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Penetration Testing: Can your company prevent or reverse a data breach with minimal damage/time lost?

Nisha Gopinath Menon
February 21, 2021

Penetration testing is how our team helps companies manage risk, protect clients from data breaches, and increase business continuity. In highly regulated industries like the healthcare, service, and banking industries, it also helps the business stay compliant.

Penetration testing or pen testing, or even ethical hacking involves ethical hackers scaling planned attacks against your company's security infrastructure to hunt down security vulnerabilities which have to be fixed. We advocate for pen testing as part of our holistic web application security strategy. Penetration testing can be performed manually or automated with software applications. The process, either way, involves gathering data about the target prior to the test, then looking for possible entry points, trying to break in, and reporting the findings back. Penetration tests are also known as white hat attacks since in a pen test, it's the good guys that are attempting to break in.

Penetration testing is also used to test a company's adherence to compliance requirements, its security policy, its employees' security awareness, and the organization's ability to identify and respond to security incidents. The information about security weaknesses that are exploited or identified through pen testing is aggregated then provided to the organization's network system managers and IT heads, enabling them to prioritize remediation efforts and make strategic decisions.

Types of Penetration Tests

White Box Tests
In white-box testing, companies provide our testers with various security info related to their systems to help us better discover vulnerabilities.

Blind Tests
In a black-box test or a blind test, organizations provide our testers with no security information about the system being penetrated. Here the goal is to expose vulnerabilities that would not be detected otherwise.

Double-Blind Tests
In a covert test or a double-blind test, not only do organizations not provide our testers with security information, they also do not inform their own computer security teams of the tests. Typically, these tests are highly controlled by those managing them.

Internal Tests
An internal test is where the pen testing happens within an organization's premises. These tests usually focus on security vulnerabilities that people working from within an organization could take advantage of.

External Tests
Here, our testers attempt to find vulnerabilities remotely. Due to the nature of these kinds of tests, they are performed on external facing applications like websites.

Penetration testing can be essential to ensuring compliance due to the highly regulatory nature of some industries such as service providers, healthcare, and banking. Software security teams typically have to ensure that they are maintaining compliance with regulations like:


Medical information is perhaps more profitable and highly valuable to hackers than banking data. Medical data often includes insurance numbers, birth dates, social security numbers, billing information, and diagnosis codes. They can use this data to secure false prescriptions by committing identity fraud. If you're a medical institution or a health-tech company, it is vital to perform regular pen testing to assure yourselves, your clients, and your regulatory agencies that data is safe from prying eyes.

Pen testing can help demonstrate how exactly a hacker can gain access to sensitive data by exploiting an organization's infrastructure. As hackers evolve and grow, periodic mandated testing ensures that your organization will stay a step ahead by fixing the security weaknesses uncovered before they are exploited. For auditors, additionally, these tests also help verify that other mandated security measures are working properly or in place.

The 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA is the US federal law governing the safety, privacy and electronic exchange of medical info. Medical institutions will have to perform regular technological tests of their data security to remain compliant with HIPAA. And what better way to test your system than to act as the threat itself and fix any vulnerabilities found? That's what a pen tester does.

Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard or PCI DSS is the rulebook governing how customer card data is managed. It was recently adapted to require both a pen test and a vulnerability scan.


Vulnerability scanners are automated tools examining an environment, which upon finishing, creates a report of the vulnerabilities discovered. Using CVE identifiers providing info on known weaknesses, these scanners often list these vulnerabilities. Scanners can uncover 1000s of vulnerabilities, so there might be many severe vulnerabilities that require better prioritization. But these scores don't account for the circumstances of every individual IT environment. Here is where penetration tests play a crucial role.

Vulnerability scans do provide an insightful picture of what probable security weaknesses exist, but penetration tests add more context by discovering if the vulnerabilities could be used to gain access into your environment. Based on what poses the most risk, pen tests can also help prioritize remediation plans.

Penetration tests must be conducted on a regular basis. However, they come with their limitations. The quality of your test and the results derived depend directly on the skills of your testing team. Due to the limitation of scope, limitations of tools used by the tester, and limitation on the access of penetration testers to the testing environment, penetration tests cannot find all the vulnerabilities. Ensure that the team you pick is experienced and certified. Ask if they perform both automated and manual testing and look into the documented process they follow. The team should protect your data during and after the test.

With the evolving landscape of cyber threats, pen-testing alone is sometimes not enough. There are certain big limitations of penetration testing, even though it comes with a gamut of advantages that can impact your company adversely. Certain companies selectively perform security testing, meaning they don’t test all of it. This could be because of budget constraints, lack of resources, poor security policies, or other factors. Penetration testers often have to leave many parts of the system unchecked because they have limited scope. Many times, for instance, exploits are dependant on the interactions of systems. Vulnerabilities which come from the interactions of systems will not be discovered if the scope of penetration testing is limited to a single system, leading to poor quality and an insufficient penetration test that could cause damage to your business down the road. Limitation of time and access can also affect penetration testing. Penetration testing plays a key role in discovering security vulnerabilities. But you must be aware of its limitations as they can have a huge impact on your business. Forgoing penetration testing is not the solution. Ideally, you should combine it with other good security methods and processes to carry out proper tests.

Can your company prevent or reverse a data breach today with minimal damage/time lost? Calling in a white-hat hacker or third-party is a solid way to make certain your data stays protected. If you still have questions, reach out to our team here.

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Nisha Gopinath Menon