Penetration testing, also known as pen testing or ethical hacking, is a security exercise where IT experts attempt to find and exploit vulnerabilities in an organization’s IT network. By simulating these attacks in regular pen tests, organizations can identify and validate any weak spots in their system’s defenses before hackers or criminals take advantage of them.
Regular pen testing is essential for today’s organizations because of our increasing dependence on technology and the creativity of cybercriminals. You’ll want to identify and resolve any vulnerabilities in your network before criminals find them.
Let’s talk more about network security penetration testing.
What’s the purpose of penetration testing?
The easiest way to think of pen testing is “hacking for good, instead of evil.” It’s a simulation event your IT organization would use to attack your enterprise network, network applications, attached devices, and the rest of your IT infrastructure. You would task your “hackers” to find a way into your network any way they can think of. The simulation aims to identify your network’s security weaknesses before cybercriminals can find and exploit them.
Not only can it identify issues with the infrastructure, but it can also highlight weaknesses in your company’s security policies. For example, your current policy may not outline how to prevent or detect illegal activity on your network. Further, it might not include a process of expelling the hacker or remediation steps to take afterward.
A complete penetration test also includes the human component. Social engineering is the “art” of exploiting human psychology to gain access to systems, data, or networks. For example, a hacker could call into your company’s IT support center posing as a user and attempt to reset a password or send phishing emails to employees that help them gain access to your network internally.
The result of a pen test is a report that offers feedback on your organization’s needs to prioritize its security fixes, upgrades, and strategy. The report offers a real-world perspective on how well your network would act or react during a cyberattack. The report can help your IT teams create more robust security policies and strategies to prevent similar weaknesses or errors in the future. Further, some regulatory and legal guidelines require regular penetration test reports for certification, such as PCI, HIPAA, or SOC 2 compliance.
Who performs the pen tests?
The best penetration tests are done by someone with little-to-no prior knowledge of your network security. That way, they’re not relying on any preconceived information about your network and will be open to identifying any issues they see.
Typically, organizations hire outside contractors, or ethical hackers, to perform their pen testing. These ethical hackers are often experienced developers with deep knowledge about network security and pen testing, but not always. Many are also self-taught or even reformed criminal hackers who now use their expertise to fix security flaws rather than exploit them. The best person to perform a pen test on your network will depend on your organization, your network, and what type of pen test you wish to do.
What is a pen test?
There are several types of penetration tests you can do to assess your network security.
- Open-box test: In this pen test, the hacker is given some info about your network security, but not a full picture. The organization typically knows the test will be conducted beforehand.
- Closed-box test: The ethical hacker is given no information about your organization other than your name. The organization typically knows the test will be conducted beforehand.
- Covert pen test: In this pen test, no one in the organization knows that the pen test is happening, including your IT and security staff. Typically only upper management is aware of the test but may not know the exact date, time, or nature of it. One essential action is for the organization to provide ethical hackers with documented details and the test’s scope beforehand to avoid legal problems should law enforcement get involved.
- External pen test: In this type of pen test, the hacker attempts to attack your network through your external-facing technology, such as your website or external network servers. To increase the difficulty, organizations often ask ethical hackers to do these pen tests from a separate physical location.
- Internal pen test: This type of pen test is ideal in determining how much chaos or damage a disgruntled employee can cause from behind your organization’s firewall, as it’s typically done from within your internal network.
These tests can be used individually or in combination to increase the test’s complexity and identify how robust your network security is.
When to do penetration testing
Pen testing is not just a one-and-done type of security strategy, nor is it the same for every organization. You should do it regularly to ensure that you’ve got consistent network security and IT management. Most organizations do it annually, but also whenever they:
- Add new network infrastructure, devices, or applications
- Make significant upgrades or changes to their infrastructure or applications
- Apply security patches to devices or infrastructure
- Open new physical locations, both staffed and remote
- Modify end-user policies
Factors to consider
Aside from the strict technical reasons to do it often, there are other factors to consider with penetration testing.
The size of your network will also dictate how often you do penetration testing. If you have a larger online presence, you may be a more attractive target for hackers because you’ve got more entry points to your network. Companies with multiple physical locations are also higher targets for hacks, so a regular pen testing schedule is recommended.
If your network infrastructure includes public clouds or web-based applications, you may not be able to perform your own pen tests on those parts of the network. You can ask your provider for details on their security methods or penetration testing schedules, though they likely won’t share the specifics with you.
That said, most providers today offer the latest security in their services and infrastructure, especially in highly-regulated industries like finance, so the chances are high they do pen testing regularly. To ensure your network remains secure, however, be sure to test the interface or integration points extensively and regularly to make sure.
Penetration testing can be expensive, so your organization’s security or IT budget may also dictate your testing frequency. Smaller organizations with smaller budgets may only be able to do it every year or two, while larger ones with large budgets can do it every six months.
Industry or legal requirements
The industry you’re in also plays a role in your pen testing schedule. Certain industries like finance or healthcare may be required by law to perform specific security activities, including pen testing.
Keep your network safe with regular testing
With all the technology available today and the evolution of network infrastructure, penetration testing is vital for your network. Organizations that invest in regular pen testing have the peace of mind that their network is always secure from the latest cyber attacks and that daily business operations can continue without interruption.
Regular pen tests identify your network’s strengths and weaknesses and help you fix issues before they become security problems. You never know where the next attack may come from, so protect your network from security breaches before they happen with regular penetration testing.
Protecting your network
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