Penetration testing, also known as pen testing, is an exercise in testing an organization's cyber security posture. It's a critical step in securing an organization and shouldn't be overlooked. Penetration testing is used to validate vulnerabilities in an exploited network, system, or web application. The results of a penetration test can help security leaders make educated decisions about cybersecurity budget, location, and outcomes.
Conducting a penetration test can provide invaluable insight about where an organization is most vulnerable and provide technical steps to remediate the discovered vulnerabilities. A trained expert can help an organization determine how large their attack surface is and provide visibility into critical vulnerabilities which warrant immediate attention. Penetration testing should be scheduled routinely and following any large-scale infrastructure changes. Consistent testing can help discover vulnerabilities early and provide actionable remediation paths for internal changes which can affect organizational security.
Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Assessments
A common misconception is that a penetration test and vulnerability assessment are one in the same. The goal with vulnerability assessments is to identify, analyze, and prioritize the vulnerabilities through a risk assessment process. On the other hand, a penetration test takes things one step further and validates the vulnerabilities utilizing the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) utilized by real world threat actors to exploit and discover weak points in a network, system, or application.
It's important to understand the differences between the two. Unfortunately, it’s common for firms to offer penetration testing services when they're only offering vulnerability assessments through automated vulnerability scans. A typical sales technique used by these firms is to underbid the competition for penetration tests so that organizations think they're saving money but all they receive is a vulnerability scan. Understanding the differences in tests and thoroughly evaluating a security firm’s offerings is a good way to ensure your organization doesn't overpay for a vulnerability scan disguised as a penetration test.
The Value of a Penetration Test
Penetration tests are a crucial part of an effective security program. The value in which they provide an organization should not be understated. Conducting penetration testing helps organizations efficiently determine where their security budget should be focused. Targeted security budgeting can provide a great deal of value to dollars and a much more risk-focused approach to threat identification and remediation. With data breaches far too common and costly, the value of penetration testing is front and center. The ability to mitigate risk before a breach happens is key.
When looking for a security testing partner, it's important to find one that shares the same security interests as your organization to maximize the value of testing. Choosing a partner that is trustworthy and can effectively communicate throughout the testing process will help assure an organization that they made the right choice.
How to Find an Expert
True experts in any industry can be difficult to find, especially when many companies claim to have them. Professional and experienced penetration testers should be able to convey what they're doing, where they're doing it, and what activities will be included. Creating a plan based on factors specific to a company’s goals is a crucial step. A penetration test statement of work (SOW) protects both parties when it comes to testing expectations and deliverables. It can also ensure testing outcomes meet company goals.
After an agreement is reached and the test is completed, a report is generated with overview of findings. This overview will include what vulnerabilities were found, which exploits were successful, what the risk implications are, and how the risks can be remediated. Remember, cybersecurity is cyclical in nature. Threat actors generally have unlimited time and only need to find one exploitable vulnerability to be successful.
Looking for a penetration testing professional? Contact NuHarbor for more information about penetration testing and how we make securing your organization easier.
Justin (he/him) is the founder and CEO of NuHarbor Security, where he continues to advance modern integrated cybersecurity services. He has over 20 years of cybersecurity experience, much of it earned while leading security efforts for multinational corporations, most recently serving as global CISO at Keurig Green Mountain Coffee. Justin serves multiple local organizations in the public interest, including his board membership at Champlain College.