It’s one thing to invest in network security solutions — and it’s quite another to know that your network security solutions will work. Most businesses hope and pray that they’ve done enough to protect their network, devices and data from cyberattack, but blindly purchasing a security package without understanding its features or testing its capabilities is a good way to permit gaps through which hackers can comfortably waltz.
The tried-and-true method for verifying the solidity and efficacy of network security is called a penetration test, or pen test. Pen testing is essentially ethical hacking; it requires hiring a cyber security expert to identify exploits and vulnerabilities by systematically trying to break down your defenses. Regular pen tests will not only ensure that your security is thorough, but it will also give you, your employees and your customers peace of mind.
However, not all pen tests are equally strategic and tactical, meaning you could be wasting your money on pen tests that don’t approach your security as hackers might. Here is the structure of a successful penetration test, so you can be sure your security works.
The Right Kinds of Threats
Every organization is subject to a unique combination of threats, which means each organization’s security needs to function differently to provide adequate protection. Thus, before you start pen testing your network security — indeed, perhaps before you begin developing your organization’s cybersecurity strategy to begin with — you should develop a threat profile to understand what types of threats you should be focusing your efforts against.
A threat profile can be as complex and difficult to compile as a pen test is to execute. It includes information about the critical assets within your organization — i.e. what valuable data and devices you need to protect — as well as categorization and explanation of various threats likely to target your organization to abuse or damage your assets. As with pen tests, it is generally wise to acquire a threat profile through a qualified third party as opposed to your in-house IT team, especially if you lack a dedicated security expert on your team.
The Right Objectives for Each Test
Even after you know what threats you are facing, you can’t build a pen test to verify your defenses against all of them. Rather, penetration tests tend to be highly targeted; they test one element of your security strategy at a time, and they do so fully to ensure that no digital stone is left unturned.
Thus, you can’t create an effective pen test that “finds everything.” Instead, each pen test needs to have a specific objective. Your core goal will always be to improve your security posture, but you might plan individual tests to look at more precise issues within your broader security plan — for instance, one test might search out bottlenecks in your crisis response and recovery plan while another test might identify risks within the tools and utilities used by your employees. You can create these goals with the help of your IT team as well as those tasked with performing your pen tests.
The Right Testers
Speaking of — you can’t hire just anyone to complete a penetration test. Because pen tests are essentially hacking attempts on your organization, you need to be able to trust your testers to do nothing more than assess your security and provide you with reports that assist in strategic improvement. So-called penetration testers who do no more than “hack stuff” aren’t valuable partners; you need to find testers who focus on the research of their work, who can effectively identify weaknesses within a system and explain them to non-hackers and non–IT experts.
Generally, it’s not wise to rely on your in-house IT team to perform pen tests. This is not because they lack the skill, though that might be true — the ability to build a security strategy is not equivalent with the ability to crack through one. Rather, your in-house IT is too close to your network security, meaning they might overlook obvious vulnerabilities, leaving them open to potential attackers. You should be more than willing to hire a reliable third party to perform your pen tests, as long as you are suitably comfortable with their expertise and professionalism. You might consider also hiring additional third parties to ensure that all potential avenues to your assets are covered.
You are only involved in testing your network security insofar as you hire the right people and set the right expectations. And perhaps most importantly of all, the right penetration testing never ends; you should always be on the lookout for new weaknesses in your security, which means scheduling pen tests regularly into the future.