Information infrastructure

How to effectively conduct a network penetration test

After addressing the vulnerabilities identified in the website assessment, it’s recommended to conduct a network penetration test to validate the risk assessment and ultimately improve the business’s security posture.

This article will clearly understand network penetration testing and its associated benefits. You will also understand how to perform a network penetration test effectively and how to explain it to future clients or key stakeholders.

What Is A Network Penetration Test?

A network penetration test is a deliberate attempt to find security weaknesses in a network or system using tactics that a hacker might use. The purpose is to evaluate the network’s reaction to these attacks and to identify any vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.

A network penetration test is similar to a vulnerability assessment, aiming to discover network vulnerabilities. However, the difference is that a penetration test is a more realistic simulation of an attack and is used to identify vulnerabilities that may be more difficult to detect.

Network scanning on a laptop

Benefits Of A Network Penetration Test

Performing network penetration tests on your systems has several benefits, such as understanding your network baseline, testing your security posture and controls, preventing network and data breaches, and ensuring network and system security.

A network penetration test is a comprehensive assessment of a company’s network to evaluate its security controls and identify potential vulnerabilities that attackers could exploit. This test helps businesses understand their network’s baseline and prevent future attacks and breaches. It is usually conducted when a business has a robust security posture or believes they have strong security measures.

A network penetration test differs from a vulnerability assessment because it aggressively tests your security controls. A test aims to identify weaknesses in your network by attempting to breach it and exploit any vulnerabilities, and this helps identify areas that require improvement.

Scanning tools such as port, network, and vulnerability scanners are commonly used to identify a network’s baseline. Knowing the baseline helps business owners determine which security measures are effective, detect vulnerabilities, and gain more knowledge about their network.

Performing a successful penetration test can help business owners design or adjust their risk analysis and mitigation strategies based on the results. By simulating a real-world attacker trying to break into their systems, businesses can use the test to prevent future breaches.

A network penetration test is beneficial for maintaining system security, and it can help identify areas of weakness in a business’s security strategy, even if they have strong external defenses. For instance, sometimes internal defenses like a host-based Intrusion Prevention System (IDS) may need to be addressed or addressed. Certain steps must be followed to perform a successful network penetration test.

Key Steps In The Network Penetration Testing

Although network penetration testing and vulnerability assessments are frequently confused, they differ. Generally, security professionals consider network penetration testing a subsequent step after a vulnerability assessment. This is done when the vulnerabilities found in the assessment have been fixed, and the business owner desires to evaluate the security of their network more thoroughly. There are four essential steps to follow for an effective penetration test.

A network administrator taking action against an attacker

Information Gathering

It is necessary to consider the three main categories of penetration tests to ensure an effective discussion of network penetration test goals: black box, gray box, and white box testing.

Black box testing is a network penetration test where an average hacker with minimal internal knowledge of the system or network is simulated. This test is the quickest as it uses tools to find and exploit vulnerabilities in the outward-facing network. However, it is essential to remember that if the perimeter cannot be breached in this test, any internal vulnerabilities will remain undiscovered.

Gray box testing is a network penetration test where a user with system access and potentially elevated privileges performs the test. It provides a focused assessment of the network’s security, revealing external and internal vulnerabilities.

White box testing is a network penetration test where the tester can access the source code and architecture documentation. This test is lengthy and challenging because there is a lot of data to review to identify vulnerabilities. Knowing the different types of network penetration tests is important for penetration testers and business owners because each offers specific benefits to the business.

In addition to choosing the type of penetration test for your network, you need to talk about and schedule a specific date and time. You must also decide whether to conduct the test on a production or staging/testing environment and whether the client desires to exploit or identify and report vulnerabilities.

If security measures are in place on a network, even small changes could cause critical systems to shut down. Network penetration tests can be done during or after business hours, depending on the schedule. Make sure to document all information that will be used during the test.


Reconnaissance And Discovery

It’s time for you to act as a penetration tester. Begin the survey and discovery step after discussing the test’s goal, the information to be used, and its date and time.

To start your survey, use port and network scanners on the network and systems. This will help you identify the devices on the network and any existing vulnerabilities. Your objective is to locate the vulnerabilities so you can exploit them.

To identify network vulnerabilities and gain easier access, one might use social engineering, which involves deceiving individuals to get them to reveal confidential or personal information for fraudulent purposes.

In a gray box penetration test on a client’s network, the discovery phase involves using tools such as a port scanner to identify open ports and a vulnerability scanner to detect system vulnerabilities. By aggregating this information, a pathway for breaching the network can be identified.

Data protection from hacking

Performing The Test

In step 3, the pen tester will use the vulnerabilities you identified in step 2 to perform a network penetration test. This may involve tools like exploits or custom scripts. The pen tester will select the most critical or simplest vulnerability to exploit and proceed with the exploitation process.

Although this method is only partially reliable, it requires testing various vulnerabilities to breach the network successfully. Informing the client of the network’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial when presenting the findings. Please review the following examples demonstrating successful ways to perform a penetration test.

Technical Approach

As part of their survey and discovery process, a pen tester utilizes the network’s port and vulnerability scanner tools. Upon analysis, they found that a client system had an open port on Port 80. This is uncommon behavior for the system as it usually doesn’t require an internet connection via Port 80.

You suspect that the system is vulnerable to attacks from Port 80. To test this, you perform an SQL Injection or Buffer Overflow attack. Upon gaining access, you pivot to other systems on the network using the compromised system and launch a Brute Force attack. You assume that the internal security defenses are unprepared for an attack from a trusted host on the network.

Network scanning

Human Approach

While conducting surveillance and discovery, your scanning tools did not detect any technical vulnerabilities in the systems. However, you observed that social engineering and phishing attacks might be the most effective approach in this penetration test. This is because you could easily find key employees and their contact information in the company through social media searches.

After identifying key employees in the Accounting Department through social media, you create a fake email that appears to come from the company’s Human Resources department. The email requests that the recipient download and fill out a file for HR purposes, but the attachment contains a Key Logger or Rootkit malware. You then wait for the employee to fall for the trap.

After receiving notification that an Accounting employee has downloaded the malware, you can breach the network to obtain confidential financial data and potentially elevate account privileges to achieve administrator-level access. Your network breach will be considered successful once you have achieved your target of accessing sensitive information or crucial systems.

Your network penetration test can still be useful even if you cannot hack into the target systems. Understanding the network’s strengths and weaknesses is valuable to the client. If you cannot gain unauthorized access, you can suggest a more comprehensive test, like a white box test, in the future. Remember to share the test results and recommendations with the client.

Reporting And Remediation

After conducting a penetration test, a report is created describing the type of test carried out, the procedure, the vulnerabilities found, and recommendations for fixing them. For the data owner, it’s crucial to comprehend the extent of risk that these vulnerabilities present to their business. As such, it’s the responsibility of the penetration tester to provide a risk analysis that helps the data owner make an informed decision.

Remediation may involve installing patches and updates and enforcing certain policies, such as Employee Use policies and IT Security policies, in case of any internal vulnerabilities. It is crucial to note that a successful breach does not solely determine a network penetration test’s success. If the tester cannot breach the network, it proves that the organization’s existing security measures are effective in fending off attacks or detecting them.

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