Penetration testing, also known as “pen testing,” is a method of evaluating the security of a computer system or network by simulating an attack. A penetration testing methodology allows professional hackers to follow structured steps and reach their goals more predictably. Pen testing aims to identify vulnerabilities that an attacker could exploit and evaluate the defenses to prevent such an attack. It is an important part of any organization’s cybersecurity strategy, as it helps to identify and address weaknesses before malicious actors can exploit them.
This blog post will go through the typical penetration testing methodology, from planning and scope definition to reporting and follow-up. By understanding these steps, you’ll have a better idea of what to expect if you ever need to undergo a pen test or are considering hiring a pen testing firm to assess your systems.
If you want to apply this knowledge to a hands-on use case, I invite you to enroll in this mini-course and discover the job of a pentester in 30 minutes.
Step 1 of the penetration testing methodology: Planning and scope definition
Before the testing can begin, it’s important to define the scope of the engagement and identify the target system or network. This could be a web application, a single server, a group of servers, or an entire network. The goals and objectives of the testing should also be clearly defined, as this will determine the types of vulnerabilities the testers will be looking for. For example, the goal might be to test the defenses against a specific type of attack or to identify vulnerabilities that could be used to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data.
In this mini-course, the scope will be a server hosting a web application. We will present the effort evaluation and the planning for the pentest mission.
Step 2 of the pentest methodology: Information gathering and Enumeration
The next step is to gather as much information as possible about the target system or network. This could include public records, such as WHOIS information for domain names, and more technical data, such as IP addresses and network configurations. Tools like traceroute, dig, nmap, dnsrecon, etc. can be used to gather this information and identify potential vulnerabilities.
In the mini-course, we will use the web browser, command-line tools, and BurpSuite to perform port scanning and application mapping.
Step 3: Vulnerability analysis and Attack Plan
Once the testers have gathered all the relevant information, they will identify and prioritize vulnerabilities. This may involve manually reviewing the data gathered in the previous step or using specialized tools to scan for vulnerabilities. It’s important to determine the potential impact of each vulnerability, as this will help to prioritize remediation efforts.
Based on the analysis we will perform on the scope in the mini-course, we will build an attack plan to finally exploit the vulnerabilities we found.
Step 4: Exploitation and Pivoting
The next step is to attempt to exploit the identified vulnerabilities. This may involve running automated tools or testing the defenses to see if they can be bypassed. This step aims to determine whether an attacker could actually gain unauthorized access to the system or network.
Once we exploit a SQL injection in the mini-course, we will gain a remote shell on the server, and elevate our privileges to gain full control of the server.
Step 5: Reporting and follow-up
Once the tests are complete, the results should be thoroughly documented, and a report should be prepared for the client. This report should include a detailed description of the identified vulnerabilities and recommendations for remediation. It’s also important to follow up with the client to ensure that the vulnerabilities have been properly addressed and that the system or network is now more secure.
Penetration testing is an important part of any organization’s cybersecurity strategy, as it helps identify and address systems and networks’ weaknesses before malicious actors can exploit them. By understanding the steps of a typical pen testing engagement, you can better prepare for and understand the process if you ever need to undergo a pen test or hire a pen testing firm.
The best way to learn ethical hacking is through practice. With the mini-course, you can practice what you’ve learned on a hands-on target in just under 30 minutes. What are you waiting for? Get your hands dirty and follow a pentest methodology on a real target.
Ready to become an ethical hacker? Here are the 4 steps you should follow.