Penetration testing, or pen testing, is a realistic cyberattack simulation by an ethical hacker to assess the security of computer systems, networks or web applications. Organizations use this technique to identify and verify system vulnerabilities and determine whether their security controls work effectively.
Penetration testing involves a series of steps designed to simulate a modern attack behavior. The process starts with target reconnaissance and system mapping, followed by vulnerability scanning, and finally, exploitation and post-exploitation activities. The primary goal of penetration testing is to identify system weaknesses attackers are most likely to exploit to gain unauthorized access or cause damage.
There are several kinds of penetration testing, each of which evaluates different aspects of the system’s security.
Penetration Testing Types
This type of testing involves identifying vulnerabilities in the network infrastructure, such as firewalls, routers, switches and other network devices.
Goal: Identify weaknesses that could allow an attacker to gain unauthorized access to the network.
Web app testing involves evaluating the security of web applications, such as e-commerce sites, online banking portals and other web-based services.
Goal: Locate vulnerabilities in the application code that an attacker could exploit to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data.
This testing involves evaluating the security of mobile applications, such as iOS and Android.
Goal: Pinpoint vulnerabilities in the application code that an attacker could exploit to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data or perform malicious activities.
This testing variation involves evaluating the security of wireless networks, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Goal: Identify weaknesses in the wireless network that could allow an attacker to gain unauthorized access to the network or intercept data transmitted over the network.
Penetration Testing Steps
1. Planning and Preparation: This involves defining the scope of the test, identifying the target systems, and setting the testing objectives.
2. Reconnaissance: This involves gathering information about the target system, such as IP addresses, domain names, network topology, and other relevant information.
3. Scanning and Enumeration: This involves using automated tools to scan the target system for vulnerabilities and weaknesses and identifying potential attack vectors.
4. Exploitation: This involves attempting to exploit the identified vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to the target system.
5. Post-Exploitation: This involves maintaining access to the target system, escalating privileges and performing other malicious activities to demonstrate the impact of a successful attack.
6. Reporting: Involves documenting the findings of the test, including the vulnerabilities identified, the severity of the vulnerabilities, and recommendations for remediation.
Penetration testing is a critical component of any organization’s cybersecurity program and is considered by many, including the federal government, to be basic cyber hygiene. By simulating real-world cyberattacks, penetration testing provides organizations with a comprehensive assessment of their security posture. It also helps them to prioritize their security investments to protect against the most significant threats.
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