Penetration testing is one of the most innovative and powerful practices businesses can use to optimize their security. This form of “ethical hacking” uses an excellent offense to strengthen the defense, simulating an attack and studying all moves the hacker makes to stop them in the future. What’s more, penetration testing can be leveraged for nearly any element of your architecture, including hardware penetration testing to analyze all physical, connected devices.
How To Conduct Hardware Penetration Testing
Given its potential, all companies should have penetration testing (pen-testing) on their radar. However, a common misconception about penetration testing is that it’s only applicable to relatively intangible elements of your security architecture, like networks and servers. In reality, this could not be farther from the truth. This guide will explain how to apply pen-testing to hardware by:
- Breaking down the three primary approaches to all penetration testing of any system
- Applying each of these approaches to hardware pen-testing across three examples
By the end of this blog, you’ll better understand how penetration testing can help optimize your company’s hardware, with multiple samples of how your test can work.
Penetration Testing 101: Three Approaches
As noted above, penetration testing involves allowing — and, in fact, inviting — a simulated attack on your security systems to study the attacker’s behavior. There are several approaches to pen-testing, which we’ll detail below, but the process generally comprises:
- Reconnaissance, or gathering relevant information on the institution to be attacked
- Identification of critical cyber assets, weaknesses, and other intelligence for planning
- Strategizing for the initial attack, mapping out which vulnerabilities to exploit and how
- Implementing the attack and attempting to gain control of all systems, resources, etc.
- Exiting, ideally without leaving a trace, and preparing a report to address weaknesses
The three primary approaches to pen-testing are external, internal, and hybrid. All utilize the steps above, with differences in the attacker’s starting position. Let’s take a close look at each.
Approach #1: External Penetration Testing
An external penetration test, sometimes referred to as a “black box” or “black hat” test, begins from a position of relative ignorance. Once permission is granted, the pen-tester or hacker starts from outside your systems, usually with little or no privileged access to data on your security measures, assets, personnel, or anything that would facilitate the attack.
These external pen-tests are designed to simulate an attack from an unknown threat vector. In terms of activity measured, they tend to focus on the early stages of an attack — what the hacker or team of hackers does to initially get inside your systems.
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Approach #2: Internal Penetration Testing
In contrast, an internal penetration test, also known as a “white box” or “white hat” test, begins from an informed position. The pen-tester starts from inside your systems with privileged knowledge of your cybersecurity systems, infrastructure, or personnel. This could be complete information, where the hacker starts with all security access. Or the hacker can start with partial information. White hat testing closely resembles hackers that are current or former employees.
These internal pen-tests are designed to simulate insidious attacks from an individual known to the company but not known as a threat. In terms of activity studied, they tend to focus less on entry points than on what the attackers do once inside: how quickly they seize complete control.
Approach #3: Hybrid Penetration Testing
Finally, a hybrid penetration test often called a “gray box” or “gray hat” style test, will begin from somewhere between the ignorance of an external test and the informed stance of an internal test. The attacking team will negotiate a mid-point custom-tailored to the attack your company hopes to emulate and study.
These hybrid attacks are the most customizable, with the ability to study an attack from any potential source and any intentional focus. Likewise, your institution can customize the activities to identify anything from attack points to weaknesses left behind.
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Optimizing Penetration Testing for Hardware
Hardware pen-testing, sometimes called hardware security testing, involves subjecting select pieces of your organization’s IT infrastructure to some combination of the testing approaches detailed above. Most often, a hardware penetration test focuses on “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices, which includes all smart and internet-connected devices in your network, such as:
- Desktop computers and laptops connected to networks via wired and wireless connection
- Smart phones, tablets, and handheld computing devices connected to the internet
- Printers, fax machines, and other internet-connected electronics
Hardware pen-tests traditionally focus on hardware within a defined area. But, given the prevalence of cloud and mobile computing solutions, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, they may also focus on devices used in the new work-from-home environment.
Let’s take a look at three hardware pen-test strategies, following the approaches from above.
Example #1: Black Hat Hardware Pen-Test
A hardware penetration test that originates from outside your systems, with little to no knowledge of them, is an attack leveraging a password cracker. This is a standalone piece of software or multi-faceted approach that enables attackers to identify weaknesses in identity and access management in your company. Surveillance begins with a probe and analysis of account and credential management. Then, once a weakness is identified, the attack starts.
Hackers may launch a multi-tiered attack, beginning with research about privileged users’ accounts to guess passwords without needing to steal or crack them. Failing this, they may initiate a social engineering scam to trick users into giving up their credentials unwittingly. If this also fails, hackers may attempt to crack passwords, steal them, or find another attack vector.
Example #2: White Hat Hardware Pen-Test
An example of a hardware penetration test that originates from within your company’s systems or from a position of privileged knowledge about them is an attack using a network sniffer. This is an approach that leverages numerous technologies, along with an attacker’s position within a network, to collect various information being trafficked across it. Attacks using this method may be launched by recently dismissed former-employees whose login credentials are still active.
The attack may begin by simulating the position of this disgruntled former employee, passively monitoring information on the systems from the position of privilege until enough intelligence is amassed to launch a full-scale takeover of the entire system architecture.
Example #3: Gray Hat Hardware Pen-Test
Finally, a penetration test that originates from a mid-way point between complete ignorance and privileged intelligence or access leverages a port scanning capability or technology. Like a network sniffer, a port scanner seeks to identify information about a network and its weak points, and it’s typically used by an attacker with incomplete or limited information or access to the network in question: the attacker begins with a foot in the door, so to speak.
Depending on the negotiation with your pen-testing team, the actual starting position and focus can vary. The attacker can simulate elements of both a black hat and white hat attack by using a social engineering scam to gain insider access, then slowly collect information to inform their moves toward total control. The more control, the more specific insights and preventative power.
Professional Penetration Testing and Security
Pen-testing is among the most innovative and powerful methodologies to optimize your overall cyberdefenses. However, it is also incredibly complex, and pulling it off requires extremely fluid communication with your pen-testing partner.
RSI Security offers a robust suite of pen-testing services, including internal and external hardware penetration testing and a host of other solutions tailored to your security needs. Contact RSI Security today to get started!