer system or network in order to find security weaknesses. Penetration testing is frequently used in the web application security context, for example, to complement web application firewalls and other security measures.
Penetration testers may use many methods to perform an actual penetration test (Gupta, 2022), but footprinting should always be the first step. Understanding the footprinting process and how to interpret collected information sets penetration testers up for success in the later stages of an assessment. Many sources of information are available on footprinting, including online courses, books, and YouTube videos. However, the best way to improve is by practicing and applying what you’ve learned to real-world scenarios.
How to Improve Your Penetration Testing Skills
As a penetration tester, it’s important to conduct footprinting—and fully utilize the information you collect in your planning process—before you simulate an attack scenario. If you’re looking to start or advance your career in cybersecurity, gaining an understanding of the steps involved in footprinting and other aspects of penetration testing is an excellent place to start.
One of the best ways to learn penetration testing skills is through a training program like EC-Council’s C|PENT certification course. In the C|PENT program, you’ll learn how to perform effective penetration tests in real-world network environments, including the latest tips and techniques for footprinting and reconnaissance. If you’re interested in learning more, contact EC-Council about starting the C|PENT program today.
GeeksforGeeks. (2021, October 20). Ethical hacking | Footprinting. https://www.geeksforgeeks.org/ethical-hacking-footprinting/
Ghahrai, A. (2019, July 9). Footprinting and reconnaissance. DevQA. https://devqa.io/footprinting-overview/
Gupta, A. (2022, February 3). Determining the appropriate penetration testing method. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2022/02/03/determining-the-appropriate-penetration-testing-method/