• Kseniya Lukyanova

Cyber Security: Why do we need regular penetration tests and vulnerability scans?

In their search for vulnerabilities, hackers are constantly changing their tools and tactics, continually evolving their approaches. To understand whether your cybersecurity measures are working or not, they also need to be constantly tested for strength. Simply put - trying to hack, almost for real. Only in the case of infrastructure penetration testing, or penetration testing, hacking is completely under your control, and a successful attempt will not be a threat.

The main goal of a penetration test is to find vulnerabilities in the client's infrastructure and applications that could potentially be exploited by attackers. In addition, penetration testing helps to understand how effective the developed IT security policies are and whether they should be improved.

Many commercial and government organizations conduct these checks regularly to ensure that their systems are well protected. Penetration testing is an investment in security, as holes that are not closed in time can lead to multi-million dollar losses in the event of a successful attack.

Also, information about leaks often gets into the press and undermines the trust of customers and partners. But leaks not only spoil the image, they are subject to fines. The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) applies to these citizens of European countries, companies are fined for such leaks. In this case, the amount of the fine is calculated based on the income of the parent company.

Types of testing

The two main types of penetration testing are internal and external. In the case of internal testing, the performer operates inside the client's infrastructure with his laptop and, for example, tries to elevate the user's privileges.

In the case of external testing, the attack is carried out from the outside. At the same time, experts distinguish between three main methods - "black box", "gray box" and "white box".

  • The "black box" method - the performer knows nothing about the system and tries to hack, relying on his tools and open information. In this way, the actions of ordinary intruders are imitated. In this case, the company checks how prepared its systems are to repel typical attacks.

  • "Gray box" method - the contractor knows the data about the infrastructure. This is an imitation of targeted attacks and attacks involving insiders - people working for a company and transmitting information to cybercriminals. In this way, you can, for example, understand if the system for preventing data leakage due to the fault of employees is working.

  • “White box” method - the testing specialist owns all the information and even the source code. This method is used to check whether the system is resistant to hacking by employees of the administrator's or developer's level.

There are also international standards for such testing - for example, [OWASP Testing Guide].

Pentest is aimed at identifying vulnerabilities, but it is not the main task.

Hackers look for security flaws - but only to exploit them to achieve the goals of the penetration test. For example, in the case of external testing, the task is usually to find the maximum number of ways to penetrate the organization's local network; in the case of an internal one, determine the maximum possible level of privileges that an attacker can obtain. The customer of the penetration test can additionally set other tasks (for example, to demonstrate the ability to gain access to specific business systems).

Pentest can be useful for any organization, regardless of the field of activity. However, the work should be carried out when the organization has already ensured comprehensive security of the infrastructure, its protection from cyberattacks and protection measures are implemented. This means that the level of maturity of information security processes in an organization must be sufficiently high. It is especially important to conduct penetration testing for large companies with distributed infrastructure since it is difficult to secure a sufficiently complex system without verifying the effectiveness of its protection.

Modern approaches to business organization imply the assessment and management of business risks. Company leaders clearly understand which of the risks are most significant for their business today. Many of these risks can be realized as a result of a cyberattack (for example, theft of money from company accounts or the failure of an important contract by deleting files on a director's computer).

The top management of the company can identify these key risks to the team of pen-testers during the work, and they, in turn, will check in practice how and under what conditions the risks can be realized. Experts will give advice on how to set up the infrastructure and what protection systems to use in order to eliminate or minimize these particular risks.

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are often confused.

Sometimes business owners buy one when they really need another. Gary Glover, VP SECURITY ASSESSMENTS, CISSP, CISA, QSA, PA-QSA explains in detail in his article what is the difference.

A vulnerability scan is an automated high-level test that searches for and reports potential vulnerabilities. A penetration test is a detailed hands-on examination performed by a real person trying to find and exploit weaknesses in your system.

What is a vulnerability scan?

Also known as vulnerability assessments, vulnerability scans assess computers, systems, and networks for security weaknesses, also known as vulnerabilities. These scans are typically automated and give a beginning look at what could possibly be exploited.

High-quality vulnerability scans can search for over 50,000 vulnerabilities and are required as per PCI DSS, FFIEC, and GLBA mandates.

Vulnerability scans can be instigated manually or run on a scheduled basis and will complete in as little as several minutes to as long as several hours.

Vulnerability scans are a passive approach to vulnerability management because they don’t go beyond reporting on vulnerabilities that are detected. It’s up to the business owner or their IT staff to patch weaknesses on a prioritized basis, or confirm that a discovered vulnerability is a false positive, then rerun the scan.

To ensure the most important vulnerabilities are being scanned for, vulnerability scans should only be conducted by a PCI Approved Scanning Vendor (ASV).

What is a penetration test?

A penetration test simulates a hacker attempting to get into a business system through hands-on research and the exploitation of vulnerabilities. Actual analysts, often called ethical hackers, search for vulnerabilities and then try to prove that they can be exploited. Using methods like password cracking, buffer overflow, and SQL injection, they attempt to compromise and extract data from a network in a non-damaging way.

Penetration tests are an extremely detailed and effective approach to finding and remediating vulnerabilities in software applications and networks. A good way to illustrate the benefits of a penetration test would be to use an analogy from the medical world. When something is wrong inside your body you can go get an X-ray to help diagnose your problem. The image produced by a simple X-ray machine can detect an obvious break in bone structure but is fuzzy and not good for seeing soft tissue damage. If you really want to find out in detail what might be going on inside a body, you need to have an MRI has done that results in a detailed 3D model of bone and soft tissues together. That is similar to the difference between a simple vulnerability scan (fuzzy X-ray) and a penetration test (detailed MRI). If you really want to find deep issues in your application or network, you need a penetration test. And if you modify your systems and software over time, a regular penetration test is a great way to ensure continued security.

Which is better? A vulnerability scan or penetration test?

Both tests work together to encourage optimal network and application security. Vulnerability scans are great weekly, monthly, or quarterly insight into your network security (the quick X-ray), while penetration tests are a very thorough way to deeply examine your network security (the periodic detailed MRI). Yes, penetration tests are expensive, but you are paying a professional to examine every nook and cranny of your business the way a real world attacker would, to find a possibility of compromise.

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