With cybersecurity threats increasing daily, the need to regularly identify and address vulnerabilities to protect against the latest threats is now more critical than ever.
Penetration testing, a popular type of ethical hacking assessment, is a crucial way to help identify and address exposures that exist across networks, systems and applications. If you’re yet to commission a pen test, here’s what you need to know.
Pen testing vs. vulnerability assessments
Given some of the similar goals of pen tests and vulnerability assessments, it can be very easy to confuse the two. But these are very different types of test, and understanding the difference is crucial before you choose to have one or both carried out.
The UK Government’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) defines penetration testing as “a method for gaining assurance in the security of an IT system by attempting to breach some or all of that system’s security, using the same tools and techniques as an adversary might.” Pen testing is typically performed by qualified security experts that use a variety of manual and automated techniques to identify vulnerabilities.
A vulnerability assessment, on the other hand, relies almost exclusively on automated scanning tools and involves minimal human input. The nature of the assessment means that it is only useful at detecting common vulnerabilities only.
Many organisations will conduct a vulnerability assessment to identify core problems then commission a pen test to explore systems and applications in more depth.
Benefits of undertaking a pen test
There are many benefits to having a penetration test carried out by cybersecurity professionals. Perhaps the most prominent and useful is that they make it easier for businesses to identify and fix vulnerabilities before cybercriminals can exploit them. A pen test can also offer independent assurance of your security controls, as well as improving awareness and knowledge of cyber risks.
When you have pen testing carried out, your business is demonstrating a commitment to achieving a higher level of cybersecurity. As well as sometimes being necessary to comply with industry regulations, such as PCI DSS, ISO 27001, and the GDPR, the insight gained will enable your business to improve its security posture. Pen testing can even save your business money by helping to avoid costly mistakes and supplying useful insights to help prioritise future IT spending.
When should a business have a pen test carried out?
It is a common misconception for businesses to assume that by having a penetration test carried out, they will be secure for years to come. But the truth is, with cyber threats constantly evolving, organisations must take a much more continuous approach to testing. It is recommended that businesses conduct pen tests at least once per year; however, there are other situations when it can be necessary to have a pen test carried out more frequently.
For example, if your business has made significant changes to its IT infrastructure, or is launching new products or services, it is best practice to undertake testing. A pen test is also recommended if your business is undergoing a business merger or acquisition. It can also be necessary when seeking to validate compliance with specific data security standards.
Different methods of pen testing
There are many different types of pen tests, so it is important that you choose the test that is right for your business. The recommendation is that you should speak with cybersecurity experts to ascertain the right type of test for the specific needs. Some of the most common types of pen test include:
- Internal/External Network Test – to investigate vulnerabilities across a network
- Web Application Test – to verify whether a website and or web application has exploitable vulnerabilities
- Social Engineering Test – to establish whether staff can recognise malicious attempts to gain access to sensitive information, such as their log-in details, or even business-critical data
- Physical Penetration Test – to test physical network devices and access points to see if they can be breached
Carrying out a pen test
Whilst it is possible to perform some in-house testing, security industry association CREST state that most organisations choose to have external providers conduct their pen tests.
This is because external providers have a more holistic view of pen testing and greater awareness of the latest tactics being used by cybercriminals.
Pen testing as part of your cybersecurity posture
Many businesses can benefit from having pen testing carried out, as long as it is used with the right purpose in mind. Penetrating testing is not a magic bullet to protect against cybercrime, but it can form part of a strong cyber-security strategy that helps keep organisations as safe as possible.
About the Author: Chester Avey
Chester Avey has over a decade of experience in cybersecurity and business growth consultant. He enjoys sharing his knowledge with other like-minded professionals through his writing. Find out what else Chester has been up to on Twitter: @Chester15611376.