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INTRODUCTION.

Penetration Testing is a Network Security Service, which is one of several methods used to prevent unauthorised network intrusion.

Penetration testing is also commonly referred to as a pen test (or ethical hacking) and is a method used to perform security testing on a network system used by a business or other organisation.  Pen tests involve a variety of methodologies designed to explore a network to identify potential vulnerabilities and test to ensure the vulnerabilities are real.

When penetration testing is performed properly, the results allow network professionals to make recommendations for fixing problems within the network that were discovered during the pen test.  The main purpose of the pen test is to improve network security and provide protection for the entire network and connected devices against future attacks.

Penetration testing helps to identify vulnerabilities within a network.  This means there is a distinct difference between penetration testing and performing a vulnerability assessment.  The terms penetration testing and vulnerability assessment are often confused and used interchangeably when in reality, the two terms have separate meanings.

A pen test involves methods used to perform legal exploits on a network to prove that a security issue actually exists.   A vulnerability assessment refers to the process of evaluating network systems and the services they provide for potential security problems.

Penetration tests are designed to go above and beyond a vulnerability assessment by performing a simulation of the same scenario a hacker would use to penetrate a network.  During a pen test a vulnerability assessment is performed however, it is only one of several methodologies involved in a comprehensive penetration test.

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WHAT IS NETWORK PENETRATION TESTING?

Penetration testing in simple terms is a simulation of a process a hacker would use to launch an attack on a business network, attached devices, network applications, or a business website. The purpose of the simulation is to identify security issues before hackers can locate them and perform an exploit.

Pen tests identify and confirm actual security issues and report on the manner in which the security issues can be located and exploited by hackers. When performed consistently, a pen test process will inform your business where the weaknesses exist in your security model.  This ensures your business can achieve a balance between maintaining the best network security possible and ensuring ongoing business functions in terms of possible security exploits. The results of a pen test can also assist your business with improved planning when it comes to business continuity and disaster recovery.

Although pen tests simulate methods hackers would use to attack a network, the difference is the pen test is performed without malicious intent.  For this reason, network professionals should have the appropriate authorisation from organisational management before proceeding to conduct a pen test on the network.  Additionally, if the penetration test is not planned correctly and is lacking in components, the end result could be disruption of business continuity and daily operations.

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HOW DOES NETWORK PENETRATION TESTING WORK?

There are several steps that are involved with penetration testing with the planning phase being the most critical.  During the planning phase, network professionals review user documentation, network specifications, various cases of network usage, and other types of relevant documentation.  The information is then used to design a series of test cases for the penetration test.

NETWORK INTERFACES. 

Network professionals harvest information from network interfaces that exist between software and the external environment.  This includes network interfaces, user interfaces, application programming interfaces (APIs), and any other input points that are a prime target for exploits.  If the interfaces are not designed correctly, this creates a perfect loophole for hackers to enter a network. This is the reason identification and documentation of a network interface is an important place to start.

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ERRORS AND USER ALERTS.

Network professionals also take note of all dialogs associated with user alerts and error messages.  This information can be communicated via a software application to an external user.  If the external user has malicious intent, it is important for network professionals to identify how and what information is being revealed to external users.

DISASTER SCENARIO IDENTIFICATION. 

During the planning phase, network professionals also identify various disaster scenarios to get a better idea of what a network attack would entail.  The information gathered originates from specific network threat models and any previously known exploits.

The information gathered during the planning phase helps to guide network professionals through the actual penetration testing process.  The testing process is all about variation and locates different aspects in software applications and the environment that are varied.  The test then involves varying these aspects to determine the response.  This helps to ensure software applications can perform under both reasonable and unreasonable circumstances.

When it comes to overall security, the primary locations where variations can expose security issues are within user input, the network environment that consists of system resources, files and applications, and internal logic and data in the system.  When information is varied during a pen test, this identifies and confirms security issues so the appropriate measures can be taken to fix the problem.

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WHY EMPLOY THE SERVICES OF A NETWORK SECURITY PROFESSIONAL?

A network security professional is specifically trained with the necessary expertise to effectively conduct penetration testing and other network assessments. As we mentioned earlier in this article, pen tests that are performed improperly could be detrimental to an organisation and its daily business operations. Some of the skills applied by a network security professional include but are not limited to the following:

DATA BREACH PREVENTION.

When a pen test is performed properly and in a benign manner to simulate a network exploit, your business will stay on top of whether or not there are potential security risks within your network.  The pen test is very similar to a disaster recovery or fire drill to ensure your business is prepared in the event of a catastrophe.

APPLICATION SECURITY. 

Whenever your business implements a new application, it is important to perform a security assessment before putting the application to use in your business environment.  If the application’s main purpose is to handle sensitive data, it makes perfect sense to have a network security professional perform the security assessment to prevent an inadvertent data breach.

This makes the investment in a network security professional more cost effective than if sensitive data such as customer or medical information were to be exposed as a result of a vulnerability in the software application.

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SECURITY CONTROL TESTING. 

Network security professionals are well trained in other security controls used on your business network.  The controls include encryption processes, firewalls, data loss prevention, layered security processes, and much more.  A network security specialist has the knowledge and expertise to conduct the proper penetration tests to ensure the network security controls are working.

GAP ANALYSIS MAINTENANCE.

Penetration testing is never a one-time event.  Instead, it must be a continual process to accurately measure how well your security model is performing.  It also helps your business to gain awareness of any gaps in the security model that may exist at any given point in time.

COMPLIANCE. 

Depending upon your industry, the compliance requirements for data security such as those for the Payment Card Industry (PCI DSS) and others can be very strict.  A network security professional can ensure your system remains in compliance with specific standards and requirements for your industry.  They can also suggest effective alternatives in the event of there being any issues within your business network.

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WHAT PROCESSES ARE INVOLVED WITH NETWORK PENETRATION TESTING?

There are a variety of methodologies used when it comes to effective penetration testing.  Some or all of these methodologies may be used depending upon the network system type.

BLACK BOX.

A penetration test that is black box is conducted without knowledge of any information related to the technical aspects of a network.  This type of test requires penetration testers to conduct comprehensive network exploration in an effort to determine the best way to organise a simulated attack.

Black box penetration testing is a simulation of a more realistic exploit on a network.  This method is used by businesses that want to stay on top of what hackers are capable of doing within a very short period of time.

WHITE BOX. 

White Box penetration testing occurs when network professionals have gathered all data and information associated with a network and its architecture.  This type of pen test is more like an audit and provides a comprehensive approach to security testing.  This form of pen testing is used by businesses that want to ensure every single aspect of their network is as secure as possible.

GREY BOX.

The Grey Box approach to penetration testing is performed according to internal information for a network including technical documents, user privilege credentials, and more.  Based on the internal information collected, a highly sophisticated network attack can be launched to determine what can happen when hackers gain access to sensitive information. Grey Box pen tests are a common approach that provides detailed security testing that takes place over a shorter period of time than the more involved process of White Box pen tests.

These are the main methodologies used in penetration testing. Other network monitoring tests such as intrusion detection, packet sniffing, and other methods are also often deployed to determine the status of network security.

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WHAT ARE PENETRATION TEST DELIVERABLES?

Pen test deliverables include a series of reports that reveal how security issues were identified and confirmed during the test to determine how the issues should be fixed. Once a penetration test has been completed, the report reveals a list of all network vulnerabilities that were discovered during the test.  In most cases, the report will also provide recommendations on how to fix the issues.

A typical penetration testing report will include a complete review of the project, the techniques and methodologies used during the test, security risk levels in order of priority, recommendations for fixing the issues, and suggestions for tightening up network security as a whole.

There is also a report for presentation to management which explains in non-technical terms how the risks can affect business continuity and potential financial losses that can be incurred as the result of a breach. This part of the report may also include the IT investments which may be necessary to improve network security.

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FINAL THOUGHTS.

The bottom line is penetration testing is well worth the investment for any SMB that wants the peace of mind knowing the network is secure and daily business operations can continue in the event of a service disruption. Penetration testing can be compared to products that are tested prior to being released on the market.

Automobile manufacturers test a car before releasing it on the market to ensure the vehicle is safe.  This means putting the car through simulated accident situations to ensure it will be safe in the event of a real accident.

Penetration testing with regard to network intrusions works the same.  If you fail to test the security controls and network environment prior to use, it is impossible to ensure security in the event of an exploit by hackers.  This is why pen tests make sense for organisations of all sizes.

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ABOUT OUR IT DEPARTMENT.

Our IT Department is an IT support services company that provides a range of professional Network Security services to businesses across London and the Home Counties. Visit our Network Security page to find out how we can help your business mitigate network security vulnerabilities by implementing a series of intelligent testing processes and technology solutions.

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