One of the measures that organizations have undertaken in recent years to ensure the integrity of their information networks is to undergo a procedure called an external penetration testing.
An external vulnerability scan, which also goes by the names penetration testing or ethical hacking, is an authorized concerted cyber attack on any number of application systems that are visible on the internet, such as a company website, and email and domain servers.
The purpose of external vulnerability scanning is to identify, evaluate, and address any potential or existing security issues, which cyber criminals may use to gain access to a company’s information systems and illegally obtain proprietary information.
Furthermore, external network scanning can be conducted to complement the functions of a web application firewall, which is meant to evaluate requests attempting to access an application or system and deny access to malicious codes coming from external sources.
The Steep Cost of Data Breaches
According to a study conducted by the technology company IBM and the Ponemon Institute entitled “Cost of a Data Breach”, the current average cost of a single data breach amounts to $3.9 million. However, this figure is likely to change in a few months – the report states that the cost of a data breach can go as high as $8.19 million, depending on the number and quality of the records that the breach will expose.
Another study conducted by Risk Based Security showed that in 2019 alone, there have been over 3,800 data breaches, which is at least 54% more than the number of breaches recorded over the past four years. “Between 2015 and 2018, the variation in the number of reported breaches was less than 200 incidents. For the first six months of 2019, the number of breaches increased by 54% compared to the same time last year,” the report indicates.
Given these staggering figures, it is very apparent that first, data security is an absolute must, especially for organizations that manage sensitive corporate and personal information; and second, a large number of companies remain vulnerable to costly security breaches, despite the fact that these, in recent years, have become commonplace.
It is important to note that cybercriminals, otherwise known as hackers, operate more regularly than one would think – a study conducted by the University of Maryland revealed that there is a hacker attack every 39 seconds, or at least two security attempts per minute. As such, organizations need to make a significant change in the way they view cybersecurity and allocate a portion of their annual budgets to guarantee that their systems remain impervious to cybersecurity threats and attacks.
The Different Stages of External Penetration Scanning
External penetration scanning has seven different stages to ensure that the external vulnerability test is executed seamlessly.
STAGE #1: Contract Agreement
As with any important project, the selection of a competent and trustworthy service supplier is the first step in guaranteeing that it will progress smoothly and achieve targeted results. It would serve companies well to look for IT safety and security agencies that have successfully conducted external vulnerability scanning for other organizations within your industry. This will give you a preliminary assurance that the agency understands your company’s specific IT safety and security requirements, and can provide you with a thorough understanding of the security risks and threats that you would need to look out and prepare for.
Once you are able to identify the IT safety and security agency you intend to work with, you now need to formulate and agree on the rules of engagement for the external network scan. It is likewise crucial to specify the testing methodologies to be used in the exercise, as well as the depth of exploration to be performed.
Furthermore, undergoing an external network scan will undoubtedly give an ethical testing expert access and insight into an organization’s information databases, some of which could be highly sensitive. As such, the agency that will conduct the external network scan must sign a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement prior to performing the testing, to maintain the integrity of your company’s information assets.
While agencies normally have standard contracts and NDAs for their external vulnerability scan services, here are other items that you may consider stipulating in the service agreement:
- How will the agency coordinate and work with our IT team?
- When will the tests be considered, and will these impact the company’s operational productivity?
- How will the agency transmit, store, and erase obtained company data?
STAGE #2: Planning and Reconnaissance
The planning and reconnaissance phase of a successful external network scan must prioritize and focus on thorough information gathering, as having a thorough understanding of the target will allow your agency to lay down a solid foundation that will support the other crucial phases of the external penetration test.
An ethical testing expert must gather as much information as s/he can about the target, which can be obtained through a deep dive on various online platforms or performing open-source intelligence exercises. This will provide a broader understanding of the organization, the scope of its operations, as well as the types of customers it conducts business with. Furthermore, this information-gathering exercise can help organizations understand the amount of information about them is available on public domains and can guide them on how to secure these moving forward.
It is also during the planning and reconnaissance stage that the external network scan agency must perform an exhaustive inventory of the target’s information assets to determine all potential features and services within the organization’s network that may be attractive or appealing to cybercriminals.
Once these pieces of information are on hand, you must sit down with your selected external penetration testing agency to define the objectives of the external network scan, as well as the scope of work. This will help both teams come up and agree on key performance indicators that can gauge the success of the pen test, as well as define the necessary test limitations to ensure information safety and security.
STAGE #3: Target Scanning
This stage in the external network scan is where your selected agency performs a vulnerability assessment, identifying weak spots within the target network that can be exploited by cybercriminals to unlawfully gain access, and quantifying potential security risks should these remain unheeded.
The external penetration tester will send probes to the target network to collect preliminary data, and to record how the system will respond to a variety of inputs that may come with a targeted cyber attack. The outcomes of this phase may include the following:
- Understanding the structure of a directory on a specific server
- Identify shared or open drives in a specific network
- Provide authentication access to FTP web servers
- Determine available SMTP access points through error messages
- Pinpoint code-signing certificates that can be utilized to sign and transmit malicious scripts
To achieve the above-mentioned results, the penetration tester can employ either Static Application Security Testing (SAST) or Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST), or a combination of both.
SAST tools closely examine source codes that are at rest to identify and flag weaknesses that can result in potential threats to information security. DAST tools, on the other hand, can identify security vulnerabilities even when an application is currently running, and make use of fuzzing methods or directing a large volume of unexpected or invalid test cases at an application.
As such, DAST tools can determine issues on scripting, authentication, sessions, and data injection, among others.
STAGE #4: Gaining Access
This stage of the external vulnerability scanning process is where the data-gathering phase will be fully put to test, although it can also be used to gather more in-depth data within the target network. This is because while there may be vulnerabilities identified within a network, it does not necessarily mean that these could be exploited. It is therefore important to prioritize these weaknesses according to their significance, as well as their level of impact on the organization’s operations.
Once the system’s core weaknesses have been duly identified, it is time for the external penetration tester to leverage on these vulnerabilities to gain access and control of the target, which could be a firewall, a secured network, or a specific system. The external penetration tester must use the list of security weaknesses that it has identified to determine which are truly exploitable and can provide access to the target.
The commonly observed vulnerabilities include an erroneous or insecure device, host, or network configuration, encryption, and authentication flaws, compromised code or command injection, and loopholes in user session management.
STAGE #5: Maintaining Access
Think of this stage as a house that you, as a burglar, managed to get into undetected. Your main goal is to remain undetected so that you can have enough time to go through the premises, make an inventory of everything that’s inside, lay claim to all your perceived valuables, and still be able to make a return trip one of these days.
Once your external penetration tester is able to successfully access your system, s/he will introduce agents to ensure continued and persistent access, despite any modifications applied to it. This is a very pivotal moment, as remaining undetected even by key system safeguards in place, will allow the external penetration tester to, quite literally, reside in your network, familiarize his or herself with its complexities and intricacies, and study how cybercriminals can actually be able to use your own measures against you when the time is right.
It is paramount that your external network scan agency provides you with specific details like how long it took them to be able to gain access to your systems, and how your organization can be able to effectively remedy these errors.
STAGE #6: Exploitation
Like a moth to a flame, once hackers are able to access your networks, they will try to see how close they can get to the areas where your company stores its most valuable information before they are detected and burned by available security restrictions.
Having said that, the primary objective of your external penetration tester would be to identify all possible routes that s/he took to be able to access confidential data, and which would take the least amount of time to execute. They should also be able to tell you which specific vulnerabilities they exploited, and what methods and techniques they employed to access your systems.
There are different kinds of penetration tests — network, wireless, and physical — which can either be used individually or in combination with each other. Now, each attack will need to be distinct and customized, as it will need to take into consideration existing scenarios within the network for it to be fully successful.
This is also the stage where the provisions of your service agreement will be enforced. The external penetration tester cannot and should not go beyond the agreed-upon project scope to ensure that the integrity of your company’s data remains intact while still diagnosing potential and existing security threats.
STAGE #7: Forensic Reporting
Once the penetration test is complete, which could take between 5 to 15 business days depending on the scope and complexity of work, your external network scan agency must submit a comprehensive report that discusses the results of the test, together with their recommendations for improvement.
The penetration test report should begin with an executive summary that clearly explains the purpose of the test, the tactics and techniques are undertaken to access the system, and their corresponding risk levels. These collected facts and evidence can enable and encourage the company’s management team to take definitive action, now that they have a better grasp of how these risks can impact their organization’s reputation and operations, and what resources will be required to remedy the situation.
The latter part of the report will provide specific technical information, which will be useful for the organization’s IT safety and security team as they endeavor to efficiently resolve all security issues that were discovered during the penetration test. This portion of the report should also show how the external penetration tester restored and cleaned up the company’s network, and placed it back to how it was before the external vulnerability scanning commenced.
Identifying security vulnerabilities within your company’s IT framework is the first, most important step in protecting it from data breaches and cyberattacks. By conducting external penetration scanning, your company can immediately take definitive corrective action against these vulnerabilities, and prepare the organization and its networks for any prospective cyberattacks in the future.
It is, therefore, crucial to identify and work with a reliable and experienced IT safety and security firm, such as RSI Security, that has successfully conducted external penetration scanning for an organization that is similar in size, scope, and industry as yours, as this can assure a better grasp of your organization’s needs and requirements.