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Penetration testing as one of the key components of cybersecurity and security standards

To protect your organization from cybercrime, it's crucial to conduct thorough penetration testing regularly. Hackers consistently breach and steal vast amounts of confidential data. The average cost of a data breach reached a historical high of $4.45 million in 2023. Over the past three years, the average costs of breaches have increased by 15%. The key to combating these maneuvers lies in consistently conducting meticulous penetration tests.


So, let's delve into why penetration testing, also known as 'ethical hacking' or penetration testing, is a vital cybersecurity strategy aimed at simulating cyberattacks on computer systems, networks, websites, or applications. The primary goal of penetration testing is to identify and address weaknesses that cybercriminals could exploit before a malicious attack occurs.


The objectives of penetration testing include:


  • Vulnerability assessment: Identifying weaknesses in digital infrastructure, applications, and configurations for prompt resolution of detected issues.

  • Risk mitigation: After identifying vulnerabilities, prioritizing fixes based on potential impact and likelihood, allowing for effective resource allocation.

  • Compliance with requirements and regulations: Regular penetration testing aligns with the requirements of many industries and government agencies, ensuring a high legal standing.

  • Continuous improvement: A proactive testing approach enables organizations to continually enhance security measures and effectively respond to evolving threats.


Specialized penetration testing tools are used to track and eliminate vulnerabilities in information systems, allowing for the detection of potential attack paths and deficiencies in defense.


These tools assist testers in replicating scenarios that could occur in the real world, aiming to identify and assess system vulnerabilities. This includes active penetration tests, simulation of cyberattacks, and the use of various techniques such as SQL injections, phishing, analysis of weaknesses in network security, and others. It's important to use them ethically and only for lawful purposes, such as threat detection and elimination.


Main Stages of Penetration Testing


Phase 1: Planning and reconnaissance

The first phase of penetration testing involves defining the goals and audit objectives. A detailed plan of action is created, and a methodology is selected for the testing process. This stage is crucial for the successful execution of penetration testing.


Phase 2: Information gathering

During the second phase, necessary information is collected. Vulnerability analysis methods are utilized to obtain technical data about the systems that will be included in the testing. Additionally, Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) plays a significant role in identifying potential attack targets and determining possible weaknesses in the system. OSINT methods include analyzing open data, studying public documents, monitoring social media, and using other open sources to gather critical information. The obtained information helps prepare for effective penetration testing and identify potential system vulnerabilities.


Phase 3: Exploitation

The third phase involves conducting active penetration tests. This includes simulating real cyberattacks to identify system weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Through these tests, pentesters assess how well the system is protected against various types of hacker attacks and whether the discovered vulnerabilities can be exploited for unauthorized access.


Phase 4: Evaluation

In the final stage, the results obtained are analyzed. The level of risk posed by the identified vulnerabilities is assessed. Experts compile a detailed report outlining all identified issues, recommendations for remediation, and the overall security posture of the system. This report serves as a key tool for enhancing cybersecurity and preventing potential attacks.


Your Users - an Additional Risk Factor


Attacks on networks through user errors or compromised accounts are not uncommon. If continuous cyberattacks and data theft incidents have taught us anything, it's that the simplest way for a hacker to penetrate a network and steal data or money is through its users.


Compromised credentials are the most common attack vector among all reported data breaches. Part of the penetration testing task is addressing security threats caused by user mistakes. A penetration tester will attempt to guess passwords of discovered accounts using brute force attacks and gain access to systems and applications. While device compromise can lead to security breaches, in the real world, attackers typically leverage lateral movement to ultimately access critical assets.


Phishing simulation is another common method to test your network users' security. There are several types of phishing, including email phishing, social media phishing, phone calls, and SMS messages. Each of these methods aims to deceive the victim into taking actions that are not in their best interest.

Phishing attacks employ personalized communication methods to convince the target to perform actions that may compromise their security. For instance, a phishing attack may persuade a user that it's time for a "mandatory password change" and, therefore, they should click on an embedded email link. Whether the click launches a ransomware program or simply opens the door for future data theft by malicious actors, phishing remains one of the easiest ways to exploit network users. Over 90% of all cyberattacks start with phishing.


Historical Background: The Evolution of Penetration Testing


The history of penetration testing dates back to 1967 when the US government decided to establish "Tiger Teams" to identify vulnerabilities in computer networks. Defined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology as "simulated cyberattacks to identify system or network vulnerabilities before they are exploited by real attackers," it became an integral part of cybersecurity.


In 1972, James P. Anderson made a significant contribution by defining the primary stages of penetration testing. By 1974, a penetration test of the MULTICS system by the US Department of Defense revealed numerous vulnerabilities, confirming the importance of such tests.


In 1995, the SATAN tool (later renamed SANTA) was developed for network analysis. In 2001, OWASP was founded, and in 2003, they published their first penetration testing framework. Today, penetration testing is democratized, utilizing automated scanners and efficient tools like Kali Linux.


The Importance of Penetration Testing for Companies


Penetration testing is a crucial component for ensuring a company's network security.

Through these tests, a company can identify:

  • Security gaps: Penetration testing helps identify weaknesses in digital infrastructure and applications, enabling the implementation of measures to address them before hackers exploit them.

  • Compliance issues: Penetration testing helps assess information security compliance and identify violations of security standards and policies.

  • IT team response time: Testing allows determining how quickly the team responds to successful attacks and mitigates their impact.

  • Potential real-world data breaches or cyberattacks: By analyzing potential attack consequences, a company can take preventive measures and prepare for real-world scenarios.

  • Practical prevention advice: Penetration testing provides specific advice and recommendations for enhancing security.


By conducting penetration tests, companies can proactively identify and address security vulnerabilities, ultimately enhancing their overall cybersecurity posture and mitigating potential risks.


Based on the analysis of the PENTERA report "The State of Pentesting Survey 2023," it can be highlighted that:


The most common reasons for engaging external penetration testers are:

  • Obtaining an objective perspective (58%).

  • Applying diverse skills to the environment (50%).

  • Compliance with compliance requirements (45%).

  • Lack of qualified personnel in-house (38%).



These findings underscore the value that organizations place on external penetration testing teams for their expertise, objectivity, and ability to address compliance needs, especially in the face of internal resource constraints.


Companies are most concerned about security issues related to:

  • Ransomware (72%).

  • Phishing (70%).

  • Improper configuration (58%).

  • International threats (54%).

  • Lack of patching (49%).




Additionally, there are five more categories. Interestingly, this year there is more attention given to malware-related issues compared to last year, and less focus is placed on phishing concerns.


Penetration Testing in Compliance


When your systems undergo penetration testing, security experts prepare a penetration testing report. This report documents vulnerabilities as well as measures taken to address them. After vulnerabilities are remediated, re-scanning is conducted to verify that all weaknesses are addressed and your system is secure. Such testing and certification are mandatory for various industries to achieve a certain level of cybersecurity compliance at both local and global levels for their businesses.


Which businesses require compliance?


Certain industries, especially those dealing with sensitive customer information, require vulnerability assessments and penetration testing as a mandatory rule. Among them are:


  • HIPAA for healthcare institutions

  • PCI-DSS for companies handling payments

  • RBI-ISMS for banks and financial institutions that are not banks

  • SOC 2 for service organizations

  • ISO 27001 for any organization aiming to formalize its business in the field of information security.


Whether you manage a SaaS platform or are responsible for information security in a healthcare institution, it is impossible to avoid the threat of cyberattacks. The best course of action is to identify vulnerabilities before hackers do.


Here are some benefits of compliance penetration testing:

  • You can optimize your security posture by addressing the latest vulnerabilities.

  • Eliminate misconfigurations and vulnerable network components.

  • Be prepared for any security audit.

  • Build trust among clients.


Such an approach allows you not only to protect your system from potential threats but also to demonstrate your readiness to organize information security to your clients.


What is Vulnerability Scanning?


When selecting the type of security testing, a company typically decides between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning. Vulnerability scanning involves the use of an automated tool to identify high-level vulnerabilities in your application.


Penetration Testing for ISO 27001 Compliance


The ISO 27001 standard provides detailed actions for organizations to ensure the security of their assets, encompassing a series of controls for IT security. Within the risk management process in ISO 27001, penetration testing can be used to confirm that implemented security measures are functioning as planned.


Penetration Testing for SOC 2 Compliance


Penetration Testing for SOC 2 Compliance involves rigorous assessments to meet strict security standards. It simulates real cyber attacks to identify vulnerabilities, helping companies strengthen their security controls. The goal is to ensure data protection and demonstrate compliance with SOC 2 requirements, enhancing trust with customers and stakeholders.


Conclusion

In conclusion, penetration testing, as one of the key components of cybersecurity and security standards, plays an extremely important role in the modern digital world. Identifying vulnerabilities in systems and applications enhances protection against cyberattacks and ensures compliance requirements are met. Conducting penetration tests becomes a necessary step for any company looking to safeguard its information and provide a high level of security for its clients. It is important to remember that preventing cyber threats and defending against them is an ongoing process, and thoroughness in conducting penetration tests can significantly reduce risks and maintain the trust of clients and partners.


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