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Penetration testing (pen testing) is designed to simulate a cyber attack to determine the effectiveness of an organization’s cybersecurity. Cybersecurity professionals hack into an organization’s computer system to pinpoint vulnerabilities that attackers could infiltrate.  Pen testing is an essential part of the constant vigilance that’s needed to keep private data protected. It helps organizations identify higher- and lower-risk vulnerabilities, assess operational impacts of successful attacks, measure a network’s defense abilities, meet compliance requirements, and implement and validate new security controls.  


How penetration testing works

Comprehensive penetration testing thoroughly tests an organization’s cybersecurity weaknesses. It takes into account how an attacker would target the organization and the level of success they would achieve.  Pen testing reviews networks, applications, devices, and physical security to identify areas for improvement, including:
  • Application layer defects such as weak session management, cross-site scripting, injection flaws, insecure direct object references, and more
  • Network and system-level defects such as wireless network vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, rogue services, weak passwords, product-specific vulnerabilities, and more
  • Hardware and software level defects such as insecure protocols, misconfigurations, weak passwords, and more 
  • Physical barriers such as locks, sensors, cameras, and more


Information gathering, threat modeling, vulnerability analysis, exploitation, post-exploitation, and reporting are the main steps involved in pen testing.  Automated scans can help identify some security issues but truly effective pen testing takes into account manual attacks too. 


Why penetration tests are needed

Cybersecurity is a rapidly evolving landscape with complex policies and architectures. Pen testing analyzes the ongoing ability of an organization’s existing security tools and configurations to defend against attackers gaining access to information, installing malware, hacking networks, and disrupting services.  Highly trained cybersecurity professionals are able to detect dangers an organization may not be aware of yet. These professionals are so skilled at using tactics that resemble cybercriminals that sometimes they are misconceived as attackers themselves. That’s why it’s important that all parties involved in pen testing understand the parameters of the test. 



While many organizations perform automated scans of their networks, most don’t have the specialized expertise to comprehensively penetration test without potentially impacting business operations. A cybersecurity professional can efficiently determine if a potential weakness is actually exploitable and could lead to the compromise of data.  When it comes to avoiding cyber attacks it’s crucial to be proactive, especially for organizations that directly manage sensitive personal information.  Additional Reading: HIPAA Compliant Email: The Definitive Guide


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