How Ethical Hacking Can Safeguard Your Site

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Did you know there is a kind of hacking that’s considered ethical — helpful, even? It’s called penetration testing, and it’s used for evaluating the security of a company’s IT infrastructure — basically how easily it can be hacked — by attempting to access and exploit its vulnerabilities.

Think about it this way: If you wanted to see how easily thieves could break into your house, you might try to break into it yourself. Instead of testing physical doors and windows, website pen testers try to hack into servers, networks, web applications, devices and other points of entry.

Why does pen testing matter?

A bar graph showing the exponential growth of new vulnerabilities identified each year from 1988 to 2020.
Source: X-Force Red

The number of new vulnerabilities discovered each year continues to rise — from only four in 1988 to 17,992 in 2020. Today, there are at least 180,171 known vulnerabilities that hackers may use to gain access to networks.

Many attacks can be made by a hacker with only basic knowledge, and it can take as little as 30 minutes to penetrate a local network. Intentional, proactive preparation is the best way to stay on top of cybersecurity.

How does pen testing work?

Pen testing can be performed manually or by using an automated system. If you do it manually, make sure you have the right team in place — with specialized skills based on what you’re testing — and the work must be reproducible so it’s easy for developers to remediate the vulnerabilities.

Pen testing can look different for everybody, but here are some common methods:

  • Black Box: Testers have no information about the target except for the name of the company, so they must find an entry point on their own. 
  • Grey Box: Testers have information on the design and architecture of documentation and internal structures. This is a good method for mimicking a hacker who has long-term access.
  • White Box: Testers have information on IP addresses, network infrastructure schematics, user protocols and system artifacts. This method can be quick and inexpensive to organize.
  • Targeted: Testers and security personnel work together and know each other’s activity at each stage, showing real-time perspectives from both sides.
  • External: This method simulates an attack on assets visible on the internet. It mimics outside attackers breaking into the system and seeing how far they can get.
  • Internal: This method mimics a threat from inside the firewall, such as a Phishing attack or malicious employee.
  • Blind: This method mimics a real-life attack. Security personnel has limited information about the tester’s activity or breach method.
  • Double-blind: Few company members know about this test, which provides an authentic perspective into security personnel’s ability to detect and react to breaches.

Pen testing shouldn’t be a one-time event; ideally, companies should conduct it at least every one to two years because new vulnerabilities are found every day — about 50, to be exact. 

It’s important to stay up to date on new versions of software, systems, programs and applications. Data security is an ever-changing landscape, and your business depends on your ability to protect your business — and your customers as well. One of the pushbacks to conducting regular pen testing is how expensive it can become, ranging from $4,000 to $100,000 per test. But compared with the cost of a data breach — not only in finances but in reputation — isn’t it a price worth paying?

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