What are the Phases of Penetration Test?


We live in a digitally advanced world where most businesses have now evolved to adopt advanced technology and cloud solutions.  However, with this so has the risk and threat of cyber-attacks increased. We have been witnessing a spike in cases where organizations are suffering incidents of a breach. This could have been avoided if there were appropriate security measures in place. Incidents such as data theft, unauthorized access, and data loss are some incidents that are prevailing in the industry. These incidents occur due to vulnerabilities in systems, applications, and networks. So, for addressing these issues penetration tests are performed to identify vulnerabilities within systems and applications. Elaborating on the testing technique in detail we have explained what is penetration testing, why is it essential and the different phases of the penetration test. 

What is a Penetration Test?

Penetration testing is an evaluation process performed to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in the IT system. It is a technique wherein an ethical hacker is hired to simulate a real attack on targeted systems and applications. This test is performed to identify vulnerability and check how the hacker can exploit all the known and unknown vulnerabilities to hack into systems, and networks. This way organizations can get an insight into the current security posture of their IT Infrastructure.  It is also an effective way to build a strong defense against any potential threat and secure sensitive data. 

Now that we know what a penetration test is, let us understand why penetration test is important for businesses. 

Why is Penetration Test Important?

Penetration Test is a process that involves the technique of evaluating the security controls. This is done by simulating real-world attacks on the targeted systems. The evaluation process highlights vulnerabilities in systems, the impact of risk, and the effectiveness of controls against these attacks. Elaborating on this we have listed out the reasons why we believe a penetration test is essential. 

Discovering Vulnerabilities 

The primary objective of conducting a penetration test is to evaluate and identify weaknesses or vulnerabilities in systems. More than often certain security control errors and misconfigurations gets unnoticed. But with penetration testing known and unknown vulnerabilities get detected. The test gives you a complete insight into the IT infrastructure and lets the security team know of any flaws in it. Further, it also exposes various kind of internal and external threats to the IT systems, networks, and applications.

Prioritization of Resources 

Penetration test helps organizations identify vulnerabilities and prioritize their resources based on the level of risk ascertained during the evaluation. The process of penetration tests includes identifying, analyzing, and reporting the outcomes including categorizing vulnerabilities as low, medium, and high risk and providing solutions to address these issues. Vulnerabilities that are classified as high risk can accordingly be addressed immediately. Further, timelines are accordingly assigned to address the weak areas. 

Risk Mitigation 

Risk mitigation strategies are crucial for businesses from the perspective of securing data and preventing breach incidents. Penetration tests can help organizations strategize and implement appropriate security controls based on the risks discovered during the testing process.  Depending on the level of risk exposure and the applications and network on target, organizations can build a strong security program accordingly. 

Prevents Incidents of Breach 

Penetration Testing determines various security flaws and vulnerabilities in systems and applications. If not identified and addressed in time, hackers may exploit these vulnerabilities which can ultimately result in a data breach or data theft. But with the penetration testing process, analysis, and reporting the issues can be immediately identified and fixed. It will help organizations address issues and accordingly implement strong security measures that can ultimately result in data breach incidents.  

Secure Infrastructure 

Implementing strong security measures is only possible when the organization is aware of the security risks and flaws in its systems and network. Penetration test helps detect vulnerabilities and help organization implement security measures that protect the IT Infrastructure. For these reasons it is recommended that organizations frequently conduct a penetration test on their IT infrastructure so they can prevent the risk of any potential threat and also improve their security defenses. 

Now that we have learnt why penetration test is important, let us understand the different phases of the penetration test. 

Different Phases of Penetration Test 

Stage 1 Reconnaissance

The first stage of the penetration test involves conducting an active and passive reconnaissance. By this, we mean gathering evidence and information freely available online or by probing into systems and applications. The testers use active and passive reconnaissance techniques for the information gathering process.

Active Reconnaissance- This technique involves directly engaging with the target system and application to gain the maximum information possible. The process involves the tester probing the target system and network for any potential weakness. For instance, checking the network for open ports, or vulnerable routers that may give hackers an entry into the systems. 

Passive Reconnaissance- Passive reconnaissance means collecting information that is freely available online. For this technique, the tester does not require direct engagement with the target system. They rather collect information from public resources using platforms like Google or other search engine platforms or channels. 

Stage 2 Scanning

Scanning is the second stage of the penetration test where after gaining enough information on the target systems and network, the tester now moves on to use scanning tools to explore various systems and network weaknesses. At this stage, the system and application are tested to evaluate the performance of the target on a real-time basis. This is to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses that may potentially be exploited for targeted attacks. The objective of scanning is to detect and identify unknown vulnerabilities and misconfigurations that could impact the systems significantly.  

Stage 3 Gaining Access

This is a crucial stage of the penetration test where the tester gains access to the systems and application by leveraging the information gained during the first two stages of the penetration test. Here the penetration tester also known as the ethical hacker simulates an attack and infiltrates the infrastructure. They further exploit vulnerabilities by escalating privileges by stealing data and intercepting traffic. This is to demonstrate how deep the hackers can get into the target environment. 

Stage 4 Persistent Access

This is the stage of the penetration test where the hackers continue to maintain access to systems for a prolonged period of time. This is to demonstrate the period of time until which a hacker can remain and maintain persistent access to systems, applications, and a network comprising sensitive data. So, once the hacker has a strong foothold in a system, they maintain the access long enough to accomplish the hacker’s malicious goals. The objective is to obtain the maximum level of privileges, network information, and access to as many systems as possible. This phase of the penetration test demonstrates the level of impact a security breach could have on business. 

Stage 5 Analysis and Reporting

Report and Analysis is the last phase of a penetration test. It is also the most critical stage of the penetration test. At this stage, all the evidence, and outcomes are compiled into a report and a detailed analysis of it is highlighted in the document. This document would include information such as all the known and unknown vulnerabilities detected, level of risk exposure, the impact of the risk or threat, the type of sensitive data that is exposed, and the amount of time the penetration tester maintained access and remained undetected. All the information collected during the test is analyzed and relevant solutions are recommended to fix the gaps and address the vulnerabilities. These are informative reports that offer organizations actionable guidance to address the issues. 

Final Thought 

The penetration test identifies weaknesses or vulnerabilities and also verifies the effectiveness of security controls implemented within the environment. It gives an organization insight into their current IT Infrastructure and their Cyber Security posture. This way organizations can be proactive in identifying flaws and vulnerabilities in systems and address the issue before a hacker exploits the weakness and stages an attack. For these reasons, it is essential that organizations frequently conduct a penetration test on their IT infrastructure. Such tests will help them patch the security gaps and vulnerabilities that may otherwise go unnoticed and further help them improve their cyber security measures. 

Guest article written by: Narendra Sahoo (PCI QSA, PCI QPA, PCI SSLCA, PCI SSFA, CISA, CISSP, CRISC, CEH, and ISO27001 LA.) is the Founder and Director of VISTA InfoSec, a global Information Security Consulting firm based in the United States, Singapore & India. Mr. Sahoo has more than 25 years of experience in the IT industry, with expertise in Information Risk Consulting, Assessment, and Compliance services. VISTA InfoSec specializes in Information Security audit, consulting, and certification services which include GDPR, HIPAA, CCPA, NESA, MAS-TRM, PCI DSS Compliance, and Audit, PCI PIN, SOC2, PDPA, and PDPB, to name a few. Since 2004, VISTA InfoSec has worked with organizations across the globe to address the Regulatory and Information Security challenges in their industry. VISTA InfoSec has been instrumental in helping top multinational companies achieve compliance and secure their IT infrastructure.

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