Penetration Testing: What It Is, Why It’s Important and How It Can Benefit Your Business

Penetration Testing: What It Is, Why It’s Important and How It Can Benefit Your Business

by Mark Knight, Bill Gogel
March 20, 2023

To combat increasing and evolving cyber threats, companies are investing heavily in cybersecurity measures to safeguard their digital assets. But even the most robust cybersecurity programs may have blind spots – and could be vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Do you know where your organization’s blind spots are? A penetration test can help you find out.

Penetration testing, also known as pen testing, is an annual compliance or statutory requirement for most organizations, particularly those in highly regulated industries like healthcare and financial services. It’s also one of the best ways to test your organization against cybercrime. Below is a breakdown of pen testing, its benefits and the common types of pen tests that may add value to your organization.

What Is Pen Testing?

Pen testing is a preventative assessment to determine whether your organization’s cybersecurity practices are effective. Often referred to as ethical hacking, a pen test is a simulated attack on an organization’s network or customer-facing platforms that imitates those of real cybercriminals. Essentially, it’s a way for your organization to identify your system weaknesses before the real hackers do.

Benefits of Pen Testing

Pen testing is integral to many organizations’ annual compliance and/or statutory requirements. For example, healthcare organizations following HIPAA laws or service providers that adhere to Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard guidelines must complete regular pen testing as part of their compliance standards. Additionally, organizations that maintain a SOC 2 certification or GDPR compliance may need to complete pen testing to help meet corresponding requirements.

However, completing pen testing is about much more than just checking a box on your regulatory to-do list. Not only is it a security best practice (many voluntary security frameworks recommend that pen testing be performed annually), it can also help improve your organization’s overall cybersecurity strength and mitigate critical security risks.

Completing a pen test can also make you a better candidate for cyber insurance. As security threats continue to evolve and become more sophisticated, businesses have become progressively more susceptible to cyberattacks. As a result, cyber insurance companies are raising the bar on required safeguards, making cyber insurance increasingly difficult to obtain. Presenting a completed pen test demonstrates that you’re taking the right steps to secure your environment and provides an independent review attesting to the strength of your current security posture.

Common Types of Pen Testing

Determining the type(s) of pen testing that best suits your organization starts with identifying your goals. For example, are you looking to determine if a particular web application is secure? Do you need to ensure compliance with a specific regulation? Do you have to fulfill an external contractual need to demonstrate your security posture to a third party?

Though there are several types of niche pen tests for a wide range of organizational needs, the most common types of pen testing include:

External network pen testing

An external test is a simulated attack performed from an external perspective, i.e., a simulator acting as a hacker without any authentication into a company’s network. This type of testing involves assessing and “attacking” an organization’s public-facing infrastructure, such as firewalls, websites and email systems.

An external test attempts to breach your web-facing assets and pinpoint and exploit any weaknesses or misconfigurations hackers can find. This allows you to better understand the broader security threats facing your organization and helps you reduce the likelihood of a data breach or ransomware attack.

Internal network pen testing

An internal network pen test, sometimes referred to as an assumed breach penetration test, attacks your system infrastructure from an internal perspective and mimics an insider threat. It operates on the premise that a hacker already has access to your internal systems and assesses the scale and scope of your internal vulnerabilities.

An internal pen test also drives home the need to ditch the old perimeter security concept (i.e., protecting your internal network just along the perimeter) and secure your internal network as well. For example, if a disgruntled employee had access to the network, what could they get further access to? If an employee was infected by a virus or ransomware, how far could it spread?

By completing an internal pen test, you can get deeper insights into the effectiveness of your internal security, build loyalty and trust within your organization and offer additional reassurance to stakeholders and third-party contractors.

Web application pen testing

Web application pen testing focuses specifically on identifying the vulnerabilities that are present in your web applications. Targeted to organizations that build out software as a service (SaaS) products, web application pen testing harnesses specialized expertise to evaluate the resilience of your unique web or SaaS platforms.

Through web application pen testing, you can:

  • Measure safeguards against the OWASP Top 10 Web Application Vulnerabilities
  • Identify flaws in business logic, input validation and/or integrity checks
  • Reveal weak authentication mechanisms
  • Escalate authorizations within the application
  • Pivot into the back-end infrastructure
  • Find vulnerabilities in APIs and web services
  • Assess the quality of continuous integration/deployment methods

Cloud pen testing

For organizations that run corporate and production environments in the cloud, a cloud pen test can uncover any potential security vulnerabilities specific to your cloud environment.

With a cloud pen test, you can:

  • Automate cloud configuration auditing against vendor best practices
  • Exploit weaknesses in identity and access management
  • Test public storage containers/blobs (i.e., cloud storage that houses unstructured data such as images)
  • Identify misconfigured content delivery networks
  • Test effectiveness of virtual subnet rules

Where to Start

If your organization has never done a penetration test before and doesn’t know where to start, a good first step may be a baseline vulnerability assessment and scan. Less intrusive than other types of pen tests, a vulnerability assessment identifies potential vulnerabilities in your system security, like missing patches and misconfigurations, without attempting to exploit them. This test focuses on detecting and mitigating ransomware risks and can provide a starting point for future testing and additional remediation efforts.

However, a vulnerability assessment may not uncover all potential security weaknesses or provide a full picture of your security posture. Completing a penetration test in conjunction with your vulnerability assessment is the best way to ensure a comprehensive security program.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, penetration testing gives your organization an in-depth picture of your overall security posture, exposes vulnerabilities and highlights areas for improvement. Completing an annual penetration test may be a compulsory requirement for your organization; it’s also a vital opportunity for you to strengthen your security infrastructure, mitigate critical security risks, reassure stakeholders — and get some invaluable peace of mind.

Contact our cybersecurity experts to learn more about your penetration testing options and how they may benefit your business, or explore more ways to take control of your operations to stay profitable and sustainable.

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