Penetration testing is a sub-category of Security Testing performed to detect vulnerabilities, threats and risks in a software that an attacker can take advantage of. The primary objective of performing this test is to identify and test all security vulnerabilities in the software. It is also referred to as Pen Test. The security vulnerabilities are uncovered by evaluating the software or application with malicious technologies. In this process, the weak points or aspects of a software are exploited with an authorized simulated attack.
Penetration testing enables securing important data from outsiders and unauthorized persons, such as hackers. When a vulnerability is identified, using it the system is fully exploited to access sensitive information. A penetration tester is also referred to as ethical hacker.
Vulnerability is a risk or threat which an attacker can use to gain access to the software of data contained within it. They are generally caused during software development life cycle and implementation, by accident. Some examples of common vulnerabilities are design errors, configuration errors, software bugs, etc. The process of penetration analysis largely depends: vulnerability assessment and penetration testing.
Financial organizations (banks, investment banking, stock exchanges, etc.,) want to keep their data secured, which penetration testing ensures.
When the software is already hacked and you want to know if any threat or risk is still there in the system to prevent future hacks.
Proactive Prevention Testing is the best preventive measure against hackers.
Black Box Testing − In this testing, the tester or testing team has no knowledge of the systems under test. They collect information about the target network or system.
White Box Testing − In this testing, the tester or testing team is provided with all the information about the system under test, including IP address schema, source code, OS details, etc. It can be viewed as a simulation of an attack by an internal source.
Grey Box Testing − In this testing, the tester or testing team is provided with partial knowledge of the system. It is like an attack by an external source that has illegitimate access to the document(s) of organization’s network infrastructure.
The type of penetration testing to be selected varies from organization to organization, and is largely dependent on the scope and if the organization wants to simulate an attack by internal or external sources.
Software, including OS, Services, and application
External Testing − This tests the aspects of an organization visible on the Internet, such as the web application, the website, email, domain name servers, etc. It is performed to gain access and obtain important information.
Internal Testing − In this testing, the tester or testing team has the access to an application behind its firewall, to simulate an attack by an internal source.
Blind Testing − In this testing, the tester or testing team is provided with only the name of the organization under target. It provides security personnel a real-time view of how the actual attack would occur.
Double-blind Testing − In this testing, security personnel do not have any information of the simulated attack. Just like in real world, they do not have time to reinforce their defences before an attack.
Targeted Testing − In this testing, the tester and security personnel work united to update each other about their actions. Targeted testing is a valuable exercise that provides real-time feedback (from the attacker’s point of view) to security personnel.
Plan − In this phase, the scope and strategy of the task is determined. To define the scope, we use existing security policies and standards.
Discover − In this phase, system information is collected including system data, usernames and passwords. This is also referred to as Fingerprinting. The ports are scanned and investigated, and we also try to detect vulnerabilities in the system.
Attack − In this phase, we determine exploits for the vulnerabilities. We require security privileges in order to exploit the system.
Report − In this phase, a report containing detailed findings is created. The vulnerabilities are evaluated, their risks and effect on the business are determined.
The main task involved in penetration testing is to collect information about the system, which is achieved through the following ways −
One-to-one/one-to-many model with respect to host: This way, the tester or testing team performs techniques linearly against a single target host or a logical grouping of target hosts.
Many-to-one/many-to-many model: This way, the tester or testing team uses multiple hosts to perform the techniques of information gathering in a random, rate limited, and non-linear way.
Tools for Penetration Testing
NMap − This open-source tool is used to scan ports, identify OS, trace the route and to detect vulnerabilities. It is also used to find hosts and service providers on a computer network by sending packets and analysing the responses. NMap enables examine computer networks, such as host discovery and service and OS detection.
Nessus − This network-based tool is widely used to detect vulnerabilities. It scans a computer and alerts upon discovering any vulnerability that external sources could exploit to access any computer connected to a network. This tool performs over 1200 checks on a computer to determine whether the attackers can break into the computer or harm it.
Acunetix − This tool helps software engineers and security professionals with a range of excellent features in an easy, straightforward and robust package.
Intruder − This tool is powerful vulnerabilities scanner that detects cybersecurity defects, explains the threats and risks, and helps fix them. It also helps automate penetration testing. It runs around 9000 checks over the whole IT infrastructure. It supports infrastructure and web-level checks, e.g., SQL injection and cross-site scripting. Intruder can also automatically scan the system.
To gather information from the organization to perform penetration tests.
To detect flaws that external sources like hackers can exploit to attack a target machine.
To think and act like hackers, but ethically.
To ensure their work is reproducible so that developers can easily fix it.
To define the start and end date of test.
To prevent any loss in the system or data during the testing.
To keep information and data confidential.
|Manual Penetration Testing||Automated Penetration Testing|
|It needs expert professionals.||Automated tools provide understandable and clear reports; thus, it can be managed with even novice professionals.|
|Excel and other tools are needed to track it.||It has centralized and standard tools.|
|Sample results are dependent on the test cases.||Results do not change with test cases.|
|Memory cleaning is mandatory to perform.||It has comprehensive clean-ups.|
Discover vulnerabilities − It helps detect vulnerabilities in the system configuration and network infrastructure. It also researches actions and habits of the staff involved that could cause data breaches and malicious infiltration. It provides a report on the vulnerabilities so that we can determine what improvements have to be made or what recommendations and policies would ensure overall security.
Determine real risks − In penetration testing, testers exploit identified vulnerabilities. Thus, we can know what a hacker can do in real-world. They can get illegitimate access to sensitive data and perform operating system commands. They also help us determine the risks levels of vulnerabilities.
Evaluate cyber defence capabilities − It helps check and estimate cyber defence capabilities. We can detect attacks and respond accordingly on time. Once an attack is detected, we should start investigating, discovering attackers and blocking them. The test feedback tells us what actions can be taken to improve cyber defence.
Ensuring consistent business operations − The reason we need network availability, 24/7 communications and access to resources is to ensure smooth and consistent running of business operations. Every disruption negatively effects the business. Penetration testing uncovers threats and helps ensure that business operations do not get affected by unexpected and unwanted downtime.
Third-party expert opinion − When someone from an organization finds a defect, the management may not be inclined towards actions. Thus, a report created by a thirdparty expert or professional largely impacts management and may need additional funds.
Maintains trust − Cyber attacks or data breaches negatively effects the confidence and trust of customers, suppliers and partners. Penetration testing, strict and systematic security reviews, reassure all the stakeholders involved.
It cannot cover all the vulnerabilities.
Penetration testers have restrictions on time, scope, budget, and skills.
It can also lead to data loss or data corruption during the test.
It may also need additional costs, and also there is a higher risk of downtime.
If not performed correctly, penetration testing can cause a lot of damage, e.g., it can crash servers, expose sensitive information, corrupt essential production data, etc.