Penetration Testing – Definition, importance, Stages and Types

In this article we show you Penetration Testing – Definition, importance, Stages and Types.

A penetration test, or pen test, is an attempt to evaluate the security of an IT infrastructure by safely trying to exploit vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities may exist in operating systems, services and application flaws, improper configurations, or risky end-user behavior. Such assessments are also useful in validating the efficacy of defensive mechanisms, as well as end-user adherence to security policies.

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Pen testing can involve the attempted breaching of any number of application systems. E.g., application protocol interfaces (APIs), frontend/backend servers) to uncover vulnerabilities. Such as unsanitized inputs that are susceptible to code injection attacks.

Ethical hackers are information technology (IT) experts who use hacking methods to help companies identify possible entry points into their infrastructure. By using different methodologies, tools, and approaches, companies can perform simulated cyber attacks to test the strengths and weaknesses of their existing security systems. Penetration, in this case, refers to the degree to which a hypothetical threat actor, or hacker, can penetrate an organization’s cybersecurity measures and protocols. Pen testing is considered a proactive cybersecurity measure. Because it involves consistent, self-initiated improvements based on the reports generated by the test. This differs from nonproactive approaches, which lack the foresight to improve upon weaknesses as they arise. A nonproactive approach to cybersecurity, for example, would involve a company updating its firewall after a data breach occurs. The goal of proactive measures, like pen testing, is to minimize the number of retroactive upgrades and maximize an organization’s security.

Why is pen testing important?


The rate of distributed denial-of-service, phishing, and ransomware attacks is dramatically increasing, putting all internet-based companies at risk. Considering how reliant businesses are on technology, the consequences of a successful cyber attack have never been greater. A ransomware attack, for instance, could block a company from accessing the data, devices, networks, and servers it relies on to conduct business. Such an attack could result in millions of dollars of lost revenue.

Pen testing uses the hacker perspective to identify and mitigate cybersecurity risks before they are exploited. This helps IT leaders implement informed security upgrades that minimize the possibility of successful attacks. Technological innovation is one of, if not the greatest, challenges facing cybersecurity. As tech continues to evolve, so do the methods cybercriminals use. In order for companies to successfully protect themselves from these attacks, they need to be able to update their security measures at the same rate. The caveat, however, is that it is often difficult to know which methods are being used and how they might be used in an attack. But, by using skilled ethical hackers, organizations can quickly and effectively identify, update and replace the parts of their system. That was particularly susceptible to modern hacking techniques.

Penetration testing stages

The pen testing process is usually in five stages.

1. Planning and reconnaissance

The first stage involves:

  • Defining the scope and goals of a test, including the systems to be addressed and the testing methods to be used.
  • Gathering intelligence (e.g., network and domain names, mail server) to better understand how a target works and its potential vulnerabilities.

2. Scanning

The next step is to understand how the target application will respond to various intrusion attempts. This is typically done using:

  • Static analysis – Inspecting an application’s code to estimate the way it behaves while running. These tools can scan the entirety of the code in a single pass.
  • Dynamic analysis – Inspecting an application’s code in a running state. This is a more practical way of scanning, as it provides a real-time view into an application’s performance.

3. Gaining Access

This stage uses web application attacks, such as cross-site scripting, SQL injection, and backdoors, to uncover a target’s vulnerabilities. Testers then try and exploit these vulnerabilities. Usually by escalating privileges, stealing data, intercepting traffic, etc., to understand the damage they can cause.

4. Maintaining access

The goal of this stage is to see if a hacker can use the vulnerability to exploit the system. Long enough for a bad actor to gain in-depth access. The idea is to imitate advanced persistent threats, which often remain in a system for months in order to steal an organization’s most sensitive data.

5. Analysis

The results of the penetration test are then compiled into a report detailing

  • Specific vulnerabilities that were exploited
  • Sensitive data that was accessed
  • The amount of time the pen tester was able to remain in the system undetected

This information is analyzed by security personnel to help configure an enterprise’s WAF settings. And other application security solutions to patch vulnerabilities and protect against future attacks.

What are the types of penetration tests?

  • Open-box pen test – In an open-box test, the hacker will be provided with some information ahead of time regarding the target company’s security info.
  • Closed-box pen test – Also known as a ‘single-blind’ test. This is the one where the hacker has no background information besides the name of the target company.
  • Covert pen test – Also known as a ‘double-blind’ pen test, this is a situation where almost no one in the company is aware that the pen test is happening, including the IT and security professionals who will be responding to the attack. For covert tests, it is especially important for the hacker to have the scope and other details of the test in writing beforehand to avoid any problems with law enforcement.
  • External pen test – In an external test, the ethical hacker goes up against the company’s external-facing technology, such as their website and external network servers. In some cases, the hacker may not even allowed to enter the company’s building. This can mean conducting the attack from a remote location or carrying out the test from a truck or van parked nearby.
  • Internal pen test – In an internal test, the ethical hacker performs the test from the company’s internal network. This kind of test is useful in determining how much damage a disgruntled employee can cause from behind the company’s firewall.

What is the difference between pen testing and vulnerability assessment?

Pen tests are not the same as vulnerability assessments. They provide a prioritized list of security weaknesses, and how to amend them. Pen testing is often conducted with a particular goal in mind. These goals typically fall under one of the following three objectives:

  1. identify hackable systems
  2. attempt to hack a specific system
  3. carry out a data breach

Each objective focuses on specific outcomes that IT leaders are trying to avoid. For example, if the goal of a pen test is to see how easily a hacker could breach the company database. Ethical hackers are instructed to try and carry out a data breach. The results of a pen test not only show the strength of an organization’s current cybersecurity protocols but will also present the available hacking methods that a hacker can use to penetrate the organization’s systems.

What happens in the after a penetration test?

After completing a pen test, the ethical hacker will share their findings with the target company’s security team. We can use this information to implement security upgrades to plug up any vulnerabilities discovered during the test. These upgrades can include rate limiting, new WAF rules, and DDoS mitigation, as well as tighter form validations and sanitization.

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