Ultimate Guide on How to Perform a Successful Network Penetration Test - Stefanini

Ultimate Guide On How To Perform A Successful Network Penetration Test

Businesses are facing more cyber threats from across an expanding attack surface. When even a single breach can lead to millions of dollars in cost, damaged reputation, and impeded operations the value of risk assessment measures are apparent. One of the best tools businesses have to proactively identify and close vulnerabilities are network penetration tests. Read on to find out how pen tests can protect your business.

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Network Penetration Test

Successful cyberattacks often occur when network vulnerabilities are exploited. These vulnerabilities are often identifiable. 19% of malicious breaches are the result of compromised credentials and cloud configuration errors and 94% of malware is delivered through phishing emails.

Penetration Tests (also called pen test or ethical hacking) are performed to identify weaknesses in IT infrastructure with the goal of closing vulnerabilities before unauthorized parties are able to exploit them. These are not the same as a full scale vulnerability assessment, which aims to identify, quantify, and prioritize all network vulnerabilities. Rather, pen tests are focused simulations of cyberattacks where the actors set ethical parameters to show if and how unauthorized access is possible.

The purpose of the simulation is to identify security issues before hackers can locate and exploit gaps in the existing security model. Further, consistent pen testing can improve a business’s overall security posture by engaging them in the processes and methods malicious actors use to gain unauthorized access.

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What is a Network Penetration Test?

Using similar processes and activities to what a black hat hacker would use, penetration tests simulate network attacks in order to discover vulnerabilities without disrupting network activity. There are a range targets that can be the focus of a pen test including the business’s network at large, connected devices, network applications, or even a business’s website. These simulations then generate reports that detail where weaknesses in a security model exist and assess potential impact to the organization while offering countermeasures to reduce risk.

The key difference between a pen test and an actual cyber-attack are imposed ethical constraints. Where black hat hackers perform actions with malicious intent, ethical hackers performing pen tests do so as a proactive act of protection. It is important that network professionals receive authorization from organizational management before the pen test is performed. Furthermore, failure to correctly plan or enact pen tests can lead to disruptions in business continuity.

Penetration testing methods include:

  • External Tests: The primary goal of this test is to gain network access and extract data by targeting company assets that are visible on the internet. Asset examples include websites, company web applications, emails, or domain name serves (DNS).
  • Internal Tests: Simulates an attack by a malicious actor with credentials that allow application access behind the network firewall. This addresses scenarios where an employee’s credentials have been stolen, a common vulnerability that can result from phishing attacks.
  • Blind Test: In this scenario, a penetration tester attempts to gain network access with only the name of a targeted enterprise, giving a real-time view for security personnel as to how an actual application assault would take place.
  • Double-Blind Test: Attempting to simulate real world attacks, security personnel are given no prior knowledge of penetration efforts in order to test defense and response time.
  • Targeted Test: The pen tester and security personnel work together, notifying each other as they take actions in real-time. This valuable training exercise provides the security team with real-time feedback from an attacker’s POV.

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What Are The Benefits Of Performing A Network Penetration Test?

Penetration tests should be performed consistently as new vulnerabilities appear over time to discern strategies for maintaining network security best practices, the possible impact of security exploits on business processes, and improved response for business continuity and disaster recovery. 

  • Prevent Data Breaches Before They Happen: Simulating network exploits allows your business to remain aware of potential risks while amending security strategies to accommodate for new threats. In the best scenarios, companies are able to find and close vulnerabilities before they are exploited.
  • Effective Security Controls: Consistent testing ensures network security controls (i.e. encryptions processes, firewalls, data loss protection, layered security processes, etc.) are all functioning properly. While many companies have already invested in these tools, penetration testing highlights their performance and serves to identify when new controls need to be implemented.
  • Gap Analysis & Maintenance: Successful cyberattacks are often the result of gaps in a company’s existing security model. Consistent penetration testing serves to bring awareness to these gaps while providing accurate measurements for how businesses can improve existing security models.
  • Secure Applications: As businesses continue to rely on new applications (whether developed in-house or externally) it is vital to perform security assessment prior to deployment in the business environment.
  • Governance and Compliance: Each industry faces strict compliance requirements for data security and failure to do so may result in steep penalties in addition to the damages of a successful breach. Companies must continuously to ensure they meet the requirements for their respective industry.

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Steps in Performing Network Penetration Testing Process?

The core actions taken in the course of a penetration test process are ultimately similar to how malicious actors will attempt their attacks. In particular, this process looks to exploit existent network interfaces between enterprise software and external environments.  Findings from the testing process help close vulnerabilities and contribute to disaster scenario identification, providing actionable security measures for actual cyberattack events.

Here are the 5 Phases of Penetration Testing:

1.     Reconnaissance: The initial act of gathering data on target systems. Hackers will commonly leverage open source search engines to construct persona profiles, collecting any information visible online. This also serves as the appropriate stage to establish the goals for the pen test. There are three primary penetration testing methods, each with different parameters and objectives:

a.     Black Box Testing: A pen test performed from the POV of a hacker with minimum internal knowledge of the system. This is one of quicker testing options as it utilizes tools that identify and exploit outward facing network vulnerabilities. If external exploits do not lead to a network breach then internal network vulnerabilities will remain undiscovered.

b.     Gray Box Testing: Launching penetration efforts from the POV of a user with network access, this method is the closest simulation to cases of a hacker using stolen credentials. This test offers a focused assessment of network security and is more likely to highlight internal and external vulnerabilities.

c.      White Box Testing:  A pen test launched from the POV of an IT or IS user with access to source code and architecture documentation. This method offers the most challenges as testers must evaluate large amounts of network data to identify vulnerabilities. Consequently, the method takes the longest amount of time.

Understanding the scope and purpose of the penetration test is vital step for phase one. It is necessary to schedule a clear time for the test, to determine if the test will be performed on production or testing environment, and further whether or not discovered vulnerabilities should be exploited or acknowledged and reported.

Additionally, it should be established whether or not the pen test will occur in during “live” standard operating hours, or during off hours. If network security measures are already in place, attempting to identify or exploit vulnerabilities may result in a shutdown of mission-critical systems.

2.     Scanning: Attackers use technical tools to gather more knowledge on the targeted system. This may include gather info on how the operating system will respond to various intrusion attempts. Scanning methods include:

a.     Static Analysis scans the entirety of an application’s code to observe response actions.

b.     Dynamic Analysis – inspection of application code running state, providing real-time view into performance data.

In addition to scanning efforts, pen testers can use this stage to take a wide view of collected data in order identify non-technical exploits:

a.     Social engineering uses deceptive actions (i.e. phishing) to manipulate internal network users into unwittingly sharing their personal information or credentials.

b.     Discovery scans aggregate information gathered in the reconnaissance phase in order to identify means to breach the network. For example, in gray box pen tests, tools such as port or vulnerability scanners are used to quickly identify network access point.

3.     Gain Access / Penetrating the Network: Using gathered data in phase 1 and 2 to exploit vulnerabilities within the targeted system. Pen testers can choose to exploit the vulnerability that offers the most chance of successful penetration. However, this stage will likely involve testing multiple vulnerabilities to successfully gain access. Further, there are multiple ways to approach breach attempts:

a.     Technical Approach: Leveraging information gained from port and vulnerability scanner tools, testers enact penetration attacks at vulnerabilities they believe will provide the most success. These are then exploited through actions such as the escalation of privileges, data theft, traffic interceptions, and otherwise. This may involve the use of web application attacks, attempts to compromise ports, or brute force methods using compromised systems to attack other systems.

b.     Human Approach: In instances when the reconnaissance and scanning reveal few or no technical vulnerabilities, pen testers can pivot to Social Engineering efforts, perhaps using phishing attacks to target employees. Using public source search engines or social medial searches, testers can compile contact information through external sources to create profiles of targeted network users. If users respond to phishing attempts and incidentally download malware, their devices can be exploited to gather sensitive data or potentially escalate account privileges to gain admin-level access.

The goal of this stage is to acquire as much sensitive data as possible, or to gain access to mission critical systems that can disrupt business continuity. Testers should actively catalog errors and user alerts observed throughout the process so that security personal can discern how and why information is revealed to external users.

4.     Maintaining Access: Taking steps to maintain persistent presence within the targeted system and continue gathering as much sensitive data as possible. The longer bad actors have access, the more likely they are to acquire access to further access. This simulates advanced persistent threats, which may often remain in a system for months. On average it takes 287 days to recognize and contain a data breach.

5.     Covering Tracks / Reporting: Simulating attacker attempts at remaining anonymous, testers clear traces of their activity within the target system (i.e. vulnerabilities exploited, data gathered, log events, amount of time user was undetected within the system, etc.). For testing purposes, this helps security personnel in configuring enterprise web application firewall (WAF) settings and in creating application security patches.

Finally, testers should compile their findings in a report, detailing the type of pen test performed, the steps taken during each phase, any vulnerabilities that were collected, and remediation steps. This risk analysis should recommend methods for closing system vulnerabilities, potential patches or updates required, or new employee and IT security policies that should be enacted.

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Cybersecurity threats are becoming more common and while many companies believe they are protected, even small vulnerabilities can lead to wide scale breaches and security related shutdowns.

Don’t wait for the worst! Our team of experts provide offensive strategies that identify and resolve weaknesses as well as providing defensive solutions prepare for attacks when they happen.

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