What is Penetration Testing?

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Penetration testing is an authorized simulation of a cyberattack on a company’s technologies. You may have also heard it referred to as Pentesting, Security Auditing, Ethical Hacking, or Security Testing. The main objective of penetration testing is to give companies the chance to see their security system the way a hacker sees it. It shows the companies the various ways in which a hacker would infiltrate and exploit their cybersecurity during various cyberattacks.

During the penetration test, a certified specialist tries to exploit vulnerabilities within a company’s cybersecurity to provide an example of what might happen if a real hacker infiltrated their system and took advantage of the system’s vulnerabilities. Various frameworks and methodologies, such as OWASP, are used as a base for the assessment. These frameworks and methodologies are chosen because of their large communities that always stay up to date with the most recent techniques and tools that hackers use to penetrate a company’s systems. They also provide a structured approach to test applications, networks, and infrastructures systematically with various guidelines and controls to assess.

Purpose of Penetration Testing

Why would a company hire an ethical hacker to simulate a cyberattack on their systems or applications? The biggest objective of penetration testing is to uncover, identify, and fix a company’s vulnerabilities in their cybersecurity so a real hacker does not exploit them for malicious purposes. Here are some common use cases for penetration testing:

  • Used to test the security of a brand new application, to test a new feature, or a website to ensure that the implementation of new components is secure.
  • Meet regulatory requirements, such as SOC 2 requirements, PCI Card Processing requirements, and more.
  • Verify the security of a company’s network after making a major change to it.
  • Meet the requirement of a third party — partners, banks, insurers, and others — to provide evidence that the company’s systems and applications are secure and before formalizing business partnerships.
  • Provides a second opinion for your company’s cybersecurity to hold your provider accountable. It helps ensure that your IT provider or application developer is managing your risks adequately and following best practices in regards to cybersecurity.

Without a Pentest, companies are left with unknown entry points that could be used by hackers to infiltrate into their systems or to trick the organization’s users into submitting sensitive information. This assessment allows companies to stop the guessing games and provides actionable recommendations to prevent cyberattacks their organizations is the most at risk of suffering.

Types of Penetration Testing

Every type of Pentest can generally be approached from two distinct perspectives — Internal and External testing. An external test, known as a black-box test or an anonymous test, is a real simulation of an attacker without any knowledge or any access for the targeted systems. Internal tests, on the other hand, provide access (such as credentials to an application or access to an internal network) to simulate an internal attacker or a malicious user.

External penetration tests are generally the most common type of assessments sought by organizations, aiming to identify vulnerabilities that are the most likely to be discovered and actively exploited by attackers. The public internet is constantly being scanned by bots and attackers in search for vulnerable systems they could take advantage of. This makes externally accessible vulnerabilities the most dangerous and most likely to be exploited, hence why this type of penetration test is generally the most common.

With an internal test, the specialist starts with some means of access provided to them. This includes items such as a demo account for an application or access to a company’s internal networks (not accessible from the internet). This test is meant to identify the possibility for a malicious user or employee to escalate their privileges within the system and access sensitive data they should not have access to. Internal penetration testing is just as important, especially for applications, although the risks are less important than external threats for networks.

Learn more about the differences between internal vs. external penetration testing.

Here are the various types of tests:

What a Penetration Test Delivers

After a pentest, the company receives a professional report that outlines in detail the findings of the test and provides prioritized recommendations to prevent actual hackers from gaining access. The goal is to help companies identify places where they are the most vulnerable, what steps are taken by hackers to exploit their vulnerabilities, what impact it could have on their organizations and corrective measures they should put in place to protects the company from cyberattacks. Here is a look at the main points that a company finds in an average penetration test report:

  • Executive summary: This element provides an overview of the risks identified over the course of the test. The findings will be clear and concise for less technical stakeholders to understand. The goal is for everyone in the company who reads the report to understand the summary to assist their risk management strategy.
  • List of vulnerabilities prioritized by risk level: Categorized by 4 risk levels (critical, high, moderate, and low), this section of the report will provide you with a list of vulnerabilities found within your company’s system. Typically, the penetration testing specialist uses two factors to categorize a vulnerability. The first factor is the impact this item would have on a company if exploited. Second, the pentester determines how easy it was to exploit the vulnerability, as it increases the risk that the vulnerability might be actively exploited by hackers.
  • Details of the vulnerability: This section provides documented evidence (in the form of screenshots, logs, data tables, etc.), of any vulnerability found by the specialists. It includes the necessary steps for your IT team to replicate each item. For each vulnerability, the company receives a recommendation to fix it combined with external references to help you apply the corrective measures.
  • Methodology: The final element in the report is the frameworks and methodologies used to perform the pentest. This is the method used to uncover and exploit the various vulnerabilities during the penetration test.

Penetration Testing Resources

Want to learn more about penetration testing? Here is a list of resources that provide additional details, from the various factors that determines the cost, to various resources that help you pick a pentest provider.

Cost of a penetration test

Questions to ask your pentest provider

What you should find in a penetration test report

Top penetration testing methodologies

More articles about penetration testing

In this digital-first world, penetration testing is essential and should be performed any time the company makes changes to the network, website, or an application. It can also be used to acquire new deals and partnerships, which makes it a great asset for any organization. Companies that want to identify and fix any security gaps within their system before a hacker finds and exploits them, should look into performing a penetration test. This will allow them to meet third-party requirements and become compliant to regulatory standards, secure their sensitive data, prevent breaches and much more.


A penetration test is a simulated hacking attempt that identifies opportunities for real hackers to break through your defences and perform various malicious acts. It generally leverages tools used by hackers and various professional methodologies to replicate the steps that modern hackers would take to intrude into your IT systems.

A pentest attempts to exploit your vulnerabilities to determine their potential impact, should they be used in a real hacking scenario. They provide a list of vulnerabilities with their respective level of severity, as well as technical recommendations to help your team apply corrective measures and focus on the most critical vulnerabilities.

These services allow your organization to answer the following questions, among several others:

  • Can a hacker gain access to any sensitive information?
  • Can a hacker hijack my technologies for any malicious acts?
  • Could a malware infection spread through the network?
  • Can an attacker escalate access to an administrative user?

Learn more about penetration testing →

There are many contexts in which a penetration test should be performed.

Here are some common use cases for a pentest:

  • As part of the development cycle of an application. (To test the security of a new feature/app)
  • To comply with security requirements. (3rd-parties, PCI, ISO27001, etc.)
  • To secure sensitive data from exfiltration.
  • To prevent infections by malware. (Ransomware, spyware, etc.)
  • To prevent disruptive cyberattacks. (Such as denial of service)
  • As part of a cybersecurity risk management strategy.

All businesses are advised to conduct a penetration test at least once a year, as well as after any significant upgrades or modifications to the company network. Given the rapid rate at which new exploits are discovered, we generally recommend that quarterly tests are performed.

Various steps are taken over the course of the project to prevent the potential impact of our tests on the stability of your technological environment and the continuity of your business operations.

For this reason, a communication plan will be put in place at the beginning of the project to prevent and mitigate any potential impact. A representative of your organization will be identified to act as the main point of contact to ensure rapid communication in the event of a situation directly impacting the conduct of your daily operations, or if any critical vulnerabilities are identified, for which  corrective measures need to be implemented quickly.

While we use a simple 4 levels risk rating approach (Critical, High, Moderate, Low), our risk assessment is actually based on the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) standard. Two main criteria are considered when  assessing the risk level of each vulnerability:

  • Potential impact: The potential impact of an attack based on a vulnerability, combined with its  potential effect on the availability of the system, as well as the confidentiality and integrity of  the data.
  • Exploitability: The potential exploitability of a vulnerability; a vulnerability that is easier to  exploit increases the number of potential attackers and thus the likelihood of an attack.  Different factors are considered when evaluating the exploitability potential of a vulnerability  (e.g.: access vector, authentication, operational complexity, etc.)

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