Penetration testing explained
Have you ever wanted to break into a system to see how things work? Have you ever wondered how malicious agents access and exploit systems for personal gain? It’s a natural curiosity that has surely sprung to a tech enthusiast's mind at least once. This is something that cybersecurity professionals do regularly. Penetration testers, alongside ethical hackers and other white hat hackers, frequently break into systems and test an organization's security posture. We at Cybernews Academy want to take you through the functions of a penetration tester, how they differ from ethical hackers, and how you can pursue an academic and professional journey in penetration testing.
What is a penetration tester?
A penetration tester, like a white hat hacker, is a cybersecurity professional who attacks a system with consent to identify vulnerabilities that malicious agents could exploit. These tests aim to analyze an organization's security posture by identifying weaknesses before exploiting them. Penetration testers seek out vulnerabilities by simulating real-life attacks without the damage.
Penetration or pen testers utilize specific tools and techniques to simulate cyberattacks on the compromised target systems of organizations legally and safely.
A pen tester's responsibilities may include:
- Vulnerability assessment - pen testers are responsible for identifying and assessing potential vulnerabilities in a business and organization's systems and applications. These weaknesses come in the form of software bugs, misconfigurations, and poor security settings.
- Penetration testing - this is the process of conducting safe attacks against an organization's systems to gain unauthorized access to access data.
- Social engineering - this facet of penetration testing is used to test people by attempting to manipulate others into divulging sensitive information or performing actions that could compromise security. This could come in the form of phishing scams or pretexing.
- Web application testing - this involves identifying weak spots in web applications before malicious agents exploit them.
- Network security testing - is the process of assessing and preventing vulnerabilities that could cause an organization harm. This form of pen testing evaluates the network's infrastructure and security posture.
- Wireless network testing - involves assessing the security of wireless networks. On average, wireless networks are some of the most easily corruptible; therefore, penetration testers perform attacks to evaluate whether an organization's wireless networks are secure.
Penetration Tester vs. Ethical Hacker
Although penetration testers and ethical hackers are often seen as the same, they take on different roles in the cyber security ecosystem. As reported in our previous article, ethical hacking is “more of a career path or job title encompassing many facets of cyber security.” Although ethical hackers and penetration testers want the same thing (to secure an organization's systems against malicious attacks), they have different areas of expertise and a different scope of responsibility. Ethical hacking is an overarching term to describe all techniques used to locate security weaknesses and the vulnerabilities present within an organization's system. In addition, Ethical hackers will anticipate the behavior of malicious actors. Whereas penetration testers conduct their investigation using specific methods and focusing on particular systems. Pen testers are hired for specific purposes, like exploiting an organization's web application. The attacks that penetration testers perform are time-sensitive, which is not the same for ethical hackers. However, penetration testers only need knowledge of one area where they conduct the penetration test. Ethical hackers need to have a much broader understanding of systems, vulnerabilities, and techniques. Another difference between ethical hackers and pen testers is the scope of access the two professionals have. Ethical hackers may have total access to an organization's system, whereas pen testers will only access a specific area.
The stages of penetration testing
Penetration testing and ethical hacking are closely related in the way they function while performing these attacks. We at Cybernews Academy have outlined the pen testing processes in detail within our ‘ethical hacking explained’ article. As they follow a similar structure, we will briefly outline the seven stages of penetration testing here.
- Preparation - the penetration tester must first gain information about the organization's scope. Penetration testers should gain permission and consent from the organization to begin conducting the penetration test on the pre-established targeted systems.
- Reconnaissance - this is the phase where pen testers obtain more information about the target. This information is acquired through data that is open to the public. A pen tester will use non-invasive techniques to identify potential points of entry.
- Scanning - the pen tester uses tools and techniques to scan for open ports and potential points of entry in the targeted systems.
- Enumeration - upon identifying open ports, penetration testers will extract more information, such as user accounts, personal information, and other details that could be exploited in the vulnerability analysis phase.
- Vulnerability analysis - once the enumeration phase is complete, pen testers will assess vulnerabilities in the previous stages.
- Exploitation - once all the vulnerabilities have been identified, a pen tester will attempt to exploit them to gain authorized access or control of the targeted systems. The ‘attacker’ will explore the compromised systems to demonstrate the severity of the impact.
- Results and reporting - the results of the findings will be written in a report. This includes the severity, the potential impact of the attack, and the mitigation procedures. This report will then be given to the organizations who ordered the penetration test.
We at Cybernews Academy do not encourage any unlawful hacking activity.
Penetration tester at university
If you are looking to pursue a career as a penetration tester, a formal education will help you stand out from the crowd. You can undertake a bachelor’s degree in any field related to computer science. Some universities offer dual degrees in cyber security and pen testing. This provides intensive practical training alongside teaching you the fundamentals of cyber security. Here are some of the degrees you should consider if you are looking to pursue a career as a penetration tester:
- Computer Science
- Information Technology
- Cyber Security
- Cyber Security and Ethical Hacking
- Cyber Security and Penetration Testing
These degrees can give you an edge over the competition and demonstrate your practical and theoretical understanding of penetration testing and cyber security. These degrees will also give you an understanding of systems, how they work, and how they can be broken.
How to become a penetration tester
Interestingly, many ethical hackers begin as penetration testers and gradually gain the knowledge to take on all aspects necessary to improve an organization's security posture. However, there is a solid career path you can take if you want to pursue penetration testing.
Do you have what it takes?
Are you a creative and adaptable person who has a passion for problem-solving and is in the market for continuous development and learning? Pen testing is the job for you. Pen testers are met with various unique issues they must solve regularly. You need to be creative in this problem-solving by finding unique solutions to complex problems. You must adapt to the ever-changing climate of the technological landscape and stay up to date with the technologies and techniques of the present.
Upgrade your skills
Once you’ve decided that a career in penetration testing is for you and have completed a formal education, you may want to consider undertaking a certification in penetration testing or ethical hacking. This certification will validate your skills and help you gain new insights into penetration testing. You should also consider gaining some experience by completing some independent projects or reaching out to an organization that will allow you to do work for them for free. As you learn and develop your skills, you will then be able to charge for your services or apply to different companies as a pen tester.
Experience is key
Once you have completed some projects, work in real-world environments, as this will help you flex your skills of enumeration, analysis, scanning, and recon. Usually, an entry-level penetration tester position requires an individual to have a formal education and experience. So, locating free resources online that will allow you to develop your skills while testing your abilities is a great way to start.
Apply for jobs
Once you have gained all the necessary skills, qualifications, and experience, you can start applying for jobs. You can utilize online job search engines such as LinkedIn or Indeed to locate penetration tester jobs.
The salary for a penetration tester in the U.S. ranges from approximately $82,000 to $149,000, depending on your experience level.
Penetration testing is an exciting and engaging facet of cyber security. If taken out of the proper context, it can be dangerous, so we encourage all our readers to practice honing their skills in a safe and legal environment. Suppose you wish to pursue a career in penetration testing. In that case, you should undertake a formal education, develop your skills through online courses, and gain experience in the natural and digital world. Become a virtual vigilante and secure cyberspace through penetration testing.