Why Penetration Testing is Important in 2022: Data Breaches on The Rise

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Ankit PahujaMarketing Lead & Evangelist at Astra Security

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

In 2021, the world saw a significant increase in data breaches. What was once considered a rare event has now become commonplace, with businesses and consumers alike struggling to keep their information safe.

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Why Penetration Testing is Important in 2022: Data Breaches on The Rise
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Many experts are pointing to the lack of penetration testing as one of the main reasons for these breaches. In this article, we will explore penetration testing in-depth and explain why it’s so important.

Importance of penetration testing

When you want to find security flaws in your systems and understand how a hacker will try to breach them, penetration testing is the way to go.

Penetration testing is vital since it enables firms to find security flaws in their systems before hackers can utilize them. You may significantly reduce the danger of a data breach by identifying and fixing these security loopholes.

Data breach statistics for 2021

As per the Cost of a Data Breach Report 2021 by IBM:

  • The most common attack vector was compromised credentials while the costliest attack vector was compromised business emails
  • Healthcare institutions continued to be the most targeted industry for the eleventh year in a row
  • The average cost per record stolen was found to be $161 while the total cost of a data breach was $4.24 million on average
  • Data breaches took an average of 212 days to get identified and then an additional 75 days to fully contain them – a week more than the average of 2020.

Benefits of penetration testing

  • Helps meet compliance requirements
  • Improves patch management (reducing the number of zero-day exploits)
  • Helps to improve security awareness training for employees
  • Saves money by early detection of flaws and remediations, hence preventing costly data breaches
  • Allows companies to prioritize security spending based on risk assessment
  • Reduces system downtimes
  • Makes it easier to detect insider threats and malicious behaviour from employees
  • Ability to detect whether your accounts/systems are currently compromised or not

Penetration testing basics

Penetration testing is the detection of security weaknesses in a website, network, computer or application. It essentially uses the same methods as hackers but with consent and in a test environment.

There are two ways to perform penetration testing:

  • Automated penetration testing: This approach involves the use of tools or scripts that can automatically scan your system for vulnerabilities and then report them back to you. This approach is usually faster and cheaper than manual pentesting.
  • Manual penetration testing: This approach is where a tester uses their expertise in cybersecurity along with various tools (manually) to find security weaknesses within your systems, networks, etc. It’s usually more expensive than automated testing because it takes longer and also requires human expertise.

The difference between automated and manual penetration testing is that automated testing can be done at scale, whereas manual testing is more targeted and requires a higher level of expertise.

Penetration testing is primarily done to find vulnerabilities that are not already identified. It means that a penetration test will only be as effective as the number of bugs found in the software or application being tested. So, ideally, you should use both automated and manual testing to get the most comprehensive coverage.

It's recommended that you use automated tools first and later perform manual testing to check for any false positives and false negatives reported by automated tools.

  • False-positive: The test reports a vulnerability that does not exist in the system
  • False-negative: The test does not report a vulnerability that exists in the system

3 types of penetration testing

  • Black-box testing: The penetration tester is given no information about the system other than its name. This is generally preferred as it is used to test public-facing systems with a hacker-style approach.
  • White-box testing: The penetration tester has full knowledge of the internal workings of the system, including passwords, user names, network layout, etc.
  • Grey-box testing: The penetration tester is given only some knowledge of the system and its internal workings so that they can test for vulnerabilities more easily than with black-box testing methods (e.g., through source code reviews).

5 stages of penetration testing

1. Planning: The penetration tester will plan the testing objectives and scope with the client. They’ll also decide on which tools, techniques and approaches to use for this particular test. This stage is crucial because it sets up everything else that follows in terms of success or failure; so get this wrong at your own peril!

2. Reconnaissance: Reconnaissance is where the tester gathers as much information about the target system and its components before launching any attacks on it. They’ll use tools like Google searches, social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn), etc.

3. Scanning: Scanning involves using tools such as Nessus/Nmap to find open ports on hosts running services such as web servers or mail servers. The goal here would be to identify these open ports so that we can exploit their vulnerabilities later down the line.

4. Gaining access and maintaining it: This stage is where the fun begins as we begin hacking into systems, stealing passwords/usernames, gaining access to databases etc., pivoting through multiple networks to achieve our goals (which is usually either getting data out of an organization or destroying everything they hold dear). We’ll also use tools such as Metasploit Framework which comes with more than 900 pre-built modules that help us do all sorts of things from creating backdoors on remote machines to installing malware. The goal here would be maintaining access for future use if necessary.

5. Reporting: Reporting involves documenting your findings so that others can use them too. This can take many forms but typically will include screenshots and evidence of the findings from the test as well as remediation tips based on expert knowledge. The goal is to cover all the details and provide the full picture so that no mistakes are made later on.

What can you test for with penetration testing?

Many different types of tests can be performed on a system or network, but some common ones include:

Network penetration testing

This type of testing focuses on identifying vulnerabilities within internal networks such as misconfigured firewalls or routers that allow traffic to pass through without being properly inspected by these devices first before it gets sent along its way towards other systems within your network perimeter. It also looks for weaknesses such as weak passwords which might allow an attacker easy access into your sensitive data centres where they could steal valuable information about clients/customers etc.

Mobile application penetration testing

Mobile application penetration testing focuses on finding vulnerabilities in mobile applications that are either publicly available (like Facebook) or used internally. These applications are used by companies to help their employees get work done more efficiently from anywhere at any time without having access back onto their corporate networks directly via VPN tunnels between devices running those apps and the server hosting them remotely – outside the reachability of most firewalls.

Web application penetration testing

Similar to mobile application penetration testing, web application testing instead focuses on web applications that are hosted either internally or externally (in the cloud) and accessed by employees/customers using their browsers. The tester will try and exploit vulnerabilities within these web applications such as SQL injections, cross-site scripting attacks etc. to gain access to sensitive data like passwords and credit card numbers.

Social engineering attacks

Social engineering attacks are not really a “type” of penetration testing per se, but more of an attack vector that can be used during any stage of a pentest in order to get unsuspecting users (like system administrators) to give up sensitive information like passwords and usernames without knowing that they’re doing anything wrong in the first place. The most common type of social engineering attack is email phishing.

Operating system and application vulnerability scanning

This type of scanning is used to identify known vulnerabilities within specific versions of operating systems (like Windows XP) and/or applications like Adobe PDF Reader. These are often found by hackers who release them publicly so that others can exploit them more easily without having to go through all of the work themselves first before getting into someone else’s system or network.

Database vulnerability scanning

Database vulnerability scanning is used specifically on databases such as Oracle, MySQL and Microsoft SQL Server to identify known vulnerabilities within those specific types of databases so that attackers can gain easy access into them.

Cloud security scanning

Finally, cloud security scanning is used to identify vulnerabilities within public cloud platforms such as Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform. These platforms have become very popular over the past few years because they offer on-demand scalability and elasticity for companies who need to quickly provision resources (like servers) for a short period of time in order to handle a sudden increase in demand – without having to go out and buy/lease their own hardware equipment and have it all set up and ready to go ahead of time.

Penetration testing checklist

  1. Perform a network scan to identify live systems
  2. Identify open ports and services on systems
  3. Attempt to access systems using common usernames and passwords
  4. Use automated tools to attempt brute force attacks against systems
  5. Use exploit kits to identify vulnerabilities in target systems
  6. Try to escalate privileges on compromised systems
  7. Capture screenshots and videos of exploits being executed
  8. Report findings to management

The bottom line

As data breaches continue to make the headlines, organizations are starting to realize that they need to do more than just rely on antivirus software and firewalls to protect their networks from hackers.

Like any other security control, penetration testing is not perfect and should never be considered a replacement for other security controls, but it does provide some level of assurance about your organization's cyber risk management program. You get to identify vulnerabilities that could lead to a data breach, which is ultimately what everyone wants to avoid.

Although there are many types of penetration tests available, they all have one thing in common: they're used to find weaknesses within a target system so that organizations can better understand their cyber risk exposure levels before deciding on how much money they want to invest into fixing those issues (if at all).

Ankit Pahuja

Marketing Lead & Evangelist at Astra Security

Ankit is the Marketing Lead & Evangelist at Astra Security. Ever since his adulthood (literally, he was 20 years old), he began finding vulnerabilities in websites & network infrastructures. Starting his professional career as a software engineer at one of the unicorns enables him in bringing "engineering in marketing" to reality. Working actively in the cybersecurity space for more than 2 years makes him the perfect T-shaped marketing professional. Ankit is an avid speaker in the security space and has delivered various talks in top companies, early-age startups, and online events.

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