Penetration Testing For An Effective Cyber Security Defence

Penetration Testing Is An Effective Cyber Security Defence 


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Cyber attacks are becoming more sophisticated and more frequent with each passing year and these attacks are increasing the number of prevention, detection, and mitigation challenges that every organisation has. The global penetration testing software market is expected to grow from US$ 1,411.9 million in 2021 to US$ 4,045.2 million by 2028; it is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 14.4% from 2021 to 2028.

A comprehensive security strategy is necessary for all organisations that want to protect its data, while remaining competitive in the marketplace.

Understanding your threat cyber landscape is essential to remain safe digitally. To make better decisions about your cyber security you need to know your vulnerabilities. But this is increasingly difficult when our databases grow exponentially every day.

Penetration testing (or pen testing) is a security exercise where a cyber security expert attempts to find and exploit vulnerabilities in a computer system. The purpose of this simulated attack is to identify any weak spots in a system's defences which attackers could take advantage of.

Security penetration testing helps you proactively safeguard your data by assessing your security protocols. It can help you analyse, test and build a robust cyber defence, no matter how vast your data stores. Penetration testing should be done regularly and include testing of all software and applications, including operating systems, hardware, network, processes, and even end-user behaviour. For example, a penetration tester might send fake phishing emails to see if any employees are vulnerable to this type of attack.

Historically, due to legal or regulatory requirements, the public sector, utilities, pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions, all involved in processing sensitive data, have been the predominant users of penetration testing. 

Manual penetration testing first appeared in the late 1990s. Companies would hire security experts and ethical hackers to try and breach their systems to identify vulnerabilities. But manual penetration testing can be challenging and time-consuming. Over the years, penetration testers began automating some processes to increase efficiency. However, automated processes don’t tend to come with the same creativity and capacity for original thought as a human tester. Much of the penetration testing landscape then consisted of hybrid testing, automated processes were tools ultimately controlled by an expert human penetration tester.

Technology has undergone considerable advances over the years, and now, pen testing software can effectively do much of the work that previously required a human touch. Moreover, automated penetration testing includes the following benefits:

  • Time savings: Automated penetration tests finish much faster than manual tests. When complete, a report is automatically generated so a company can take action immediately. Manual tests can take days to complete and even more time to produce a report.
  • Cost savings: Since you don’t need to pay a human for their time, automated testing can be cost-effective because it uses software instead.
  • Test frequency: Because of the time and expense, human penetration testing can typically only be performed infrequently. On the other hand, automated penetration tests can be performed weekly or even more frequently since it's just a matter of running the software. 
  • Entry point coverage: Human penetration testers generally enter a system from a single access point as they perform the test. Automation makes it possible to run the same penetration test from multiple entry points, potentially identifying vulnerabilities a human would miss or wouldn’t have the time to find.

The speed of application development and system modification by businesses in today’s world makes Automated penetration testing crucial. Manual testing can only identify problems that existed at the time of the test, whereas automated testing allows for ongoing testing that can find vulnerabilities as they appear.

An increasing number of organisations now conduct penetration testing, not just for compliance reasons, but because of the online nature of modern businesses and the increasing threat from real cyber attacks. 

A penetration test, or pen test, uses a variety of manual and automated techniques to simulate an attack on an organisation’s information security architecture, either from malicious outsiders or from insider threats. It generally falls into two categories: applications (including mobile) and devices, and infrastructure, including servers, firewalls and hardware. Built around a manual testing process, pen testing is intended to go much further than the generic responses, false-positive findings and lack of depth provided by automated application assessment tools (such as those used in a vulnerability assessment). 

Through simulations and linking together potential vulnerabilities in new ways, pen testing gives organisations a valuable deeper dive into where their vulnerabilities lie and uncover ones that may not have been previously evident.

For organisations who have not executed pen testing, it’s advisable to consider the practice in three steps: 

Getting Ready: Considering the drivers for testing; the purpose of testing, and target environment and appointing suitable suppliers to perform tests. Before engaging in pen testing conduct a reality check of your cyber hygiene - are your malware protection, firewalling, system/ network patching and vulnerability assessments working correctly?

Testing in Action: Conducting penetration tests enterprise-wide, approving testing style and type; allowing for testing constraints; managing the testing process; planning for and carrying out tests effectively; as well as identifying, investigating, and remediating vulnerabilities

Follow Up: Carry out appropriate follow-up activities, remediating weaknesses, maintaining an improvement plan, and delivering an agreed action plan.

Specialist Penetration Testing Services

Deciding what an organisation wants to test can lead to time-consuming debate and stall getting pen testing underway and, increasingly, many organisations help simplify the decision-making process by using the services of a trusted, specialist organisation to help them define the scope of the test, identify requirements, and develop a management framework. Often, these highly experienced specialists continue to conduct the testing based on the pre-approved scope. 

A third-party specialist can provide more experienced, dedicated technical staff who understand how to carry out penetration tests effectively. 

The specialist can also perform an independent assessment of security arrangements before carrying out a full range of testing (e.g. black, white or grey box; internal or external; infrastructure or web application; source code review; and social engineering). In evaluating third-party providers, look for a trusted, certified external company that employ professional, ethical and highly technically competent individuals. 

Working with a third-party provider, a senior management team should be appointed with responsibility for establishing and overseeing the penetration testing program, ensuring that it meets business requirements, and the scope of testing is agreed upon.

Organisations sometimes want to adopt an ad hoc or piecemeal approach, often depending on the needs of a particular region, business unit, or the IT department. While this approach can meet some specific requirements, it is unlikely to provide real assurance about the security condition of a system across the enterprise. 

Consequently, it is more effective to adopt a systematic, structured approach to penetration testing as part of an overall testing program, ensuring that business requirements are met, major system vulnerabilities are identified and addressed quickly and effectively, and risks are kept within acceptable business parameters.

Basic actions before beginning pen testing are determining the depth and breadth of testing; what type of pen testing is required, the critical assets and infrastructure elements to be analysed, and setting the organisation’s tolerance for disruptive risks caused by testing. These risks include potential system failure and exposure of sensitive data. Another important aspect is keeping current on business processes, applications, end user environments and other IT systems, so that pen testing is conducted early enough in a project’s lifecycle to be effective and identify new vulnerabilities.

Penetration Testing Is Evolving 

An emerging practice is combining Red Teaming and Blue Teaming during testing. Red Teams go beyond the network infrastructure or applications to identify potential weak points and string together seemingly unrelated vulnerabilities to create composite attack scenarios. By doing so they challenge the organisation’s assumptions around security.

Blue Teams can focus on defending against Red Team attack simulations. Combining the two offers new insights into vulnerabilities that may not have been on the radar before. Blue Teams can also conduct defence analysis of patch management and perform other security evaluations to allow pen testing to find more in-depth issues.

Pen testing is not a panacea for an overall weaker security infrastructure. It covers just the target application, infrastructure or environment that has been selected. 

The immediate need is to conduct any remediation of weakness uncovered, identify the root causes of these vulnerabilities, then take action. Once each penetration test is complete, and any identified vulnerabilities have been addressed, it can be tempting to draw a line under the process and return to business as usual. However, to reduce risks both in the longer term and across the whole organisation, it is useful to carry out a range of follow-up activities. Organisation are typically engaged in continual adaptation of their IT infrastructure and application usage and pen testing results can help define the next appropriate round of testing.

A common mistake that organisations make is assuming, that by fixing vulnerabilities uncovered during a penetration test, their systems will then be ‘secure.’ Organisations should not describe themselves as secure, there are only varying degrees of insecurity.

It’s smart to think of IT security infrastructure as a constantly moving target for cyber attacks and continue to use pen testing as part of the cyber defence tactics to improve security.

Please contact Cyber Security Intelligence for an assessment on your organisation’s Pen Testing requirements.

References:

Businesswire:   Security Magazine:    SoftwareOne:       

Riversafe:      Cloudflare:         ArabDown:  

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