Penetration testing is one of the hottest topics in cybersecurity right now.

However, unless you work in the field, you probably have more questions than answers about what it involves.

What Exactly Are Penetration Tests?

Penetration tests, or pen tests for short, are controlled attacks to simulate how real attackers would infiltrate and exploit a company's data.

Simply put, it's authorized hacking.

It's a way to identify and exploit vulnerabilities before malicious hackers can do it. These tests can assess the security of your applications, IoT devices, and internal networks.

Pen testers use various techniques to exploit vulnerabilities, such as scanning for open ports, trying to guess your passwords, and injecting malicious code.

Ethical Hackers vs. Pen Testers: Are They Similar?

Pen testing is a focused subset of ethical hacking involving simulating real-world attacks to uncover security vulnerabilities.

Conversely, ethical hacking encompasses a broader range of security activities like audits and assessments to comprehensively evaluate and enhance overall security defenses.

Additionally, while pen tests uncover vulnerabilities, the pen tester recommends remediation, while an ethical hacker goes a step further to implement the remediation strategies.

The scope, goals, methodology, deliverables, required expertise, and responsibility for remediation differ between the two practices.

Why is Pen Testing Important?

"It's easier for you to protect your company's assets when you know exactly what your security posture looks like."

– Christina Annechino, Cybersecurity Analyst at Trava

Pen testing strengthens your organization's cybersecurity in several ways:

  • Finds vulnerabilities proactively before hackers do.

  • Tests real-world breach scenarios.

  • Prioritizes the most critical security issues.

  • Justifies increased security spending.

  • Meets compliance requirements.

  • Reduces overall business risk.

  • Improves incident response readiness.

  • Provides intelligence for better decision-making.

Perspectively, according to A. James Clark School of Engineering, 2,200 cyber attacks occur daily – an attack every 39 seconds!

You bet pen testing is a solid investment.

Types of Penetration Testing

There are several flavors of pen testing, each focused on a different potential attack vector.

The most common include:

  • External pen testing – focuses on vulnerabilities accessible from the internet, such as web applications and network devices.

  • Internal pen testing – focuses on vulnerabilities accessible from within your organization's network, such as servers and workstations. Assumes the attacker has already gained access.

  • Web application pen testing – focuses on vulnerabilities in APIs and web apps, such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting.

  • Wireless pen testing – focuses on vulnerabilities in wireless networks, such as weak passwords and unencrypted traffic.

  • Social engineering penetration testing – focuses on vulnerabilities that social engineering techniques, such as phishing and pretexting, can exploit.

  • Other pen tests – assess additional infrastructure weak points.

Behind the Scenes of a Penetration Testing

A comprehensive pen test typically involves several stages:

  • Planning – the pen tester will meet with you to discuss the pen test's scope and the specific vulnerabilities they'll target.

  • Reconnaissance – they will gather information about your organization's network and systems, such as IP addresses, open ports, employee names, access control information, and so on.

  • Scanning and enumeration – the tester will further explore the systems and launch automated tools to scan your organization's network for vulnerabilities.

  • Exploitation and maintaining access – once the pen tester finds any vulnerabilities, they'll attempt to exploit them to gain access to your organization's infrastructure. They'll then stay in the system to replicate an attacker's actions.

  • Reporting – the pen tester documents all activities and summarizes findings and remediation advice for improvement in a detailed report.

Skilled pen testers think like real-world hackers, looking for any avenue to breach defenses. They blend manual testing, creativity, and automated tools for maximum effectiveness.

Their goal is to demonstrate actual risk.

The Path to Becoming a Pen Tester

Pen testers and ethical hackers are highly in demand. These pros can make over $123K annually!

If this is a career you'd consider, Christina recommends you get the necessary training, hands-on experience, and an interest in problem-solving.

Online resources, like Bug Bounty programs, Hack The Box, and PenTesterLab, can help you develop the necessary skills.

Hiring a Pro Penetration Testing Team

Pen testing can be complex and often requires specialized expertise. If you're considering pen testing in-house instead of hiring consultants, Christina recommends you conduct thorough research.

Conversely, experienced third-party firms like Trava are ideal to handle the task efficiently. Our professional pen testing team uses the latest tools, techniques, and knowledge to test your system's security defenses properly.

Such well-trained and certified ethical hackers are ideal for conducting rigorous, controlled pen tests without business disruption.