Types, stages, methodologies and frameworks

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Penetration testing is a cybersecurity forensics technique used to assess an organization’s network perimeter and internal cybersecurity defenses. This involves feather testers hacking into systems and determining where vulnerabilities and weaknesses lie.

The penetration testing process not only identifies cybersecurity issues, but also offers recommendations to fix those issues and verifies that the fixes work. Penetration testing can save organizations thousands or even millions of dollars in lost revenue, ransomware payments, and reputational damage.

6 steps in a pen test

Penetration testing vendors may have different approaches to their testing. In general, the following six activities are involved in performing a penetration test:

  1. Prepare for the test. Use this phase to gather relevant information, obtain management approval, and define test steps.
  2. Build a plan. Determine the tools needed to examine the test taker’s condition. This includes assessing how security is implemented and where vulnerabilities or alternative access methods may exist.
  3. Build a team. Gather the appropriate pen testers to perform the test. Internal and external experts may be needed.
  4. Find the target. Decide which data and which systems are targeted.
  5. Perform penetration. Use various techniques to bypass the target system’s existing security measures, such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems. Establish a position on designated systems and resources, while trying to avoid detection. Extract data and other evidence for reports.
  6. Perform data analysis and reports. Review and analyze the data collected during the penetration test and identify remediation steps. Summarize test results, including vulnerabilities found and exploited and how to fix them, in a report for business management.
Chart with pen test steps
Typically, penetration testing includes at least these six steps.

Types of Penetration Testing and Methodologies

There are three general levels of performing a penetration test:

  1. Black box testing simulates how an experienced threat actor would perform a hack. It starts with no knowledge or understanding of the target’s technology infrastructure and security provisions. The objective of this test is to quickly identify easily exploitable vulnerabilities.
  2. Gray box test takes a black box test one step further. Pen testers usually have some knowledge of the target’s systems and security measures. The goal of a gray box test is to learn details about vulnerabilities that can be exploited at a higher level than black box assessments.
  3. White box testing is the most advanced. This penetration test assumes that the attacker has detailed knowledge of all aspects of an organization’s technology and security infrastructure. White box testers are usually the most experienced pen testing experts. They are responsible for discovering the smallest flaws in the security infrastructure. When paired with system developers and engineers, white box testers can jointly improve an organization’s security.

Penetration test results can vary depending on what is being tested, as well as whether or not the tester knows anything about the company and whether the company knows the test is in progress. The different types of tests include the following:

  • External test. Information assets visible to third parties, such as websites, applications, emails, and DNS, are attacked for the purpose of data mining, transactions, and other activities. The objective is to identify vulnerabilities by external attack sources.
  • Internal test. An insider attack aims to expose the damage that could be done if an attacker was already inside the target system. This also covers malicious insiders. Careful screening can help identify employees who may respond to social engineering or phishing attacks.
  • Blind test. In this situation, the tester is authorized to obtain publicly available information about the target but has no inside information about the company or its security resources. In contrast, the target organization knows the attack, including when and where it will occur, and can prepare accordingly. Testers must use all their skills to penetrate the target’s defenses.
  • Double-blind trial. In this test, neither the attacker nor the target is aware of the pen test in advance. Testers must therefore rely on the skills and tools available to be successful. For the tester, success is about penetrating the target’s defenses. For the target company, success lies in preventing the attacker from penetrating its perimeter and defenses.

Stylus testing frameworks and standards

Penetration testing frameworks and standards provide a blueprint for planning, executing, and reporting on cybersecurity vulnerability testing, in addition to activities that collectively provide methodologies for ensuring maximum security. Here are some popular pen testing frameworks and standards:

  • Open Source Security Testing Methodology Manual (OSSTMM) provides a detailed approach to all aspects of testing and vulnerability assessment activities. The OSSTMM does not advocate a particular approach; rather, it provides guidance on best practices for successful testing activities.
  • NIST Cybersecurity Framework and other standards, such as Special Publication 800-53A Rev. 5, offer guidance on penetration testing and other evaluation techniques.
  • Penetration Test Execution Standard (PTES) details all aspects of a penetration test. A separate PTES Technical Guidelines document provides procedures for organizing and performing a penetration test.
  • OWASP provides detailed guidance on application security and planning and performing penetration tests.

Put it all together in a pen test report

One of the most important aspects of a penetration test is the report. It should be informative and actionable and include the following key points:

  • the abstract explains the purpose and scope of the test, its expected benefits, and who requested the test.
  • the statement of objectives describes the general objectives of the test – for example, to identify external threats and vulnerabilities and recommend mitigation measures.
  • the methodology describes the general types of tests and testers — eg, external test, black box test, internal testers — to be used in the test.
  • the tools describes the software tools and non-technological methods — for example, social engineering — needed to obtain the test results.
  • the technical approach describes the technical approach and structure of the test.
  • the attack story describes the steps followed, from beginning to end, of the test and includes the results of each step.
  • the results The section summarizes the results and recommended actions of the penetration test. It provides practical advice on how to achieve the desired results.

This was last published in April 2022

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