Pen testing, or penetration testing, is an important tool in the security analyst’s arsenal. It allows security professionals to identify system, network and application vulnerabilities before attackers can exploit them.
Pen testing comes in many forms, each with its strengths and weaknesses. By simulating attacks from malicious hackers, pen testing can help organizations identify and address potential security weaknesses before they can be exploited.
With that in mind, it is essential to understand the different types of pen testing available and how they can be implemented to ensure that your organization is as secure as possible. Read on to learn more about the different kinds of pen testing and how to use them to enhance your security posture.
What is penetration testing?
Penetration testing, also known as pen testing or ethical hacking, is a type of security testing used to evaluate the security of an IT system by simulating an attack. Organizations must assess their security posture as the world adopts digital transformation and must understand how vulnerable their networks may be.
The goal of a pen test is to identify security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by an attacker, giving them access to sensitive data systems. Ethical hackers use pen tests to identify and address potential weaknesses in a system’s security architecture.
How is penetration testing performed?
Ethical hackers possess the same skillset as malicious actors but use them for defensive purposes. They will use various techniques and tools to scan networks and applications for weaknesses that unethical hackers could exploit.
This includes probing for weak passwords, exploiting known vulnerabilities, scanning for unpatched systems, and attempting social engineering attacks. Once a vulnerability has been identified, the tester will try to exploit it directly through remote code execution or indirectly through phishing emails.
Once successful exploitation has been achieved, the penetration tester will take steps to remediate any issues identified and strengthen the security posture of the target environment.
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Approaches to penetration testing
Penetration testing is a critical component of any security program. It helps organizations identify, assess, and remediate system and network vulnerabilities. The different approaches to penetration testing include the following.
- Black box
Black box penetration testing, also known as ‘zero-knowledge testing’, is the most common type. In this approach, the tester has no prior knowledge of the system they are testing and instead relies on publicly available information to gain access.
The tester uses various techniques such as port scanning, network mapping, password cracking and social engineering to gather information and probe for vulnerabilities. The advantage of black box penetration testing is that it tests how well an organization can protect itself against an attack from an outside source.
To ensure a successful black box test, it is vital to have a well-defined scope. This includes defining the target systems, identifying methods to obtain information, outlining which ethical hackers will perform which types of attacks, setting a timeline for the test, and defining acceptable outcomes.
By the end of the black box test, the tester should understand the system’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses well. They should also provide detailed reports outlining the steps taken and any security risks or vulnerabilities identified.
- White box
White box testing, or clear box or structural testing, involves detailed knowledge of the system’s source code and architecture. A white box penetration tester looks at the system’s components and structures.
This approach involves closely inspecting source code for potential vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit. As such, a white box penetration test is designed to provide more detailed results that can be used to develop further security improvements.
The primary benefit of this type of penetration test is the ability to detect coding errors in the source code that can lead to security breaches. Other benefits include identifying weak points within the system, finding inefficient use of system resources, and assessing the strength of authentication and authorization controls.
To carry out a successful white box penetration test, the tester must have access to the source code and be familiar with the programming language. The tester must also possess a thorough understanding of computer systems and how different components interact with each other.
This approach requires significant time and should only be undertaken if you have the necessary expertise and resources.
- Gray box
Gray box penetration testing is a black box and white box testing hybrid. In this approach, the tester is provided with knowledge about the target system, such as IP addresses, system architecture, and other information that can give an advantage in penetration testing.
This type of test usually requires less time to execute as the tester already knows a lot about the target system before the test begins.
However, it does require more expertise than white box or black box testing, as the tester must be able to combine existing knowledge about the system with discovered information to assess vulnerabilities.
It is also vital to ensure that the tester has been provided with all relevant information about the target system and its environment so that they are included in their assessment.
Types of penetration testing
Pen testing is often divided into different types, each focusing on a different security aspect. Below are nine different types of pen testing and how they are implemented.
- Network penetration testing
Network penetration testing is a type of security test that focuses on assessing the security of an organization’s network. It is conducted by security professionals, who attempt to gain access to networks, systems and applications by exploiting their vulnerabilities.
This type of pen testing aims to identify any security flaws within the network, as well as any misconfigured systems and services. Network penetration testing can shield businesses from network-based attacks such as router attacks, firewall misconfiguration and weak authentication protocols.
Penetration testers use various tools and techniques to assess the security posture of a network, including port scans, vulnerability scans, password cracking and exploitation tools.
They also use social engineering methods such as phishing emails or malicious URLs to evaluate how personnel responds in case of an attack. After the tests, they provide detailed reports with actionable insights that enable organizations to improve their security posture.
- Web application penetration testing
Web application penetration testing (also known as web app pen testing) identifies and exploits security vulnerabilities in web applications. It is a methodical process that involves attacking the web application from all angles to uncover potential threats and risks.
Web application penetration testing aims to protect your organization’s web applications by identifying vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit. Testers use various tools to find and exploit weaknesses in web applications, such as automated scanning tools, manual analysis and manual exploitation.
Once a vulnerability is identified, the tester will attempt to exploit it by leveraging different attack techniques. This test can help an organization identify and address security issues quickly before malicious actors can exploit them.
It can also help organizations develop a more secure environment for their web applications by providing detailed reports on security weaknesses and recommendations for mitigating risks.
- Wireless penetration testing
Wireless penetration testing is a process used to evaluate the security of a wireless network by simulating an attack from malicious sources. This test helps identify any network security vulnerabilities that an attacker could exploit.
Wireless penetration testing requires specialized tools and techniques to determine if there are any weak points or gaps in the wireless network’s security. The most common tools used for wireless penetration testing include Aircrack-ng and Reaver.
These tools can test the strength of Wi-Fi networks, decrypt encrypted data, monitor traffic, and launch denial-of-service (DoS) attacks. Common attacks include unauthorized access, bypassing authentication protocols and deciphering passwords.
To perform a successful wireless penetration test, testers need to thoroughly understand the underlying technologies and protocols used by the wireless networks they are testing.
This includes knowledge of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular networks. Wireless penetration testers also need to be familiar with various tools and methods used to exploit the vulnerabilities in these networks.
- Physical penetration testing
Physical penetration testing attempts to access a physical facility or location to exploit or compromise its security. This type of pen testing requires physical presence and involves lock picking, tailgating and bypassing other physical security measures to gain access to the target.
This form of pen testing is often used to evaluate an organization’s security policies, procedures and overall physical security measures. Organizations can take proactive steps to ensure that their premises are secure by assessing how an organization handles physical security threats.
Physical penetration testing typically consists of two main components: external and internal assessments. During external assessments, pen testers try to gain access to the facility from outside, assessing whether external defenses are sufficient and what methods can be used to breach them.
In internal assessments, testers try to gain access to sensitive areas within the facility. Pen testers use various techniques to test the effectiveness of physical security measures.
For example, they may try to pick locks, bypass alarm systems and test firewalls. They may also attempt to use social engineering techniques, such as dressing up as maintenance workers or delivery drivers, to gain access.
Organizations should be aware that physical penetration testing is invaluable for evaluating their security measures. By having a professional team assess their premises, organizations can gain valuable insight into any potential weak points in their security system and take steps to strengthen them.
- Social engineering penetration testing
Social engineering is a method of infiltrating a system by exploiting users’ psychological weaknesses rather than exploiting technical vulnerabilities. This type of pen testing attempts to gain access to sensitive information or systems through the manipulation and deception of a user.
Social engineering testing involves attempting to breach a system by pretending to be someone else in person or via email, telephone, or other means of communication. The tester may impersonate an executive within the company, pose as a client or vendor, or use any other ruse allowing them to access the desired information.
The primary goals of social engineering testing are to assess employees’ trustworthiness and adherence to security policies. Additionally, you can perform it to test the level of risk in the organization and determine its ability to respond to a social engineering attack.
Testers will typically use a combination of methods such as phishing emails, social engineering via telephone, physical visits and ‘dumpster diving’ to properly evaluate the efficacy of a social engineering attack. Testers may also use honeypots, or decoy systems, to gather information on attackers.
- Client-side penetration testing
Client-side penetration testing is an integral part of any cyber security plan. It involves testing clients’ security, such as computers and other devices that are connected to a network.
This type of testing helps to identify vulnerabilities in client-side applications, such as browsers, email clients and plugins, that could potentially be exploited by attackers. Client-side penetration testing aims to detect any vulnerabilities in client-side applications that malicious actors could use.
It can involve analyzing source code, identifying weak access controls, detecting insecure configuration settings, finding coding flaws, and uncovering backdoors or malicious code.
During a client-side penetration test, the tester will look for weaknesses in authentication methods, encryption mechanisms, user input validation, data storage, access control and web services. They will also analyze the application’s architecture and infrastructure, including networking devices, routers, firewalls and proxy servers.
Organizations must also implement other measures such as patching, updating antivirus software and developing secure coding practices to ensure the integrity of their systems and data.
- IoT penetration testing
Internet of Things (IoT) penetration testing is a specialized form of security testing designed to evaluate the security of IoT devices and networks. The goal of this type of testing is to identify any potential vulnerabilities in the system that could be exploited by an attacker.
This can include the evaluation of hardware, software and communications protocols. The tester will attempt to gain unauthorized access to the system or data, determine what information is accessible, and whether the system has been configured correctly.
To do this, testers will use various methods, including network scans, code analysis, port scanning, password cracking and other techniques.
By conducting an IoT penetration test, organizations can identify any potential weak points in their system and uncover any possible attacks that hackers might launch against them.
- Mobile app penetration testing
Mobile app penetration testing is a type of security testing focusing on identifying security vulnerabilities within mobile applications. It is essential for any organization that develops and distributes mobile applications, as it allows them to find and fix security flaws before hackers can exploit them.
To perform mobile app penetration testing, testers use various techniques to test the app’s source code, network traffic and file system. Testers must look for security flaws, including insecure data storage, unencrypted communication channels, authorization issues, weak authentication methods and missing security features.
Once the application has been tested, the results are analyzed to identify potential threats that may have gone undetected during the testing process. Organizations can take the necessary steps to secure their applications from hackers by identifying these threats.
They can choose from a range of mobile app penetration testing solutions that suit their needs. Solutions such as static code analysis, dynamic application security testing and manual penetration testing are all popular options.
- Red team penetration testing
Red team penetration testing is an advanced form of ethical hacking that combines real-world attack scenarios and knowledge of network security to test a company’s defenses. It provides an opportunity to gain a holistic view of your organization’s security posture by simulating a realistic attack on your system.
Unlike other forms of penetration testing, red teaming involves more than just finding and exploiting vulnerabilities. It also focuses on discovering and bypassing security controls and other tactics, such as social engineering.
Red team penetration testing aims to simulate a real-world attack on a company’s networks and systems. As such, red teamers are expected to use their skills and expertise to think like an attacker and find ways to breach a company’s defenses.
Because of the nature of the red team, testing is usually done in tandem with other forms of penetration testing, such as black box or white box testing. By combining different types of tests, red teamers can achieve a more comprehensive view of an organization’s security posture.
Organizations can use several different types of pen testing to identify and remediate vulnerabilities in their cyber security defenses. Each test assesses the security of various aspects of an organization’s infrastructure, including network infrastructure, web applications, cloud-based infrastructure and employee security awareness.
By conducting regular pen testing, organizations can stay ahead of evolving cyber threats and ensure that their defenses are strong and effective. Whether they are using automated tools or a team of expert pen testers, organizations must prioritize pen testing as a critical component of their cyber security strategy.
By identifying and remediating vulnerabilities, they can minimize the risk of cyber-attacks and protect their sensitive data and assets from harm.