In 2019 cybercrime cost businesses and individuals $3.5 billion dollars in losses, an almost 30 percent increase from the $2.7 billion lost in 2018. This isn’t simply an annual uptick in cybercrime, hackers are now employing new, sophisticated tactics and techniques to penetrate systems.
To respond to the growing threat you need to be able to identify your strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in your defenses. The best way to do this is by regularly conducting network penetration tests on external-facing IT assets like data centers and employee devices.
While external penetration testing can help protect your business in a variety of ways, there are five primary benefits you should be aware of.
Top 5 Reasons to Conduct External Penetration Testing
External penetration testing, also known as black-box penetration testing, simulates a real-world cyberattack. So, like a hacker, the penetration tester will attempt to penetrate the system blindly—without having any prior information to go off.
Although there are a variety of reliable external penetration methodologies, most will involve the following steps:
- Information gathering – Testers perform footprinting, which involves compiling as much data as possible about the specified targets.
- Threat modeling – Using the gathered data, the tester formulates attack strategies that are meant to target the client’s system.
- Vulnerability analysis – Scanning tools are deployed to determine cybersecurity gaps and exposures. By employing a variety of tools you can get a more comprehensive view of the perimeter.
- Exploitation – Testers will use frameworks and exploitation tools to see whether any of the vulnerabilities are penetrable.
- Onward attacks – If testers successfully attack the target system or can access critical data, they may see how much deeper into the system they can go.
- Reporting – After the test is finished testers create detailed reports covering:
- The specific vulnerabilities
- How the vulnerabilities were exploited
- What fixes can be put in place
While external penetration testing creates several competitive advantages, the top five reasons why you should frequently conduct them are:
1 – Protect Your Business
Regardless of your industry, hackers see every company as a potentially exploitable opportunity, small businesses included. In fact, small businesses are especially vulnerable to cyberattacks.
Because even a home business has personal data to exploit, computing power to hijack, or various other enticing opportunities to illicitly profit from; most non-enterprise businesses simply lack the resources and expertise to properly secure their system.
Small Businesses and Cybercrime
According to the Ponemon’s 2018 State of Cyber Security in Small & Medium-Sized Businesses report, 67 percent of small and medium-sized businesses—having fewer than 1,000 employees—experienced a cyberattack. Additionally, 58 percent of them experienced a cyber breach. The average cost of these attacks was $200,000 dollars, which caused more than 60 percent to go out of business.
The most commonly reported cyberattacks in order include:
- Phishing social engineering
- Web-based attack
- General malware
- Compromised/stolen devices
- Denial of services
- Advanced malware/zero-day attacks
- SQL injection
- Malicious insider
- Cross-site scripting
How an External Penetration Test Protects Your Business
Whether you’ve integrated new applications, infrastructure, or you’ve made significant infrastructure changes, you’ll want to perform an external penetration test. It provides you with a safe, controlled way to test your systems’ efficacy at fending off external attacks. The test lets you see how the system responds to threats and highlights potential vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
Typically, penetration testers will attempt to exploit:
- Software bugs
- Insecure settings
- Code errors
- Operational vulnerabilities
- Service configuration errors
Because this is a simulation it won’t have any negative impacts on your operation. The test simply demonstrates how a hacker would likely attack or exploit your security gaps. In addition, the scope and timing of the penetration test can be predetermined, allowing you to fine-tune specific areas of your cybersecurity system.
2 – Identify Security Exposures and Vulnerabilities Before Cybercriminals Can
Hackers are often on the cutting edge of technology, employing new attack techniques and programs. When a security vulnerability is patched, they’re then forced to find a new way in.
As the cyberthreats you face evolve so too must your cybersecurity efforts. External penetration tests allow you to properly gauge your defenses and determine where it can be successfully hacked.
The penetration test highlights cybersecurity exposures, which allows you to correct the issues before hackers can exploit them. After the entire cybersecurity perimeter is tested you can then prioritize the threats by risk; address the greatest threats first before moving on to lesser concerns.
3 – Ensure Compliance with Security Standards and Regulations
External network penetration testing doesn’t simply help you protect your business and its assets from hackers. The benefits extend to the entirety of your network and data security concerns, particularly if your business has to comply with security standards and regulations.
Most industries are beholden to a governing body, which stipulates a base level of cybersecurity necessary for a business to legitimately operate. A business can ensure that compliance standards are upheld by frequently conducting external penetration tests. This results in:
- Clients and customers continued protection
- Avoidance of expensive fines, fees, or other penalties
There are several important compliance standards an external penetration test can evaluate, including:
Any business that stores, processes, or transmits cardholder data must comply with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). A requirement within that mandate is for businesses to perform an annual penetration test. Additionally, tests must be conducted after any major system change occurs. According to the PCI Security Standards Council, the primary goals of penetration testing are:
- “To determine whether and how a malicious user can gain unauthorized access to assets that affect the fundamental security of the system, files, logs, and/or cardholder data.
- To confirm that the applicable controls required by PCI DSS—such as scope, vulnerability management, methodology, and segmentation—are in place.”
A PCI DSS external penetration test will measure the exposure of the external perimeter of critical systems. Typically, it includes both application-layer as well as network-layer assessments. The resulting reports can then be used by your organization to augment your security controls and demonstrate continued compliance to auditors.
Per the HIPAA Security Rule, covered entities are obliged to implement “technical and non-technical safeguards” to protect individuals’ electronic protected health information (ePHI). Covered entities are tasked with ensuring that no outside attacker can access the internal network’s servers or data.
Although HIPAA regulations do not outright mandate penetration tests, they do call for security risk analysis—the end goal being:
- Assess risks and vulnerabilities
- Implement security controls in response, including:
- Access controls
- Integrity controls
- Audit controls
- Transmission security controls
- Authentication controls
One of the most effective ways to perform ongoing monitoring and technical evaluation is via external penetration tests.
ISO IEC 27001
Similar to HIPAA, the ISO 27001 standard was created as a framework for a business’ information security management system (ISMS). It covers policies and processes relating to the use and control of data.
While it doesn’t mandate external penetration tests, Annex A.12.6 states:
Information about technical vulnerabilities of information systems being used must be obtained in a timely fashion, the organization’s exposure to such vulnerabilities evaluated and appropriate measures taken to address the associated risk. Any vulnerability is a weakness in security protection and must be dealt with effectively and efficiently where risk levels are unacceptable.
As to how you go about accomplishing this the framework leaves it to your discretion. For many, the obvious solution is an external penetration test, which can be conducted once you’ve narrowed down the critical assets in your ISMS. Done properly, it can:
- Uncover vulnerabilities and identify threats
- Ensure that implemented controls work as intended, and continue to do so
- Identify newly emerging vulnerabilities and threats
4 – Reduce Costs and Downtime
Regular external penetration testing is one of the primary ways you can help you prevent attacks or ensure business continuity if an attack is successful. By conducting them annually you can make sure that your team is able to rapidly recover and restore the system and network should the need arise.
- Loss of customer trust
- Business and revenue loss from downtime
- Loss of potential new customers
System downtime is incredibly expensive. The longer your system remains shut down, the more costly it will be. Per ZDNet:
The average cost of IT downtime is $5,600 dollars per minute. Because there are so many differences in how businesses operate, the Gartner analyst, Andrew Lerner, states that downtime, at the low end, can be as much as $140,000 dollars per hour, $300,000 dollars per hour on average, and as much as $540,000 dollars per hour at the higher end.
External penetration tests are a proactive way to highlight and then fix your IT system’s most critical vulnerabilities. They not only address potential weaknesses but also prepare your team to move with alacrity the moment the system goes down.
5 – Protect Your Reputation and Customer Trust
If a hacker successfully exploits your system, resulting in a data leak, your customers will be upset—and rightfully so. When that happens, customers lose faith in your ability to keep their information secure.
All it takes is one significant breach to tarnish your reputation. And that social stigma lasts for a long time. According to a recent Ponemon study, “Twenty-seven percent of consumers surveyed say they discontinued their relationship with the company that had a data breach. Of those consumers affected by one or more breaches, 65 percent say they lost trust in the breached organization.”
External penetration testing can help you prevent a harmful data leak. By systematically eliminating your cybersecurity vulnerabilities and being vigilant with your defenses you demonstrate to customers that you take their privacy seriously. Over time, maintaining a strong security posture will lead to more trust and a better reputation.
Types of External Penetration Tests
There are several types of external penetration tests a tester will run, including:
- Configuration & deployment management testing – Configuration errors can compromise an application similar to how an unsecured application can undermine the server. It’s vital that every web application’s configuration is deployed properly.
- Identity management testing – Every system must have clearly defined system roles to manage its users and their access authorization. A penetration test seeks to validate the defined roles and ensure that there are appropriate access levels for each user.
- Authentication testing – Applications in their default state often arrive improperly configured. To make matters worse, the default authentication credentials and configurations are never changed. A penetration test attempts to exploit weak passwords or default configurations in order to gain entrance.
- Authorization testing – Many web applications use input validation methods that are easily exploitable. Authorization testing tries to determine which parts of the application are vulnerable to input validation bypassing.
- Testing for weak cryptography – If encryption algorithms aren’t properly implemented, it could result in broken authentication and data leaks. Penetration tests look to identify weak and exploitable cryptography.
Network Penetration Testing Services
Performing frequent external penetration testing is one of the most critical challenges your IT department will face. You must regularly check to see whether or not your configurations, systems, tools, and settings are working as intended. Penetration tests can help you:
- Identify security gaps
- Prioritize cybersecurity risks
- Find backdoors
- Respond to breaches quickly
- Maintain compliance
- Protect your bottom line
- Uphold your business reputation
- Respond to a breach immediately and effectively
Wondering where to begin?
RSI Security’s network penetration testing services don’t simply highlight where and how an attack might penetrate your network, they also show you what a hacker will likely do once they’re in the system. Armed with this knowledge, you can thwart their efforts and protect your business. Reach out today to start testing your cybersecurity!