Penetration testing can be an invaluable technique to any organization’s information security program. Why conduct a penetration test?
From a business perspective, penetration testing helps safeguard your organisation against failure, through:
- Preventing financial loss through fraud (hackers, extortionists and disgruntled employees) or through lost revenue due to unreliable business systems and processes.
- Proving due diligence and compliance to your industry regulators, customers and shareholders. Non-compliance can result in your organisation losing business, receiving heavy fines, gathering bad PR or ultimately failing. At a personal level it can also mean the loss of your job, prosecution and sometimes even imprisonment.
- Protecting your brand by avoiding loss of consumer confidence and business reputation.
From an operational perspective, penetration testing helps shape information security strategy through:
- Identifying vulnerabilities and quantifying their impact and likelihood so that they can be managed proactively; budget can be allocated and corrective measures implemented.
What can be tested?
All parts of the way that your organisation captures, stores and processes information can be assessed; the systems that the information is stored in, the transmission channels that transport it, and the processes and personnel that manage it. Examples of areas that are commonly tested are:
- Off-the-shelf products (operating systems, applications, databases, networking equipment etc.)
- Bespoke development (dynamic web sites, in-house applications etc.)
- Telephony (war-dialling, remote access etc.)
- Wireless (WIFI, Bluetooth, IR, GSM, RFID etc.)
- Personnel (screening process, social engineering etc.)
- Physical (access controls, dumpster diving etc.)
What should be tested?
Ideally, your organisation should have already conducted a risk assessment, so will be aware of the main threats (such as communications failure, e-commerce failure, loss of confidential information etc.), and can now use a security assessment to identify any vulnerabilities that are related to these threats. If you haven’t conducted a risk assessment, then it is common to start with the areas of greatest exposure, such as the public facing systems; web sites, email gateways, remote access platforms etc.
Sometimes the ’what’ of the process may be dictated by the standards that your organisation is required to comply with. For example, a credit-card handling standard (like PCI) may require that all the components that store or process card-holder data are assessed.
What do you get for the money?
While a great deal of technical effort is applied during the testing and analysis, the real value of a penetration test is in the report and debriefing that you receive at the end. If they are not clear and easy to understand, then the whole exercise is of little worth.
Ideally the report and debriefing should be broken into sections that are specifically targeted at their intended audience. Executives need the business risks and possible solutions clearly described in layman’s terms, managers need a broad overview of the situation without getting lost in detail, and technical personnel need a list of vulnerabilities to address, with recommended solutions.
What to do to ensure the project is a success
Defining the scope
The scope should be clearly defined, not only in the context of the components to be (or not to be) assessed and the constraints under which testing should be conducted, but also the business and technical objectives. For example penetration testing may be focussed purely on a single application on a single server, or may be more far reaching; including all hosts attached to a particular network.