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Introduction to penetration test 

It is commonly known as pen test or pentest in ethical hacking. It is a form of a cyberattack that is basically done to check what is the situation of the security of a system. Often people confuse this penetration test or pen test with the vulnerability assessment test.

Software testing is the process of evaluating a software application or system to ensure it meets specified requirements and to identify any defects. It can be done manually or using automated tools.

Penetration testing, also known as “pen testing,” is a simulated cyber attack on a computer system, network, or web application to evaluate the security of the system. The goal of penetration testing is to identify vulnerabilities that an attacker could exploit and to provide recommendations for mitigating those vulnerabilities.

History of the Penetration test 

In 1965 security concerns rose, because many thought that communication lines can be penetrated and the attacker/hacker might be able to get the data that is being exchanged between one person to another person. In an annual joint conference of 1967 various computer experts stated this point that communication lines can be penetrated.  The idea of penetration testing came into mind when a corporation found a major threat to internet communications. This is what lead many organizations to assign a team who would try to find the vulnerability in computer networks or systems which will lead to the protection from any unauthorized access.

The concept of penetration testing has its roots in the early days of computer security. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States government and military began to recognize the need for security testing of their computer systems. Early penetration testing techniques were primarily focused on identifying vulnerabilities in individual systems, rather than entire networks.

In the 1980s, the rise of personal computers and the internet led to an increased need for network security testing. This prompted the development of more sophisticated penetration testing tools and techniques, as well as the creation of the first commercial penetration testing services.

In the 1990s, the field of penetration testing continued to evolve, with a greater focus on automated testing and the use of commercial tools. The growth of e-commerce and the increasing reliance on the internet for business led to a greater need for web application security testing.

Today, penetration testing is an integral part of cybersecurity, with organizations of all sizes and in all industries conducting regular testing to identify and mitigate vulnerabilities in their systems. The penetration testing process is continuously evolving to adapt to new technologies and threat scenarios.

What is a penetration test?

It is a form of cyberattack done to understand the situation of the security of the system. People often confuse this test with the vulnerability assessment test. So penetration test is composed of some methods or instructions whose main aim is to test the organization’s security. This test much proved to be helpful for the organizations because it helps to find the vulnerabilities and check if the attacker /hacker will be able to exploit and be capable of enough of gaining unauthorized access.

A penetration test, also known as a “pen test,” is a simulated cyber attack on a computer system, network, or web application. The purpose of a penetration test is to identify vulnerabilities in the system that an attacker could exploit, and to evaluate the effectiveness of the system’s security controls.

During a penetration test, a team of security professionals, called “white hat” or “ethical hackers,” attempt to gain unauthorized access to the system, just like a real attacker would. They use a variety of techniques, including network scanning, social engineering, and exploit development, to identify vulnerabilities and find ways to bypass security controls.

Once the test is complete, the team will provide a report detailing their findings and recommendations for mitigating the identified vulnerabilities. The goal of a penetration test is not to cause harm to the system, but to identify and help fix security weaknesses before they can be exploited by malicious actors.

It is important to note that there are different types of penetration testing, such as External Penetration testing, Internal Penetration testing, and Web application penetration testing. Each of them has its own scope, methodology, and objectives.

Difference between vulnerability  Assessment and penetration test

Vulnerability Assessment:- This test should not be confused with the penetration test. The main aim of the penetration is to find the vulnerability in an asset and document them in an organized manner.

Penetration test:- This test is basically done to see the attacker/hacker can exploit the vulnerabilities or not. If the exploit is possible then those vulnerabilities are documented.

Penetration Testing Process: 

The penetration testing process includes five phases: 

Reconnaissance: 

This phase is also known as the planning phase. In this phase, important information about the target system is gathered. 

Reconnaissance is the first phase of the penetration testing process. It involves gathering information about the target system or network in order to identify potential vulnerabilities and attack vectors.

During the reconnaissance phase, the penetration tester will gather information from a variety of sources, including:

Publicly available information, such as company websites, social media accounts, and domain name registration records
Network scanning tools, which can be used to identify live hosts, open ports, and running services
Vulnerability scanning tools, which can be used to identify known vulnerabilities in the system
OSINT (Open-Source Intelligence) techniques, which can be used to gather information from various sources such as Google, social media, and other public domains.
The goal of reconnaissance is to gather as much information as possible about the target system or network, in order to identify potential weaknesses that can be exploited during the later phases of the penetration test.

It is a crucial step of the penetration testing process as it allows the testers to understand the target system environment and to define the scope of the test.
 

Scanning: 

In this phase, different scanning tools are used to determine the response of the system towards an attack. Vulnerabilities of the system are also checked. Scanning is the second phase of the penetration testing process, following reconnaissance. It involves using automated tools to actively probe the target system or network in order to identify live hosts, open ports, and running services.

During the scanning phase, the penetration tester will use a variety of tools to perform different types of scans, such as:

Port scans: which identify open ports on live hosts, and the services running on those ports.
Vulnerability scans: which search for known vulnerabilities in the system based on the version and configuration of the software running on the open ports.
Network mapping: which creates a visual representation of the target network, including the hosts, devices and services.
Scanning can be done internally or externally, depending on the scope of the test and the objectives of the organization.

It is an important phase of the penetration testing process as it allows the testers to identify the attack surface of the target system, and to identify potential vulnerabilities that can be exploited during the next phase of the test.

It is important to note that the results of the scan may not necessarily be accurate and should be verified by a human tester in order to avoid false positives.
 

Gaining Access: 

In this phase using the data gathered in the planning and scanning phases, a payload is used to exploit the targeted system. 

Gaining access is the third phase of the penetration testing process, following reconnaissance and scanning. In this phase, the penetration tester will attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities identified in the previous phases to gain unauthorized access to the target system or network.

During the gaining access phase, the penetration tester will use a variety of techniques, such as:

Exploiting software vulnerabilities: using known exploits to gain access to a system or network.
Social engineering: tricking employees or users into revealing login credentials or other sensitive information.
Password cracking: using automated tools to guess or crack passwords.
The goal of this phase is to gain access to the system, and to establish a foothold from which the penetration tester can move laterally through the network.

It is an important phase of the penetration testing process as it allows the testers to assess the real impact of the identified vulnerabilities and to evaluate the effectiveness of the security controls in place.

It is important to note that gaining access should be done in a controlled environment, with proper permissions and guidelines, and not to cause any harm to the system or data.
 

Maintaining Access: 
 

This phase requires taking the steps involved in being able to be continuously within the target environment to collect as much data as possible. 
 Maintaining access is the fourth phase of the penetration testing process, following reconnaissance, scanning and gaining access. In this phase, the penetration tester will focus on maintaining their access to the target system or network and expanding their control over it.

During the maintaining access phase, the penetration tester will use a variety of techniques, such as:

Establishing backdoors: creating a way to regain access to the system in case the initial access is closed.
Privilege escalation: increasing their level of access to the system, from a low-privilege user to an administrator or root user.
Persistence: maintaining the access to the system over time by creating a way to bypass security controls.
Lateral movement: moving through the network to gain access to other systems and resources.
The goal of this phase is to maintain access to the system or network for as long as possible and to expand the scope of the attack.

It is an important phase of the penetration testing process as it allows the testers to assess the impact of a successful attack and to evaluate the effectiveness of the security controls in preventing or detecting a prolonged unauthorized access.

It is important to note that maintaining access should be done in a controlled environment, with proper permissions and guidelines, and not to cause any harm to the system or data.

Be hidden from the user

This is the moment where the attacker will have to clear the trace of any activity done in the target system. It is done in order to remain hidden from the user/victim.In the final phase of a penetration test, the tester will focus on being hidden from the user. This phase is also known as “covering tracks.” The goal of this phase is to make it as difficult as possible for the system administrator or security team to detect the tester’s presence and activities on the system.

During the covering tracks phase, the penetration tester will use a variety of techniques to hide their presence, such as:

Clearing logs: deleting or modifying system logs to remove any evidence of the tester’s activities
Hiding files: using techniques such as rootkits or hidden directories to conceal files and tools used during the test
Disabling security controls: disabling or circumventing security controls such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and antivirus software to evade detection.
It is an important phase of the penetration testing process as it allows the testers to assess the ability of the system to detect and prevent a prolonged unauthorized access and to evaluate the incident response plan of the organization.

It is important to note that covering tracks should be done in a controlled environment, with proper permissions and guidelines, and not to cause any harm to the system or data. Also, it is important that the tester leaves the system in its initial state after the test.

Rules in penetration testing

There are rules that have to be followed when conducting the penetration test like the methodology that should be used, the start and the end dates, the goals of the penetration test, and more. To make the penetration test possible, there should be a mutual agreement between both the customer and the representative. These are some of the things which are commonly present in rules which are as follows:-

  1. There will be a non-disclosure agreement where there will be written permission to hack. This non-disclosure agreement will have to be signed by both parties.
  2. There should be a start and end date for penetration testing.
  3. What methodology should be used for conducting the penetration test?
  4. There should be the goals of the penetration test.

Types of Penetration Testing Methodologies-

  1. Black Box penetration testing 
  2. Grey Box Penetration testing
  3. White Box Penetration testing

Black Box Penetration Testing:- In this Method attacker is has no knowledge about the target as it exactly simulates an actual cyber attack where an actual black hat hacker attacks. This testing takes time as the attacker has no knowledge about the system so he gathers them. This method is used to find existing vulnerabilities in the system and used to simulate how far a hacker can go into the system without any info about the system.

Grey Box Penetration Testing:- In this method, the attacker is provided with a bit more information about the target like network configurations, subnets, or a specific IP to test, Attacker has a basic idea of how the machine is to which he/she is going to perform an attack, they may also be provided with low-level login credentials or access to the system which helps them in having a clear approach, This saves time of Reconnaissance the target.

White Box Penetration Testing:- We can say that in this testing method attackers have developer-level knowledge about the system which also includes an assessment of source code, Ethical hackers have full access to the system more in-depth than black box testing. It is used to find out potential threats to the system due to bad programming, misconfigurations, or lack of any defensive measures.

Types of the Penetration test 

  1. Social Engineering Penetration test:- This test can also be considered as a part of the Network Penetration Test. In this case, an organization might ask the penetration tester to attack its users. This is the moment where the penetration tester eligible to use the speared phishing attack and more to trick the user to do unthinkable.
  2. Physical penetration test:- In this case, the penetration tester will be asked to check the physical security controls of the building like locks and RFID mechanisms.
  3. Network penetration test:- in this case, the penetration tester will have to test the network environment for potential security vulnerabilities and threats.
  4. Web Application penetration test:- This test is nowadays considered to be common as application hosts data’s which can be considered as critical as it can be. The data can be like the username, passwords, or more.
  5. Mobile Application penetration test:- This test is done because every organization nowadays used Android or Ios mobile-based applications. So the goal is to make their mobile applications are secured and to make it reliable for the customer to provide personal information when they are using any applications.

Advantages of the Penetration test 

  • The penetration test can be done to find the vulnerability which may serve as a weakness for the system.
  • It is also done to identify the risks from the vulnerabilities.
  • It can help determine the impact of an attack and the likelihood of it happening.
  • It can help assess the effectiveness of security controls.
  • It can help prioritize remediation efforts.
  • It can provide assurance that the system is secure.
  • It can be used to test the security of any system, no matter how large or small.
  • It can be used to find vulnerabilities in systems that have not yet been exploited.
  • It can be used to assess the effectiveness of security controls in place.
  • It can be used to educate employees about security risks.

Disadvantages of the Penetration test 

  • The penetration test which is not done properly can expose data that might be sensitive and more.
  • The penetration tester has to be trusted, otherwise, the security measures taken can backfire.
  • It is difficult to find a qualified penetration tester.
  • Penetration testing is expensive.
  • It can be disruptive to business operations.
  • It may not identify all security vulnerabilities.
  • It may give false positives (incorrectly identifying a vulnerability).
  • It may give false negatives (failing to identify a vulnerability).
  • It may require specialized skills and knowledge.
  • The results may be difficult to interpret.
  • After the penetration test is completed, the system is vulnerable to attack.

Penetration Testing Tools

  1. Nmap: It is a network exploration tool and security scanner. It can be used to identify hosts and services on a network, as well as security issues.
  2. Nessus: It is a vulnerability scanner. It can be used to find vulnerabilities in systems and applications.
  3. Wireshark: It is a packet analyzer. It can be used to capture and analyze network traffic.
  4. Burp Suite: It is a web application security testing tool. It can be used to find security issues in web applications.

Last Updated : 28 Jan, 2023
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