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Penetration Testing 101: What, How, and Why

If you think it’s tough for a skilled bad actor to hack through your company’s IT network, think again!


Cyber attacks are on the rise. Companies of all sizes need to ensure that their sensitive business information and IT infrastructure remains secure at all times, especially those organisations that operate in the financial services and tech sectors.

There are several measures that IT leaders can take to bolster their organisation’s cybersecurity, with vulnerability scans and penetration testing being some of the most important ones. In this article, we share more about penetration testing and why it’s important for your organisation to undertake such measures regularly.


What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing (also known as pen testing or ethical hacking) is the process of closely evaluating your system’s susceptibility to cyber threats and identifying the underlying vulnerabilities (such as configuration errors, design flaws, software bugs etc.) that could potentially allow hackers to infiltrate your system and take advantage of the situation.

By employing ethical hackers to perform penetration testing on your behalf, your company can detect potential security loopholes and develop solutions to fix them before a bad actor could detect them. Once the vulnerabilities have been discovered ethical hackers will try to exploit them and try to access sensitive business information, hack the employees’ user accounts, or take control of the organisation’s private business network.

Think of it like a controlled, simulated cyberattack that can help identify the security flaws and issues within an organisation’s network, software applications, or devices that could potentially lead to a hacking attempt or data breach, and eventually result in a financial loss. Common types of penetration testing include external network security testing, internal network security testing, mobile application security testing, and web application security testing.


How is Penetration Testing Performed?

Penetration testers make use of several pen-testing tools and automated processes that help them discover vulnerabilities and look for issues like software bugs, weak data encryption, and pieces of sensitive business information revealed within application codes as hard-coded values, among many other things. For doing this, pen testers would typically perform the tests within well-defined parameters and limit the scope of their test, so that they can focus on specific elements within the organisation’s networks, systems, applications, and any internal/external physical structures being used for day-to-day operations.

Penetration tests are usually conducted as per a strict set of rules that are mutually agreed upon by both the organisation that needs to perform the test and the team of ethical hackers. It’s recommended that such tests should be customised to suit the organisation’s specific needs and business goals. In addition to this, the in-charge of the exercise should create flags that the penetration testers need to capture in order to complete the assessment. Once a thorough assessment has been completed, a detailed report should be shared with the organisation clearly stating what systems, networks, software, or applications were tested for vulnerabilities and what was the result of the tests.


Various Phases of Penetration Testing Process

The penetration testing life cycle typically consists of the following five phases:

  1. Reconnaissance (collection of all the necessary information before starting the tests)
  2. Enumeration (identification of the possible entry points into the system to confirm the vulnerability)
  3. Vulnerability Analysis (defining, locating, and classifying the vulnerabilities in an application, network, or system)
  4. Exploitation (compromising a system’s security and exposing it to further attacks or exploits)
  5. Reporting (documentation of every step that led to a successful penetration during the test and other important findings)


What Makes Penetration Testing Important for an Organisation’s Cybersecurity Strategy?

Identifying Risks

While implementing new systems for upgrading existing ones it’s common for vulnerabilities and bugs to appear. If not fixed well in time, they could be exploited by hackers who always try to stay one step ahead of the developers in discovering vulnerabilities.

Penetration testing offers key insights into which systems applications or channels used by your organisation are most at risk. This way you can uncover major weaknesses that your IT team may not even have considered yet, something that bad actors could easily identify and exploit if given a chance.

Fixing the Vulnerabilities and Strengthening Security Measures

Based on the results of penetration testing you can determine your current level of protection when it comes to cyber security. Consequently, you can prioritise the fixing of these vulnerabilities depending on their level of importance, their effect on your operations, and how they could affect the overall performance of your systems. Once you have a final list of suggestions ordered by descending level of priority, fixing them in a timely manner will help you build reliable frameworks for supporting information security. It will extend your cybersecurity strategy and provide new tasks for your IT team to work upon in the future, aiming to strengthen your cyber security strategy in the long run and also prioritise your future investments in this direction.

Being Ready to Handle Cyberattacks

Not being prepared for a cyberattack is the worst situation to be in. Penetration testing can help you examine whether your organisation’s cyber security policies are actually effective in case a malicious entity decides to infiltrate your systems and take control of them.

Needless to say, it is crucial for an organisation to ensure that its IT department knows how to handle any kind of cyber threat. This way you can not only detect and prevent cyberattacks within time, but also get up and running again as soon as possible, in case a cybersecurity incident actually happens.

Ensuring Business Continuity

When it comes to cybersecurity, contingency planning is the key. In fact, it’s reported that more than half of the businesses don’t know what they would do if a data breach happens. In such a situation, it can be costly to contain it and recover from it, not to mention the cost of business lost due to supply chain disruption, which keeps adding up over time. And if such a situation is not managed effectively, it can be difficult to maintain business continuity.

Penetration testing will help you in contingency planning and give your organisation important insights on how to reduce the magnitude of this loss and the resulting business disruption after a security breach. This is why it’s a good idea to invest in penetration testing in order to protect your organisation’s best interests and ensure business continuity in the long term.

Testing the Effectiveness of Existing Security Measures

If you are hoping to get critical feedback on the true effectiveness of your existing security protocols and tools that your organisation is using for its day-to-day operations, penetration testing can be very helpful. Even if your IT leadership has adequate confidence in the tools and systems they are using for keeping your IT infrastructure and sensitive data secure, it’s not a good idea to assign a high level of confidence in them until they are thoroughly tested for vulnerability by cybersecurity experts. With the help of penetration testers, you can identify any underlying bugs and misconfigurations that could result in a cyber attack (and eventually financial losses) for your company.

Adhering to Regulations and Guidelines for Cybersecurity and Data Protection

It’s been a while since the UK Data Protection Act and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Act came into force. By now, it’s expected from organisations of all sizes to be aware of the guidelines and be able to maintain the suggested minimum level of cybersecurity and data protection compliance at all costs.

If an organisation fails to conduct regular penetration tests and is unable to comply with a host of other requirements, it will not only risk its business operations but also face action by the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) and attract substantial fines for non-compliance. Needless to say, the impact of such heavy fines can be a lot for small businesses to handle, not to mention the loss incurred due to the data breach itself. 

Therefore, it is important that you comply with all the relevant technical and organisational guidelines, and data protection principles in order to keep the data you hold and process with utmost security. Penetration testing can not only help you maintain the level of data protection compliance expected from all the organisations in your category, but also improve upon the level of information security protocols you may currently have in place.

Avoid Losing Business to Rivalry And Competition

Losing your company’s data can be disastrous, even worse if all your sensitive business information ends up in the hands of your rivals or competitors. Even if your competitors are not directly responsible for a cyberattack, they could potentially acquire this data indirectly from cybercriminals who like to publish the stolen data on the dark web (and even public websites in some cases), hoping to extract money from the data owners or their business competitors. In fact, you may never even get to know what happened to your data after the data breach, and your competition may silently benefit from it, while you struggle to recover from the losses incurred as a result of it. By doing risk assessment with the help of penetration testers, you can avoid such a nightmare and ensure all your hard work of all these years doesn’t get wasted, just to put your rivals or competitors ahead in the game.

Avoid Losing Business Reputation, Customers, and Public Relations

As a business, you know how much effort goes into developing trust, brand identity, public relations, and most importantly, a loyal clientele or customer base. Security breaches can not only compromise your business operations, but also lead to the loss of your clientele or loyal customers.

Apart from this, it can also harm your business reputation and public relation to the point it becomes difficult for your business to make a comeback, despite all the odds. In fact, countless companies go out of business every year, unable to recover from the losses after facing a cyber attack. If you wish your business never gets to be in such a dire situation, penetration testing is probably your best bet for protection against cybersecurity incidents.


How Often Should You Conduct Penetration Testing?

Since your IT Department must be regularly updating the existing infrastructure and software, and perhaps also adding new systems and processes, there is always a chance that new vulnerabilities are introduced into your infrastructure. In fact, updates or security patches to existing software components commonly introduce new vulnerabilities that bad actors can take advantage of, until they are identified and fixed by the developers. Not to mention, the cyber threat landscape is always evolving. This means if you have a secure system today, it may not be as secure in a few weeks from now.

Therefore, it’s advisable to conduct penetration testing regularly. The frequency of vulnerability scans and penetration testing would depend on the nature of testing being conducted and also the scope of the test. The minimum we would recommend is to conduct penetration tests twice a year, though we believe you should perform such tests on a monthly basis to scan your critical assets for potential risk factors.

No matter what, never consider pen testing to be a one-time effort. Instead, make it a part of your ongoing security vigilance process, in addition to other types of cyber security measures, aiming to keep all kinds of cyber threats at bay.


Final thoughts

Performing regular penetration tests is one of the best proactive solutions for identifying the biggest underlying weaknesses in your cybersecurity strategy and preventing serious financial losses for your business. However, keep in mind that testing alone isn’t enough and the real work only begins after you discover the vulnerabilities. The crucial next step is to provide your organisation with actionable, advanced security measures.

If you are serious about conducting penetration testing successfully and strengthening your company’s cybersecurity strategy, partner with a cybersecurity consultancy that knows how to protect an organisation like yours from the ever-evolving world of cyber threats.

If you need further guidance or IT support, feel free to contact our team of cybersecurity experts! To learn more about this topic or cybersecurity in general, check out our other blog posts.

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