What is a Penetration Test?

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Many business leaders believe they should do a penetration test.  But, when it comes to what a pen test is, they are a bit stumped. In this article, we answer the question, “what is a penetration test” and explore different kinds of penetration tests. 


What is a penetration test?

Penetration testing, or pen testing, is an insightful way to discover vulnerabilities in your computer systems by subjecting them to a planned cyber attack. It is similar to “crash tests” that help improve safety by putting vehicles through planned accidents. Two big differences: First, no dummies are involved. Second, nothing is smashed or permanently broken during a pen test.

During a penetration test, cybersecurity professionals do everything they can to find weaknesses in your company’s defences. They use advanced technology and attack techniques to probe and test for exploitable gaps. Then, the tester helps interpret the results and provides recommendations on how to strengthen your cyber security protections.


Different kinds of penetration tests

To answer what is a penetration test, we have to consider that not all pen tests are the same.  Different types of pen tests exist to evaluate different risks. So first, let’s review the different kinds of penetration tests:

External penetration test: An external test focuses on the security of your perimeter systems from attackers trying to gain access from the internet. It simulates an attack from an external actor attempting to gain unauthorized access to your systems from the outside. It’s like testing your front door and back doors.

Internal penetration test: An internal test looks at risks from an attacker already inside your systems. This could be a rogue employee or, more often, a criminal with a stolen password. Internal pen testing identifies vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit to gain greater access. For example, a cybercriminal with a salesperson’s password will try to get to the CFO’s system and data. It’s like testing if your drawers, closets, and safes are locked before hosting a party.

Web application penetration test: A web application test examines your web-facing applications to find weaknesses that could compromise their integrity. This is vital for companies with e-commerce, client portals, or other internet-facing services.

Wireless network penetration test: A wireless network test looks at the security of your wireless network to find vulnerabilities that could be used to gain unauthorized access or to compromise your wireless network.

So, the answer to the question “what is a penetration test” depends on the kinds of penetration tests you need. Most organizations start by exploring external and internal penetration testing.  But, if your business has custom web applications or broadcasts Wi-Fi in publicly accessible areas, then consider moving those up in priority.


Five phases of a penetration test

It helps to understand what happens during your engagement, regardless of the different kinds of penetration tests.  There are five phases to running a pen test:

  1. Recon –  The security professionals gather publicly-accessible information about your company’s systems and employees to understand potential exposure and plan the attack.
  2. Scan – Armed with preliminary information, the security team leverages sophisticated tech tools to scan your security’s perimeter defences, various points of entry, and internal assets. This is to uncover exploitable vulnerabilities.
  3. Exploit – With the weaknesses identified in the scan, the infiltration begins. Once inside, the security professionals attempt to gain further access by elevating privileges and moving laterally within the system.
  4. Persist – Once the tester establishes a foothold, the next step is to identify the potential impact of an attack. Then, the cyber expert will try to obtain as much access, depth of privilege, and scope of information as possible during the allotted window of time.
  5. Report – At the end of the allotted time, the security professional analyzes the results of the simulated attack. Then, they prepare a report on identified vulnerabilities and what exploits they leveraged. Most importantly, they present their recommendations for increased security.


What is a penetration test used for? 

Another way to ask this question is, what do you do after the penetration test is complete? A penetration test should provide you with practical steps to improve your cybersecurity. However, after penetration testing is completed, you must take steps to address any vulnerabilities the testing identified:

  1. Review the test results: The first step is to carefully review the results to understand the risks the test identified and their potential impact.
  2. Prioritize the risks: Not all exposures are equally critical, and it may not be practical or cost-effective to fix every vulnerability immediately. Instead, prioritize the risks based on how easy they are to exploit and how damaging they are if exploited.
  3. Develop fix actions: Based on your prioritized risks, develop a plan to remediate the vulnerabilities. This may involve patching software, changing passwords, or implementing additional security measures.
  4. Implement the fix actions: Follow the steps in the fix actions plan to mitigate vulnerabilities uncovered during the test. Make sure to test the fixes to ensure that they are effective.
  5. Follow up with periodic testing: After the initial penetration test, it is essential to follow up with regular testing to uncover new vulnerabilities and to ensure that the fix actions are effective.

By following these steps, you can effectively address the vulnerabilities identified in a penetration test and improve your organization’s cybersecurity.


What should I expect from a pen test?

Many pen test providers we’ve encountered offer limited practical consultation.  That’s because, to them the answer to what is a penetration test is an activity, not a consultative discovery. They focus too much on the tech and not enough on the business implications of their findings. Regardless of the kinds of penetration tests you select, you she expect four things:

  • Comprehensive: cover internal, external, and lateral attack vectors
  • Clear: put findings in easy-to-understand language designed for the business world
  • Insightful: prioritize threats and provide detailed recommendations.
  • Validated: include a follow-up test to ensure the fix-actions were effective.

F12 saw a gap in the penetration testing services offered and knew we could do a better job.  We want to make sure that our clients receive a comprehensive understanding of where their vulnerabilities are—external and internal. But we went one step further than that. We made our pen tests both cost-effective and lightning-fast:

Cost effective: F12’s pen testing is a one-time fee. That means that F12 will provide you with internal and external testing, detailed reports, threat prioritizations, expert review, and—something we’re especially proud of—a 30-day follow-up test to confirm that you have implemented the fixes we’ve recommended. This one-time fee is based on the number of IPs your company uses. So, a bigger company = more IP addresses.

Lightning fast: In the past, a company could potentially wait over a month to receive the results of its penetration testing. And who knows what could go wrong in that time?  You don’t want a report on how a hacker could access your data a month after a criminal has done it. F12’s pen testing is completed rapidly (while still being extremely thorough). You’ll receive your detailed report and consultation within days.


Learn more about what is a penetration test

Reach out to F12 to book a complementary consultation with one of our cyber security professionals.  Our team of Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) experts can explain, in business language, “what is a penetration test” and will help you explore different kinds of penetration tests.

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F12 has been creating streamlined technology solutions for more than 20 years. Contact us today for a complimentary consultation with one of our cybersecurity experts to find out if F12’s penetration testing is right for you.