Padlock / code / hacking

Security: what is pen testing?

Penetration of “pen” testing is a key tool for companies looking to analyse the security of their IT infrastructure, where an external group attempts to breach a company’s IT system using the same techniques and tools a potential attackers might use in the real world.

Today, businesses of all sizes rely heavily on their IT systems for everything from client interactions to payroll and so security of those systems are of paramount importance. As such, businesses should look at penetration tests the same way they consider financial audits – they should monitor and analyse their IT security on a day-to-day basis themselves, but an outside should be brought in regularly to provide fresh insights and make sure the internal processes are working effectively.

What does a penetration test tell you?

A successful penetration test can give confidence to a business that the software and security controls they have in place are correctly configured and there are no known vulnerabilities in the software and hardware components tested. However, it is critical that a successful penetration test is not a security panacea – it does not mean that no vulnerabilities could appear in the future or that any unreported vulnerabilities do not already exist in the system – the pen test simply informs on the vulnerability and risk situation at the time of the test.

Following the pen test, the cybersecurity form carrying out the tests will generally provide a company with a thorough report that explains any vulnerabilities they found during the tests and specific advice on why and how to fix the issues.

Types of penetration testing

Pen tests are limited in scope, with cybersecurity experts generally only testing specific parts of an IT system rather that the entire infrastructure as a whole. These tests are generally setup as either “black box” (where the cybersecurity expert plays an unauthorised intruder with no knowledge), “grey box” (where the cybersecurity expert plays a guest with authorised access), or “white box” (where the cybersecurity expert has full knowledge of the system and creates a detailed assessment of every aspect of an IT implementation).

Here are four common types of pen tests:

1. Network penetration tests

In network pen tests, the cybersecurity experts gather a variety of information from a company’s network that may be useful to a potential attacker and then look for misconfigured elements, unpatched software, and weak passwords that could provide unauthorised access. The experts may then either deliver a report on the vulnerabilities or actively exploit them to complete a full assessment of the potential risks.

2. Application penetration tests

The use of web applications is on the rise as companies shift their businesses processes online, but their maintenance and security can be a difficult problem. During application pen tests, cybersecurity experts will assess all elements of an application from the software logic to the login mechanism to determine where any threat vectors may lie, and utilise these vectors to provide a thorough assessment of the risks involved in running the application.

3. Wireless penetration tests

Wireless connectivity is popular as it makes it simple of employees to connect to the network wherever they are in a building without the need to stay plugged in at their desk. However, this flexibility comes with a price – security. Wireless networks are inherently less secure than wired networks, because a potential attacker does not need physical access to the network cabling to connect.

In a wireless pen test, a cybersecurity expert will test every aspect of the WiFi network to identify any weaknesses from encryption schemes to network segregation and device configuration as well as any likely threat vectors. The expert may then provide the report or exploit the vulnerabilities to get a more thorough picture of exactly how an attacker may breach the network and gain unauthorised access.

4. Mobile penetration tests

Millions of iOS and Android mobile apps are downloaded and installed every day, and many businesses have their own apps for employees to communicate with web services or store data locally. Apps may be easy to use but they can also provide attackers with an “exposed surface” to launch an attack.

In a mobile pen test, cybersecurity experts will assess all elements of the app, from the code of the app itself to the associated web services to make sure that any communication between the two follows security best practices and any local data is stored securely.

If your business relies on IT infrastructure to protect your company’s assets and your customers’ private details then pen tests are a critical tool in keeping attackers at bay. IT security is something that needs to be implemented across every level of a company, with each employee playing their part, and regular pen tests can help you make sure that your infrastructure and processes are as secure as they can be.

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