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Security Audits and Penetration Testing

6 minute read | July 10, 2018
T.J. DeGroat

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T.J. DeGroat

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Last year, ransomware attacks known as WannaCry and NotPetya changed the cybersecurity game forever. WannaCry was a first-of-its-kind global multi-vectored attack that rapidly infected more than 200,000 machines across 150 countries, causing havoc and billions of dollars in damages.

The fundamental shift here is the fact that bad actors are now using (leaked) military-grade hacking tools developed by the National Security Agency to target just about everyone. For small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the consequences are significant, as the average cost of a single data breach can be as much as $117,000.

The legacy of these cyberattacks still resonates and reaffirms the fact that we need to take proactive steps to protect ourselves better. This process starts with a security audit, and here’s what you should know about it.

What Is a Security Audit?

A security audit can be described as a systematic evaluation of your enterprise IT infrastructure defenses. During the course of this examination, security professionals will measure how well your security protocols comply with a list of established criteria to validate their security posture.

These audits should be thorough and conducted on a regular basis to secure your data and digital assets. If you’re in a highly regulated industry, engaging in this activity will also help your business ensure compliance (like HIPPA, GDPR, PCI-DSS, SOX, etc.).

Before you conduct a security audit, the security team will have to decide on the scope of the analysis.

A typical security audit will assess the following:

  • Bring-your-own-device initiatives
  • Data- and access-related items (like cards, passwords, and tokens)
  • Email
  • Hardware configurations
  • Information-handling processes
  • Network
  • Physical configuration of the system and environment
  • User practices
  • Smart devices
  • Software configurations

The audit should evaluate each of the above against past and potential future risks. This means that your security team should be up to date on the latest security trends and the measures taken by other organizations to respond to them.

At the end of the security audit, an in-depth report will be put together covering the strengths and weaknesses of your current security arrangements. Whenever a vulnerability is identified, the cost of securing it should be evaluated against the cost of a breach.

Whenever your security protocols fall short (when compared to the latest hacking trends), it’s imperative to act fast, as a single vulnerability could lead to a significant data breach.

For SMEs, in particular, it might be tempting to ignore this because of a lack of personnel or sizable resources to dedicate to cybersecurity. However, this is precisely what makes these businesses a prime target.    

What’s more, when businesses don’t take a proactive approach to cybersecurity, bad actors can penetrate your system and go undetected for an extended period of time.

Regardless of how much you expend to secure your enterprise systems, the reality is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all, foolproof solution. As a result, there should be an established robust plan and controls to maintain business continuity in the event of an active security event.

Security Audit vs. Vulnerability Assessment

As detailed above, a security audit evaluates your company’s security posture against an established list of security standards, policies, and procedures.

A vulnerability assessment, on the other hand, looks at the vulnerabilities in the information system (often using automated tools) but doesn’t provide any indication of whether the vulnerabilities can be exploited or how much a successful breach or ransomware attack could cost the company.

This approach comes with a lot of limitations, as vulnerability scanning software only looks at your system based on past common vulnerabilities. So if you’re conducting a vulnerability assessment, it’s imperative that the software is up to date. However, this makes the vulnerability assessment software only as effective as the maintenance performed by the software vendor.

The software itself isn’t resistant to a breach and has the potential of coming with software engineering flaws. The methodology employed to detect vulnerabilities can also have a significant impact on the results, so it goes without saying that security audits override vulnerability assessments.

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What Is a Penetration Test?

Penetration tests go beyond security audits and vulnerability assessments by trying to breach your system just like a hacker. In this scenario, a security expert will try to replicate the same methods employed by bad actors to determine if your IT infrastructure could withstand a similar attack.

Often, penetration testing will involve using multiple approaches in conjunction to try and breach the system. This makes it highly effective as you’re simulating the same methods employed by bad actors in the real world.

When you engage in penetration testing, you’ll benefit from in-depth insights into the vulnerabilities and also learn how these weaknesses can be exploited.

For example, in some cases, you might find some minor vulnerabilities that can be ignored. But a penetration test will enlighten you to the fact that several minor vulnerabilities can be leveraged together to compromise the whole network.

Penetration tests use both commercial and open source tools to identify loopholes in security models. They also involve targeted attacks on specific systems using both automated and manual techniques to ensure that vulnerabilities haven’t gone undetected.

There are several types of penetration tests, but more often than not they’re divided into three variations.

External Penetration Tests

As the name suggests, external penetration tests focus on your publicly exposed systems. These tests will be conducted from the perspective of a hacker to uncover vulnerabilities that can potentially expose internal systems.

Internal Penetration Tests

Again, as the name suggests, internal penetration tests focus on all your internally connected systems. In this scenario, penetration tests will be conducted on internal systems that can be accessed and operated remotely by a bad actor.

By engaging in this activity, you’ll be able to ascertain if hackers can compromise your internal systems and get past your internal security protocols.

Hybrid Penetration Tests

Hybrid penetration tests leverage both external and internal attacks to determine if a blended approach can lead to a data breach. In fact, it’s the best approach to figure out if your security posture can defend against both local and remote intrusions.

To carry out these types of penetration tests, cybersecurity professionals employ three approaches to try and breach the system.

Related Read: What Does a Cybersecurity Analyst Do?

Black Box Tests

Black box penetration testing involves external penetration tests where the tester has no prior knowledge of your system. They will target your network like any bad actor would to try and gain access to your internal network.

This approach simulates real-world attacks and goes a long way toward reducing false positives. It’s also a great way to assess the steps taken by your IT team to counter an active breach.

White Box Tests

White box penetration testing is the opposite of black box penetration testing, as both testers and security auditors will have a thorough understanding of your company’s IT infrastructure and current security posture.

This means that security professionals will have in-depth knowledge about the following:

  • Application source codes
  • IP addresses
  • Network environment
  • Operating system (including the current version)

White box tests will have to be coordinated between your internal security team and the audit team. When you engage in this activity, it will simulate an insider attack with unlimited access and full privileges to the target system.

Gray Box Tests

The gray box testing approach finds a balance between both black box and white box tests. In this scenario, penetration testers will have some knowledge about your internal and external infrastructure.

This simulation mimics those attacks where bad actors (either internally or externally) breach the system with restricted access privileges. This approach will uncover vulnerabilities and identify weaknesses in both your internal and external systems.

Key Benefits of Security Audits and Penetration Tests

Routine security audits and penetration tests play a critical role in enhancing the security of enterprise systems and networks. It’s a proactive method to stay one step ahead of cybercriminals because you’re regularly conducting a comprehensive risk assessment of your infrastructure.

Security audits and penetration tests also enable security teams to focus on high-severity vulnerabilities and validate the security mechanisms employed by the company. This approach also emphasizes application-level security concerns to both development and management teams.

The bottom line here is that conducting both security audits and penetration tests can help your organization save money while ensuring business continuity.

In fact, it’s an intelligent way to manage and respond to vulnerabilities to ensure compliance while maintaining brand value, brand reputation, and customer loyalty.

This post was written by Andrew Zola. Andrew is a full-stack storyteller and blockchain writer who can be found on Twitter @DrewZola.

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About T.J. DeGroat

T.J. is a writer and editor waging war against unnecessary capitalization. You can follow him on Twitter @tjdegroat.