No company is free from risks and vulnerabilities. No matter how robust the digital infrastructure or how strict the cybersecurity measures are, some level of residual risk will always remain.

That’s why many organizations include penetration testing in their risk assessment and security program. Security professionals perform penetration tests — essentially, pretending to be a hacker forcing his or her way past cyber defenses — to understand an organization’s infrastructure and identify potential risks and vulnerabilities.

Penetration testing (routinely shortened to “pen testing”) is intended to discover vulnerabilities. Then the organization can improve its security and prevent more malicious attackers from exploiting the same weaknesses.

Vulnerability testing is another set of activities, similar to penetration testing, focused on identifying weak spots in an enterprise ecosystem. The key difference is that vulnerability testing takes more of a high-level approach to security weaknesses, and is performed as a preliminary analysis. Pen testing is more tactical and “in the trenches.”

Vulnerability scans are usually performed in an automated fashion, to allow a basic understanding of the organization’s security vulnerabilities. Pen tests are done by humans, and are an essential part of a vulnerability management program.

The Benefits of Penetration Testing

Although there are several methodologies to perform a vulnerability assessment of internal networks, penetration testing has several advantages over other options.

First of all, pen tests are more thorough than vulnerability analysis. While a computer can find generic risk patterns to the network infrastructure, pen testers can identify specific vulnerabilities particular to the IT system under review.

At the same time, penetration tests evaluate more risk factors and vulnerabilities. A vulnerability scan can only observe and probe the security controls in place. A penetration tester can employ all sorts of attack techniques (even social engineering tests) which brings another advantage.

Unlike any vulnerability assessment, penetration testers pose as a cybercriminal to test network security. With the help of password cracking, buffer overflow, SQL injections, and even phishing attacks, ethical hackers can test security controls against an actual cyber attack.

Finally, pen tests translate directly into remediation strategies. Automated methods can lead to false positives that will have to be evaluated later by a tester.

Types of Pen Testing

Penetration tests can be classified according to the information provided and the target being tested.

According to the amount of information provided, there are three types of penetration tests:

  • Black Box

    Black box penetration testing is known for providing the tester with as little information as possible about the IT infrastructure to be evaluated. The objective is to simulate a cyber-attack where the cybercriminal is not informed of the security controls of the organization’s infrastructure.

  • Gray Box

    Here, the tester has some knowledge or access to the company’s internal network that hires him or her. The tester evaluates the company’s internal security controls and its ability to prevent unauthorized access within the organization.

  • White Box

    Also known as clear box testing, this refers to pen tests where the tester has full access to the information regarding the infrastructure to be evaluated. It aims to formulate in-depth internal audits of its IT infrastructure, operating systems, or source codes.

Depending on the purpose and testing objectives, there are additional types of pen tests:

  • Network Services

    This is one of the most common types of network penetration testing. Its main objective is to evaluate vulnerabilities in the network infrastructure, including servers, firewalls, switches, routers, and printers. In addition, network penetration tests protect organizations from common network-based attacks (DNS level, proxy server, man in the middle, and so forth.).

  • Web Application

    Web application penetration testing focuses on discovering security weaknesses of web apps or APIs. It is more specialized and complex than tests, requiring more time to evaluate and identify vulnerabilities. Also, web application penetration techniques are constantly evolving and require periodic monitoring for new threats daily.

  • Client-Side

    Client-side penetration testing focuses on identifying vulnerabilities in the front-end of organizations. These pen tests aim to reinforce security controls against various client-side attacks (cross-site scripting, clickjacking, HTML injections, or malware infections).

  • Wireless

    Wireless penetration testing identifies vulnerabilities related to the connections of various wireless devices to the wifi network. Wireless networks facilitate data exchange, but they are also a vulnerable entry point into an organization’s (or its users’) sensitive data, which is why they require a significant effort to strengthen their security provisions.

  • Social Engineering

    Studies estimate that more than 90 percent of all cyber attacks result from social engineering tactics. These attacks rely on poor judgment and human error rather than security gaps in software and operating systems. Social engineering vulnerability tests are one of the most effective mitigation measures in cybersecurity, and several platforms provide a first approach to these kinds of tests.

  • Physical

    Physical penetration tests are designed to simulate threats to the organization’s physical infrastructure: someone slipping into the organization’s restricted areas. Through these analyses, it is possible to evaluate the weaknesses of its physical barriers and strengthen the weakest ones.

Stay Aware of Vulnerabilities with ZenGRC

Some compliance frameworks require pen testing, such as PCI DSS, ISO 27001, and SOC 2. Moreover, the tests can provide valuable information that your business can use to strengthen security policies and mitigate previously undiscovered risks.

Understanding your weaknesses is just the beginning. Your compliance or cybersecurity program must then be maintained and reviewed periodically to assure that it stays effective over time and adjusts to handle new and emerging threats.

ZenGRC is a governance, risk management, and compliance software that provides various options to meet your requirements. Schedule a free demo now to explore how ZenGRC can enhance your cybersecurity strategy and help you meet penetration testing standards.