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What is penetration testing and why is it important?

9th September 2020

5 Min read

The threat landscape is constantly evolving with cyberattacks becoming more complex. Trusting the effectiveness of your IT security controls is crucial to mitigate risks and malicious access to your systems and the information they store. Penetration testing is one of the most effective methods to gain assurance of your IT security.

Initiating a penetration test will give you the ability to develop a robust security strategy and remediate your vulnerabilities. You’ll gain confidence in your IT security knowing you’re keeping up with the latest threats affecting your systems, and understand where remedial action is needed.


What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing is the process of breaching some or all of an IT system’s security using similar techniques and tools that a malicious attacker would use. Penetration testing is primarily used to gain assurance in the effectiveness of IT security controls and identify vulnerabilities. Penetration testers are armed with the task of finding methods that an attacker can use to gain access to your computer network(s) and sensitive information.

A common misconception about penetration testing is its aim. The aim of carrying out a penetration test is to determine how safe your organisation is from malicious attempts to break into your system(s) and breach, steal, damage or destroy digital property.

If you have a good understanding of your IT security controls, you may know some of the weaknesses your penetration test will find. In this case, the test can confirm your suspicions. This will depend on the maturity of your organisation’s security strategy and how much internal investment you put into your security. Primarily, penetration testing is used to discover weaknesses that you weren’t aware existed.


Why and when do you need penetration testing?

Penetration tests aren’t suitable for any IT environment. For a small business or the average home network, penetration testing is an unnecessary cost. The high-level skillset and tools required to assess IT systems using this method wouldn’t be viable on a small scale. Medium, large or complex systems are the types of environment that need penetration testing. These environments may consist of multiple servers or a large number of machines which store personal data, corporate data and sensitive information.

If you’ve had your systems in place for a while or have made significant changes, you might want to carry out a penetration test to determine its security posture. You’ll learn whether your security is as effective as you expected or if it needs improvement to mitigate attacks.

You can also carry out a penetration test to ensure you’re compliant with data regulations. Personally Identifiable Information (PII) must be protected and secure within IT environments to ensure data breach or loss doesn’t occur. Ultimately, penetration testing helps to improve your overall IT security strategy to protect your brand, value and reputation against cyber threats.


What are the key considerations?

It’s important to know that the assessment carried out is thorough and comprehensive. It must be technically accurate and cover the required scope of your IT controls to ensure your primary security concerns are assessed. This will depend on the budget you assign to penetration testing and the value you seek to get out of the assessment. You should consider which areas you care about and the level of depth required to assess each one to ensure you can maximise your investment in testing.

Legal issues are of high importance when conducting penetration testing. The testing company will know how to gain access to your IT systems and the weak spots within your security across the organisation that have been discovered in your test. You should gain written information specifying which machines have been tested, the techniques that have to be used, when the test is initiated and who conducted the test. Your service provider should seek written authorisation from you that confirms these details.


How is penetration testing carried out?

Penetration testing is typically carried out by external, specialist testers. Penetration testers know how to initiate an attack using the tools and techniques malicious actors use. You should choose a trusted cyber security specialist with the knowledge and skills to target the right technologies and gain assurance in your desired areas. Testing identifies weak security controls, misconfigurations and vulnerabilities within IT environments. This can include network devices, applications, remote access solutions, mobile devices, cloud and more.

At Sentrium, instigating a penetration test consists of the following steps:

  • You approach us with a requirement to understand your IT estate in-depth
  • We determine the assurance you want to gain from conducting a penetration test and why you want this information
  • We plan the best way to conduct the test that will uncover weaknesses and vulnerabilities in your systems
  • We execute an attack on your target network
  • We create and issue your report based on the issues identified during the assessment detailing where they appeared and why they occurred.

Like Sentrium, most testers are independent third parties that are brought in to purely review your IT infrastructure. The report provided following the attack explains the risks in your systems and assigns a level of priority to them. The report will cover the vulnerabilities found and how to remediate them effectively. Penetration testing is a heuristic process and the final report should document recommended improvements; you shouldn’t expect to receive a pass or fail result.


What are the next steps?

The remediation guidance in your report shouldn’t be overlooked. These recommendations are made with the overall effectiveness of your security strategy in mind. You should look at the full security journey to ensure you’ve made long-term fixes that mitigate risks. The security process should be ongoing to ensure you keep up with the ever-changing ways attackers are exploiting vulnerabilities.

With the penetration testing report, your business can approach another party to fix the security downfalls or handle it internally if you have the means to do so effectively. Once your fixes have been made, it can be beneficial to conduct a retest to see if the fixes have been effective in preventing and mitigating the threat to your systems.

Sentrium is committed to helping you protect your technology, information and people. Our penetration testing experts have a deep understanding of how attackers operate. We use this knowledge to help your business mitigate risks to your IT systems and networks. We want to help you improve your overall security strategy to protect your brand reputation, value and property.


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