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9 Key Elements of an Effective Penetration Test

Author: SEAN LEE, CISSP, MANAGING DIRECTOR

September 20, 2023

Conducting a thorough and effective network or application penetration test is crucial for improving the security posture of your organization – regardless of whether the test is required for compliance or a proactive measure to reduce risk. 

Both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing identify hidden weaknesses in your environment. While vulnerability scanning focuses on identifying and reporting known vulnerabilities, penetration testing leverages human intelligence to locate more sophisticated or subtle security issues. Together, both methods reveal where, how, and to what extent an environment is at risk. Penetration testing is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach. The engagement should be tailored to your organization’s specific environment and testing goals. Although the outcomes of each engagement also will be unique, the following nine key factors can influence the effectiveness of your test:

1. Clear Objectives:

Work with your testing vendor to define the specific objectives of your penetration test, for instance, to assess network security, identify vulnerabilities in specific applications, or test incident response capabilities. This ensures that the test focuses on relevant areas and provides actionable results.

2. Proper Planning:

A detailed testing plan is crucial for setting the rules of engagement. Your testing vendor should work with you to outline the scope, goals, and timelines for the testing engagement. This includes describing the systems and applications to be tested, the testing environment, and any restrictions or limitations that need to be observed. 

3. Legal and Ethical Considerations:

 Your vendor should ensure your penetration test is conducted within the boundaries of the law and ethical guidelines. Data privacy, data protection regulations, and the rules of engagement all should be respected. Obtain written permission for the testing among the appropriate parties (vendor, your organization, and/or specific stakeholders) and enact any necessary legal agreements to protect all parties. 

4. Methodology Selection:

Be sure your vendor employs a sound and established penetration testing methodology based on the objectives and the target systems. There are common and standard methodologies for network penetration testing, web application penetration testing, wireless network testing, social engineering, and physical security assessments. The approach must address the unique threats and risks your organization faces.

5. Information Gathering:

Sharing information about the highest-risk data/assets, target systems, network infrastructure, applications, and potential attack vectors with your vendor is crucial. This helps identify potential vulnerabilities and aids in the vendor’s selection of appropriate testing techniques and tools.

6. Exploitation and Vulnerability Analysis:

By definition, the vulnerabilities identified during a penetration test must be actively but non-maliciously exploited to determine their potential impact for unauthorized access or damage. Your vendor should validate vulnerabilities, assess their severity, and prioritize remediation efforts using a combination of bleeding-edge tools and ever-evolving techniques designed to keep the vendor at the forefront of the attack landscape. 

7. Reporting and Communication:

The findings of your penetration test inform your ability to reduce your risk. A vendor’s report should be comprehensive and well-structured. The report should clearly document the findings, including vulnerabilities discovered, their impact, their likelihood, risk, and recommended mitigation strategies. The report should be in a format that is easily understood and that emphasizes the most critical issues. It should provide clear, actionable guidance on how to address the identified vulnerabilities and the associated level of effort to do so.

8. Ongoing Support:

Penetration testing doesn’t stop at report delivery. Whether it’s through vCISO services or retesting of remediated findings, your vendor should provide ongoing support and guidance for implementing the necessary remediation measures and for answering your team’s questions or concerns. 

9. Continuous Improvement:

Penetration testing should be viewed as an ongoing process rather than a one-time event. Regularly conduct penetration tests or perform them at least once a year to ensure that vulnerabilities are addressed, new risks are identified, and your organization’s security posture is improving continually.

Remember, an effective penetration test requires a balance between technical expertise, thorough planning, an understanding of the organization’s business, and clear communication. If you’re not getting all of this from your penetration testing vendor, are you getting what you paid for?

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Start securing your business today. Whether it’s a requirement for compliance or a strategy to reduce risk, Summit gets penetration testing right. We offer both application penetration testing and network penetration testing.

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