Multiple Types of Penetration Testing

Łukasz Czarniecki

Jul 16, 2021 • 8 min read
Types of penetration testing

Testing your product for potential vulnerabilities is essential for assessing its safety and stability.

Penetration testing is used by companies to test the security of their products. There are many different types of penetration testing scenarios and each comes with its own set of benefits. Understanding how penetration testing works and the benefits of penetration testing is key to creating a secure and successful environment.

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing is the process through which your digital assets are put through their cyber security paces. It is a controlled simulation of a hacker attack done by a trusted source to identify vulnerabilities within the assessed environment that could be exploited in a real-life situation.

The environment used for penetration testing could be anything from a web environment, mobile app or even an entire cloud infrastructure. All of these products need to be secured from malicious intent. Penetration tests are used to verify overall security against some of the most common threats and to uncover any possible vulnerabilities.

How does penetration testing work?

There are 7 main phases that go into the process of penetration testing, from planning to execution and diagnostics:

Scope agreement

Before any testing can take place, the scope of what is being tested must be first defined. This includes what, how and when the environment or product should be tested.

Information gathering

Your organization will have to supply the tester with some general information about the scoped targets. The tester may also collect data about the target from other public sources to simulate the information gathering process of a real hacker.

Enumeration

This step involves interaction with the system in question to identify entry points as well as pinpoint technologies used within the system.

Vulnerability scan

Vulnerabilities are scanned and found by matching the components of the system to public exploit databases. This reveals the vulnerabilities for subsequent attack and exploitation.

Exploitation

The detected vulnerabilities found in the ‘Vulnerability scan’ stage are attacked and exploited in order to gain proof that the system is vulnerable to these attacks.

Reporting

All of the detected and exploited vulnerabilities are listed in a report submitted to the business. This report also includes the business risks explained and how to fix the exposed vulnerabilities as well as a generalized summary and recommendations.

Retesting

This takes place after the previous vulnerabilities have been fixed to determine whether there are any remaining vulnerabilities.

The types of penetration testing

There are multiple different kinds of penetration testing depending on the structure being tested. These include:

1. Applications testing

Penetration testing for applications includes web applications, frontend testing, mobile applications and native applications for certain devices.

2. API or Service testing

These include testing the application’s backend, container, server or network service. This tests how authentication or authorization can be bypassed as well as whether the functions of the API can be abused.

3. Infrastructure testing

Infrastructures should have very tight security, considering they tend to make up core systems. These include on premise infrastructures, cloud infrastructures or even virtual environments.

4. Network testing

Network testing involves finding vulnerabilities in a company’s IT infrastructure. This includes security related to WiFi, internal LAN and company perimeter security.

Why is penetration testing important and who should implement it?

Penetration testing is more than just an important aspect of software security, it’s mandatory practice in many contexts. This is especially true in contexts where systems and applications are processing personal data and digital payments. In the UK and EU, GDPR laws require that security controls are tested regularly and PCI DSS makes penetration testing mandatory.

Aside from compliance requirements, penetration testing is designed to make sure that your applications are properly secured from security risks. Even if GDPR compliance didn’t exist, every company should still perform regular penetration testing of crucial systems to secure their digital assets.

Practical examples of penetration testing

Penetration testing is mostly ubiquitous, and practical examples include a range of different software types.

Mobile applications and API backends should undergo penetration testing before commercial release.

Penetration testing of the network infrastructure of a company is one of the most common and also most important types. This testing is designed to ensure that malicious third parties can’t penetrate a company network in order to gain access to sensitive information.

Applications that process personal data must also undergo rigorous penetration testing. This is due to the sensitive nature of the data that could incur financial loss if a hacker succeeds in penetrating the software.

Penetration testing is performed on these applications before commercial release and extensively tested before releasing new functionalities on the same application.

What are the benefits of penetration testing?

As mentioned in earlier sections, there are multiple and varied benefits to penetration testing.

  • General assessment: Penetration testing provides a great overall security assessment of your software. This is because penetration testing is specifically designed to find and exploit any vulnerability your software may have.
  • Proper security controls: Penetration testing ensures that the proper security controls are applied to your application before being released to the market. This means your product should comply with CIS benchmarks and be rated well for security.
  • Compliance requirements: Laws and regulations such as GDPR require compliance to certain guidelines and standards. This can be tested using penetration testing to make sure you’re fully compliant to all regulations.
  • Best practice maintenance: Having your software constantly tested for vulnerabilities to exploit means you’re more likely to adhere to industry best practices and reduce your vulnerabilities.
  • Battle-testing: Penetration testing ensures that your software is battle tested against any real-world threats that may try to exploit your vulnerabilities.
  • Expert opinions: Each set of testing comes with its own report. This includes detailed descriptions of the attacks used to exploit vulnerabilities as well as expert advice on the business risks and recommendations based on each finding.

The different approaches to penetration testing

Approaches to penetration testing can differ depending on the amount of prior knowledge or access to the system that the attacker has. There are three main approaches:

Black Box approach

This approach to penetration testing involves the attacker having a minimal knowledge of the infrastructure to be tested. Usually only the web URL or IP address is provided in these scenarios, providing the attacker with limited information.

This approach is designed to simulate an attacker who has no specific or detailed knowledge on the used technologies, security controls or internal architecture when trying to gain access to the system. This scenario is usually run if the customer does not want to expose the system internals or source code.

Grey Box approach

The grey box approach is a mid-point between the black box and white box approaches. In this scenario, the attacker is given limited insights into the internal environment.

For example, this could include giving the attacker access to a low privileged account as well as access to some documentation. This means that the grey box approach allows for the possibility of assessing the security from an internal user perspective, allowing them to cover more test cases.

White Box approach

The white box approach is the most complete level of penetration testing. In this scenario, the attacker is given access to an admin-level account in the environment and access to the source code. This allows for the testing of misconfigurations, privilege escalation scenarios and architectural problems.

Because the cybersecurity consultant is given access to the source code, they can completely assess the overall security level and tailor exploits to the system. Although providing the best coverage, this scenario can be quite time consuming.

Each level of approach has its own advantages and disadvantages and can be chosen based on the level of protection required. Approaches can also be chosen based on the likelihood of an attacker having a level of information, with the black box approach simulating the most likely scenario.

Understanding multiple types of penetration testing

Penetration testing is one of the most standard ways to determine whether your product is digitally secure. We hope that this article helped you to understand the types of penetration testing and the benefits of doing the process consistently.

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Łukasz Czarniecki

Łukasz Czarniecki works as Senior Security Engineer at Netguru. He specializes in penetration...
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