Ongoing security testing benefits your organization in many ways. Various methods are used for testing your cyberdefenses, but penetration testing remains one of the most popular. A specific form of vulnerability assessment, the primary benefits of penetration testing include greater security insights, ongoing risk management, and the ability to meet regulatory obligations.
The Benefits of Penetration Testing
Regular and consistent penetration testing helps your organization make its network more secure by identifying security vulnerabilities that intruders may exploit and providing remediation recommendations. As a universally applicable cybersecurity discipline, every organization can leverage penetration testing to continually reinforce its defenses.
The biggest penetration testing advantages are:
- Deeper security insights
- Optimized risk management
- Reduced risk of non-compliance
Penetration testing involves “ethical hackers” attempting to breach your network’s cybersecurity and providing a report and recommendations following the assessment. The insight gathered from the test informs your security team how intruders may attempt to bypass defenses and where your most significant vulnerabilities are. This enables you to better prepare for current threats and facilitates a program’s adaptation to IT’s constantly changing threat landscape.
Depending on the level and types of insight you’re seeking, penetration testing services are generally broken down into three categories:
- “Black box” – Performed with no network and security information provided to testers; best mimics an external hacker
- “White box” – Performed with network and security information provided to testers; best mimics an internal malicious actor or one knowledgable about the organization
- “Gray box” – Performed with some network and security information provided to testers
Testing Your Cyberdefenses
One of the most significant benefits of penetration testing comes in the form of testing your cyberdefenses. With pen-testing, you can perform repeatable tests and analyses across your entire IT infrastructure, including:
- Hardware and software firewalls
- Servers and workstations
- Antivirus and anti-malware scanners
- Personal user devices
- Patch management and automatic update systems
- Internal policies and procedures
Penetration testing is a critical step throughout all stages of organizational development, particularly during the early stages of establishing your cyberdefenses and following major implementations and upgrades.
It’s highly recommended that you utilize pen-testing regularly, as your network and the threats against it will continually change. This lets you address new and emerging vulnerabilities promptly.
Penetration testing is often used to uncover vulnerabilities, shortcomings, and flaws in your IT infrastructure. While it’s typically used alongside other tools and strategies, like bandwidth monitoring and traffic analysis, pen-testing is a valuable tool in and of itself.
Specifically, modern penetration testing examines your infrastructure for:
- Improper configuration of network hosts and devices, including firewalls and cloud servers
- SQL injection, which could result in unauthorized access to backend database systems
- Web application and session management utilities, including cookies and other controls
- Problems with user identification and authentication
- Data encryption issues
Receiving a Third-Party Opinion
While some IT teams take on the responsibility of penetration testing internally, others utilize a third-party service—commonly offered by managed security services providers (MSSPs) like RSI Security. Some key benefits of vulnerability assessment and penetration testing from a third party include:
- Independent and objective analysis – Perhaps your team has become too familiar with your network to provide a completely objective and exhaustive assessment. Regardless, independent testers help eliminate any chance of potential biases that may affect testing, assessed areas, and recommendations.
- Resource allocation and cost-effectiveness – Internal pen-testing requires diverting resources and team bandwidth that could be better used elsewhere. While additional staff can be hired to fill the gaps as needed, third-party penetration testing is almost always more affordable.
- Versatility and flexibility – Since a third-party service has no prior knowledge of your infrastructure, they’re only working with the information you give them. This lets you tailor the tests to focus on specific areas or vulnerabilities.
- Additional guidance and expertise – Third-party pen-testing services often include additional guidance, support, and expertise throughout the entire process.
The benefits of penetration testing are also seen in your risk management program. This is a crucial process in identifying and prioritizing IT risks throughout your organization’s long-term efforts to protect your infrastructure. Organizations utilize penetration testing to determine realistic impacts and likelihoods over various cybersecurity risks.
Additionally, some compliance frameworks (e.g., PCI DSS) require risk management programs, penetration testing, or both.
The first steps in IT risk management require proper identification and analysis of your organization’s risks. Since some industries are exposed to greater risk than others, and because some platforms are inherently more secure than others, you must focus on the risks specific to your IT infrastructure, network, and system.
Risks can be assessed in simple categories, such as:
- Low-risk – This includes databases containing public information, easily recoverable systems, and other non-critical infrastructure.
- Medium- or moderate-risk – Databases containing information meant for internal use and infrastructure that provides important services are classified here.
- High-risk – This includes databases with restricted or confidential data and infrastructure vital to day-to-day operations.
Once your specific risks are established, it’s time to determine the likelihood that each individual risk will occur. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), three key factors need to be considered here:
- Motivation and technical capability of the risk or threat
- Exact nature of the internal vulnerability
- Presence and effectiveness of internal controls
Next, consider the consequences of each specific risk. While some incidents might result in numerous consequences, most can be classified into one of three general categories:
- Damage to data confidentiality
- Damage to system or organizational integrity
- Damage to system or service availability
Finally, your risk likelihood rating is combined with your risk impact rating to determine your overall risk level. Risks determined to have high impacts and high likelihood form your top priorities.
Some areas, like systems pertaining to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, are always considered high-risk due to the highly classified and sensitive data they contain.
Comprehensive security testing benefits your organization when pursuing regulatory compliance. These standards differ between industries and professions, but in some cases, strategies like regular penetration testing are actually required to meet your compliance obligations.
Although pen-testing is not a strict requirement of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), current standards do require a comprehensive risk analysis. Since this is covered in modern penetration tests, most organizations will perform them to check off all the boxes.
Unlike HIPAA, the Payment Card Industry (PCI) requires penetration testing to comply with its Data Security Standard (DSS). According to PCI DSS Requirement 11.3, penetration tests must be performed following a significant change to any merchant’s cardholder data environment (CDE). While there has been some debate over what constitutes a significant change, the requirement for pen-testing is still there.
Meant to protect citizens’ personal information in the European Union (EU), the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) doesn’t specifically mandate penetration testing. It does, however, express the requirement for regularly testing technical and organizational measures used for securing data.
Since penetration testing covers this requirement and the monetary penalties for non-compliance under the GDPR can be quite significant, most organizations embrace pen-testing as a necessity when pursuing GDPR compliance.
Penetration testing is required for compliance with ISO 27001. According to control objective A12.6, Technical Vulnerability Management, information concerning vulnerabilities must be obtained promptly. Additionally, the organization must evaluate its exposure to these vulnerabilities while taking measures to address any known risks.
Once again, penetration testing meets these obligations while uncovering unknown vulnerabilities and hidden risks.
Like the GDPR, the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) doesn’t specifically mention penetration testing as a requirement. However, it does require that reasonable security practices are in place to protect consumer data. Unfortunately, since it’s difficult to determine what constitutes a reasonable security practice, most use penetration testing to err on the side of caution.
Strengthening Your Cyberdefense
From staying ahead of emerging security threats to meeting your compliance obligations, the benefits of penetration testing cannot be overstated. If you’re interested in learning more about vulnerability assessment and penetration testing, or to find out how we can help bolster your cyberdefenses in other ways, contact RSI Security today!