Penetration testing is used by many businesses to improve their overall cybersecurity. With the increasing number of cyber-attacks, data breaches and risks associated with protecting sensitive information, organisations must take a proactive approach to protect their digital assets. A critical component of this strategy involves penetration testing, which helps identify vulnerabilities before cybercriminals can exploit them.

Defining Penetration Testing

Penetration testing, also known as “pen testing”, is a simulated cyber-attack on a computer system, network, or web application to identify and evaluate its security vulnerabilities. It involves using various techniques and tools to mimic the tactics of real-world cybercriminals, allowing businesses to assess their current security and identify areas needing improvement.

 As cybercrime is becoming more sophisticated, more and more businesses are using penetration testing to assess their systems and protocols. A recent study found that about 77% of companies use penetration testing to evaluate whether their current controls in place are adequate for responding to a cyber attack.

Benefits of penetration testing

Penetration testing is widely used because of how helpful it is and the insights it provides. Conducting a penetration test offers numerous benefits for businesses. Some key advantages include:

Penetration testing is widely used because of how helpful it is and the insights it provides. Conducting a penetration test offers numerous benefits for businesses. Some key advantages include:

  1. Identifying security vulnerabilities: Identifying and addressing vulnerabilities in your organisation can prevent unauthorised access, data leaks and other potential security threats. By proactively evaluating the security of your systems and networks, you can implement fixes or mitigations before attackers target these weak points. Having a third-party expert can also be useful as it brings a pair of fresh eyes and can result in a more comprehensive report. The penetration testing can then highlight which areas require more resources to operate safely with less threats.
  2. Preventing data breaches: Cybercriminals are continually seeking opportunities to access sensitive information. By conducting a thorough penetration test, you will be able to understand how a cyberattack works and develop strategies to respond to it. Penetration testing can also help your IT team better understand the security systems in your company and if there is any old data or software that needs updates. There are numerous situations in which penetration testing could have prevented significant security breaches. One of the most known ones is the 2016 Bangladesh Bank breach. One vulnerability allowed the hackers to steal $81 million. This may have been prevented if the company used penetration testing effectively to detect and address vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, the hackers used stolen credentials that allowed them to request a large amount of funds to be sent over to multiple bank accounts. The bank identified the problem only because of a printer error.
  3. Maintaining customer trust: Security breaches can damage your organisation’s reputation and weaken your relationship with customers. By demonstrating a commitment to maintaining high-security standards, you help to reinforce trust and build confidence in your clients. All stakeholders are happy with strong security that can protect their sensitive information against cybercrime. Fewer security breaches will also allow the company to compete easier in the market as customers have one less reason to choose a competitor company.

After the Optus data breach, hundreds of customers moved to other providers as they felt betrayed and enraged with the company for allowing their personal information to be leaked. The consequences of the data breach were felt for many months after, as the compromised documents included driver’s licences and passports that were used illegally.

Tips for conducting a penetration test

When conducting a penetration test, it is advisable to follow some strategies that can help the company achieve the most accurate and insightful results. Some recommendations include:

  1. Setting clear goals: Establish clear objectives in advance to ensure the testing process is focused and efficient. By establishing clear goals and objectives, an organisation can specify what they hope to achieve with the testing and adjust the scope and methodology of the process to meet these goals. This helps ensure that the testing is targeted and provides valuable feedback on the security of the system.
  2. Maintaining open communication: Include relevant stakeholders in the penetration testing process, such as security teams and IT staff. This helps foster a collaborative environment and allows for more effective problem-solving. During penetration testing, several challenges may surface that could affect the overall results. These challenges may range from technical glitches to misunderstandings about the scope of the testing. To ensure that such challenges are identified and addressed efficiently, open communication must be maintained at all times.
  3. Selecting the right methodology: Choose the most appropriate methodology for your organisation, such as black-box, grey-box or white-box testing. Black-box is conducted as an external party, with limited information, based only on what is seen from the outside. Grey-box is conducted with limited information, creating a scenario where a hacker somehow accessed internal data. In a white-box scenario it is assumed that the criminal has full access to company information and systems. When choosing a methodology, it is important to consider several factors such as the budget, the timeline and the level of technical expertise required. Some tests may be more suited for certain types of systems or industries. For instance, a financial institution may need a methodology that focuses on compliance with security regulations.
  4. Performing regular testing: Penetration testing should not be a one-off event. Periodic testing ensures that newly uncovered vulnerabilities or newly implemented security measures are correctly identified. Regular testing will also enable companies to keep up with the latest laws and regulations as well as the techniques cybercriminals are using.

Limitations of penetration testing

While penetration testing can be an effective way to enhance cyber security, it has its limitations and disadvantages that should be considered before undertaking such tests.

Costly and time consuming

One of the main limitations of penetration testing is that it can be time-consuming and resource-intensive.

A business has to find a qualified penetration testing provider or hire professionals that have experience with how to carry it out. This provider will typically charge a significant fee for the testing, which is usually in the thousands, depending on the complexity of the system being tested. The testing process can take several weeks or even months to complete, especially for large organisations. This can be a significant disruption to business operations as the testing can involve shutting down some systems or services temporarily.

Once the testing is complete, the business may need to invest additional resources into fixing the vulnerabilities and security risks identified during the testing process. This can include hiring additional staff members or implementing new security measures, all of which can add to the overall cost of the testing process.

Failing is also expensive

Just like conducting the test, the failure of penetration testing can be costly and lead to misleading results. Unsuccessful penetration testing could give a false sense of security, leading to an organisation not taking necessary measures to strengthen its security. This could ultimately result in a successful cyber-attack, which can be financially and reputationally damaging.

Penetration testing, when not appropriately planned and executed, could result in damage to the network, system or application, which may lead to business disruptions, financial losses and potential legal troubles. Fixing the damages caused by an insufficient penetration testing exercise can be expensive, leading to additional costs and time in trying to repair or restore the damaged system. As such, though the testing is expensive – failing to conduct a proper test can be more expensive.

Setting the right conditions can be hard

One of the reasons why penetration testing can be difficult is because experts need to set the right conditions for testing. This involves designing scenarios that replicate real-world situations, as well as selecting appropriate tools and techniques for the job. Moreover, the expert needs to have knowledge and experience working with different types of systems and networks, as well as being familiar with the latest hacking trends and threats.

Another challenge for penetration testing is that it requires a delicate balance between detecting vulnerabilities and avoiding damaging the system or network being tested. While ethical hackers are trained to avoid causing harm, there is always a risk of unintended consequences such as disrupting critical services or data loss. If the attack is executed a little too well it might lock files or even delete them in the worst-case scenario.

Please remember

Despite the high cost and inconvenience, penetration testing is crucial for businesses to ensure the security and integrity of their systems and data. It is important to note that penetration testing is not a foolproof method for detecting all vulnerabilities within a company’s systems. The tests themselves may be limited by their reliance on known attack techniques and may not be able to uncover new or emerging threats. Even though they are not perfect at preventing cyberattacks, no solution is 100% effective.

To further improve their cybersecurity, our clients use Polonious. We assist them in carrying out efficient and effective audits that can identify if the current processes abide by laws and regulations and if there are weaknesses that need to be addressed. We also help them identify any suspicious transactions by allowing integrations with monitoring software and store all their case information securely online. That way they can keep track of the progress and understand which areas need further testing. Do you want to learn more about our system? Are you looking to conduct a faster fraud investigation? Reach out and we will be happy to show you how we can help you!