What is penetration testing – and how can it help protect you?

Written by Erica

May 31, 2023

Header image with text - what is penetration testing
At North Green Security, we work hard to protect companies of all shapes and sizes against cyber attacks, by conducting penetration tests for them.  But, we’ve also learnt that that not everyone knows what penetration testing is – or what it’s used for. 

In this blog, we’ll demystify the concept of penetration testing, how it is conducted and the role it plays in helping to protect companies from falling victim to hackers. 

Understanding penetration testing 

Penetration testing, also referred to as pentesting or ethical hacking, plays a pivotal role in assessing the security of computer systems, networks and applications. It involves authorised professionals simulating real-world attack scenarios, to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

By proactively uncovering these gaps, organisations can strengthen their defences before malicious actors (hackers or cybercriminals) exploit them.  It is worth noting that in the UK it is not legal for anyone to conduct a penetration test against a system or site, without the explicit permission of the owner.

The different types of penetration tests 

Penetration tests can be categorised into several types, each serving a specific purpose tailored to an organisation’s unique needs:

  • Infrastructure penetration test:

This type of test focuses on identifying vulnerabilities within your network infrastructure, including routers, switches, firewalls and servers.  It helps assess the effectiveness of network security measures and detects any potential weaknesses that attackers could exploit to gain unauthorised access.

With infrastructure testing, the tester needs to be given access to the network, either via a VPN link (a form of remote access) or by physical access to the office, so they can connect their computer to the network

  • Application penetration test:

If your business uses web applications, this test looks at how well they would stand up to a malicious attack.  It aims to identify vulnerabilities that could be used by a hacker to attack the site, such as weak user control (where users are able to access admin features, for example), insufficient authentication (where hackers can break into a user’s account) or inadequate access controls.  By conducting this test, you can ensure your web applications are robust against potential attacks.

Because websites are accessible from the internet, it is important to understand that a company website will be tested by hackers and may provide a way to gain unauthorised access to either data or an internal network.

  • Wireless penetration test:

Wireless networks are everywhere, so it’s crucial to evaluate their security.

This test assesses a wireless network’s configuration, encryption protocols and access controls. It helps identify potential weaknesses that could allow unauthorised access to your corporate wireless network.

  • Mobile application test:

Mobile applications have become an integral way for many of us to interact with the internet and services.  These applications are installed onto devices that may have access to the personal, private and sensitive information that we all tend to store on our phones.

A mobile application test reviews whether the applications used are storing data securely, makes sure they cannot access other data stored on our phones and ensures that the communication with the service responsible for the app is both secure and protected.

  • Cloud penetration test:

A cloud penetration test is specifically designed to assess the security of your cloud-based systems and services.

This may include not only the infrastructure (servers) that are hosted in the cloud, but also the access management, protecting unauthorised access, and the configurations making sure all communication, storage and services are secure.

Penetration testing approaches 

When it comes penetration testing, these are two most commonly used approaches: white box testing and black box testing.

Whilst both methods aim to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses, they differ in their approach and in the level of information available to the tester.

  • Black box testing:

Black box testing is an approach where a tester has limited or no knowledge of the internal workings of the system being tested.

It simulates the perspective of an external attacker who doesn’t have access to the application’s source code or underlying architecture. Here’s an overview:

  • External perspective: testers approach the system as an outsider, relying solely on the target’s externally visible features, inputs and outputs. They don’t have access to any specific details of its inner workings.
  • Real-world scenario: black box testing aims to mimic real-world attack scenarios where an attacker attempts to exploit vulnerabilities without any knowledge of the target’s internal structure or logic. This approach helps uncover vulnerabilities that an external attacker could potentially exploit.
  • White box testing: 

White box testing takes a different approach and testers have the ability to request any information that think may be beneficial to testing, and nothing is withheld from the tester.  Here’s an overview of white box testing:

  • In-depth analysis: testers have immediate access to the target.  Depending on the type of assessment, this may be from both an authenticated and unauthenticated perspective, allowing them to get a complete picture of the target’s purpose, functionality and potential areas to attack.
  • Compliance, best practice and efficiency: white box testing helps ensure adherence to best practices, and industry-specific compliance requirements. It enables organisations to maintain a high level of security and robustness, and enables tests to take place much faster, as the testers are able to spend time demonstrating potential risks, rather than attempting to gain access.

The benefits of penetration testing 

If we think of penetration testing like an MOT, it is a preventive measure that evaluates the security of digital systems, networks, and applications.

Pentesting aims to identify the potential entry points that criminals could exploit and provides recommendations to mitigate these risks – in the same way that an MOT test ensures that vehicles meet safety and emissions standards, reducing the likelihood of accidents and maintaining roadworthiness.

Whilst an MOT test is a legal requirement for vehicles, regular pentesting is not mandated, but it is highly recommended to protect sensitive information and digital assets.  In the same way as an MOT test for a car ensures its safety and roadworthiness, a pentest offers several key benefits:

  • Proactive vulnerability detection: a pentest helps identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in your digital systems before cybercriminals can exploit them. Just as an MOT test uncovers any underlying issues with a vehicle, a pentest uncovers potential security flaws, providing you with an opportunity to address them proactively.
  • Risk mitigation: by conducting a pentest, you gain insights into the vulnerabilities that could potentially lead to security breaches. This knowledge allows you to implement appropriate security measures and mitigations to reduce the risk of successful attacks. It’s like fixing a faulty brake system or other safety concerns identified during an MOT test, to minimise the risk of an accident.
  • Compliance and assurance: in certain industries, compliance with security standards and regulations is crucial. A pentest can help you ensure that your systems meet these requirements and provides evidence of due diligence. In the same way that a valid MOT certificate demonstrates compliance with legal requirements for vehicles, a pentest report demonstrates your commitment to cybersecurity best practices.
  • Protecting reputation and customer trust: a successful cyber attack can have severe consequences both for your reputation and customer trust. By proactively conducting pentests, you demonstrate your commitment to protecting sensitive data and maintaining the trust of your customers. It’s like ensuring your car is roadworthy and safe, giving passengers confidence in their safety during the journey.
  • Cost savings: detecting and addressing security vulnerabilities early on through pentesting can save you from potential financial losses associated with data breaches, legal penalties, and reputational damage. Similar to the way an MOT test identifies issues that, if left unresolved, could lead to expensive repairs or fines, a pentest helps prevent costly security incidents.

If you’d like to find out more about how you can protect your business through pentesting, then contact the team at North Green today.

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