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External Pentest

An external pentest, also known as an external vulnerability assessment or external penetration test, is a type of security assessment that simulates an attack by an external attacker.

Objective of an External Pentest

The primary objective of an external pentest is to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in an organization's external infrastructure. These vulnerabilities can be used by attackers to access sensitive data, disrupt operations, or cause other damage. More specifically, an external pentest aims to achieve the following objectives:

Identify known vulnerabilities

Pentesters use a variety of tools and techniques to search for known vulnerabilities in exposed systems and applications. These vulnerabilities may be listed in public databases, such as the National Vulnerability Database (NVD).

Assess security posture

Auditors assess the organization's overall security posture by identifying areas where security controls are insufficient or could be improved.

Verify compliance with safety standards

Pentests can help organizations demonstrate compliance with security standards and regulations, such as PCI DSS or HIPAA.

Provide recommendations for remediation

The pentest report will provide detailed recommendations for remediating identified vulnerabilities and strengthening security controls.

External pentesting is an essential tool for organizations of all sizes to identify and remediate security vulnerabilities in their external infrastructure.

By conducting regular pentests and implementing remediation recommendations, organizations can significantly reduce their cybersecurity risk and protect their sensitive data.

Steps of an External Pentest

An external pentest is a multi-step process that aims to identify and exploit security vulnerabilities in an organization's external infrastructure. Typical steps of an external pentest include:

Overall Penetration Testing Methodology
  1. Planning & Kick-off: During this stage, the organization and the pentest provider collaborate to define the test objectives, test scope, and time and budget constraints.
  2. Reconnaissance: During this stage, the pentester collects information about the target organization, such as its IP address, domain names, and the services it exposes to the public.
  3. Vulnerability Assessment & Exploitation: During this stage, the pentester uses tools and techniques to identify vulnerabilities in exposed systems and applications. The pentester will also seek to exploit identified vulnerabilities to gain access to the organization's infrastructure.
  4. Reporting: During this stage, the pentester writes a report that documents the test results and provides recommendations for fixing vulnerabilities.
  5. Counter-audit

Planning & Kick-off

The planning and agreement phase is an essential step in an external pentest. It allows the organization and the pentest provider to define the objectives, scope, constraints and expectations of the test.

Test Objectives

The test objectives should be clearly defined before the test begins. Objectives may include:

  • Identify and remediate security vulnerabilities in the organization's external infrastructure.
  • Demonstrate compliance with safety standards and regulations.
  • Improve employee security awareness.

Test scope

The scope of the test must also be precisely defined. The scope defines the systems, applications and data that will be included in the test. It is important to define the scope broadly enough to identify the most important vulnerabilities, but not so broad that the test is uncontrollable.

Constraints

The test constraints must also be defined. Constraints may include time, budget and available resources. It is important to define the constraints realistically so that the organization and the pentest provider have realistic expectations.

Expectations

Test expectations should also be set. Expectations may include frequency of testing, depth of assessment, and format of the test report. It is important to set expectations clearly so that the organization and pentesting provider are on the same page.

Planning documents

The results of the planning phase must be documented in planning documents. These documents must include the following information:

  • The objectives of the test.
  • The scope of the test.
  • The constraints of the test.
  • Test expectations.

Launch meeting

A kick-off meeting should be held at the end of the planning phase. This meeting allows the organization and the pentest provider to discuss the planning results and address any questions or concerns.

Reconnaissance

The reconnaissance phase consists of collecting information about the target organization in order to facilitate the following phases of the test.

Objectives of reconnaissance

The objectives of reconnaissance are as follows:

  • Understand the infrastructure of the organization.
  • Identify systems, applications and data exposed to the public.
  • Identify potential entry points.
  • Determine the organization's security policies.
  • Discover known vulnerabilities.

Reconnaissance techniques

Pentesters use various reconnaissance techniques to gather information about the target organization. These techniques may include:

  • Web search: The pentester searches the web for information about the organization, such as its domain names, IP addresses, and social networks.
  • Port Scan: The pentester scans the organization's IP addresses to identify open ports and determine the services hosted there.
  • Vulnerability Scanning: The pentester uses tools and databases to scan for known vulnerabilities in the organization's exposed systems and applications.
  • Code analysis: The pentester analyzes the source code of web applications to identify security vulnerabilities.
  • Network Observation: The pentester monitors the organization's network traffic to identify unusual behavior or security vulnerabilities.

Limits of reconnaissance

Reconnaissance is a passive technique that does not allow pentesters to penetrate the organization's infrastructure. However, it is essential to provide pentesters with an understanding of the organization's environment before moving on to the next phases of testing.

Vulnerability Assessment & Exploitation

The vulnerability assessment and exploitation phase is the third step of an external pentest. It consists of evaluating and exploiting the identified vulnerabilities.

Objectives of Vulnerability Assessment and Exploitation

The objectives of vulnerability assessment and exploitation are:

  • Check if the vulnerabilities can be exploited by a real attacker.
  • Assess the severity of vulnerabilities.
  • Determine ways to mitigate vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability Assessment and Exploitation Techniques

Pentesters use a variety of techniques to assess and exploit vulnerabilities. These techniques may include:

  • Manual Exploitation: Pentesters manually exploit identified vulnerabilities to assess their severity and determine whether they can be exploited by a real attacker.
  • Automated Exploitation: Pentesters use automated tools to exploit identified vulnerabilities.
  • Social engineering testing: Pentesters use social engineering techniques to deceive users into obtaining sensitive information or gaining access to systems or applications.

External pentest reporting

The reporting phase is the 4th step of an external pentest. It consists of writing a report which documents the results of the test.

Penetration test report

Reporting objectives

The objectives of reporting are as follows:

  • Document test results.
  • Provide information to fix vulnerabilities..
  • Help the organization improve its security posture.

Report structure

The pentest report should be clear and concise and should provide sufficient information for the organization to remediate vulnerabilities effectively. The report must include the following information:

  • Summary: A summary of the test results, including the test objectives, test scope, techniques used, and vulnerabilities identified.
  • Vulnerability Details: A detailed description of each identified vulnerability, including the severity of the vulnerability, ways to exploit the vulnerability, and recommendations for remediating the vulnerability.
  • Recommendations: Recommendations to correct the identified vulnerabilities.

Counter-audit

The cross-audit phase of an external pentest is an important step in verifying that identified vulnerabilities have been addressed appropriately.

Counter-audit objectives

The objectives are as follows:

  • Ensure vulnerabilities have been addressed appropriately.
  • Identify vulnerabilities that have not been patched properly.
  • Provide information to improve vulnerability remediation.

Execution

The auditor should follow the pentest report's recommendations to test the exposed systems and applications and ensure that they are no longer vulnerable to the identified vulnerabilities.

Results

The results of the validation of the correct remediation of vulnerabilities must be documented in a report which is provided to the organization. The report must include the following information:

  • The conclusions of the validation.
  • Recommendations to improve vulnerability remediation.

Please note that the Ziwit teams remain available between carrying out the pentest and the counter-audit, at no additional cost, to advise the client on remediation choices.

At Ziwit, we provide certification attesting to the good IT security of an Information System. This certificate is issued when the IS no longer presents vulnerabilities. It serves to reassure employees that the solution exposed does not present any security vulnerabilities.

Types of External Pentest

External pentests are generally classified into three main categories:

Black Box Pentest

In this type of testing, the pentester has no prior knowledge of the organization's network or systems. The listener:

  • Should start with a reconnaissance phase to collect information about the target, such as IP addresses, domain names and utilities.
  • Uses various tools and techniques to identify security vulnerabilities, such as misconfigurations, weak passwords and out-of-date software.

Black box testing is the most realistic, as it simulates an attack by an unknown attacker.

Black box
White box

White Box Pentest

In this type of testing, the pentester is given limited access to the organization's internal information, such as network diagrams, security policies, and application source code.

This allows it to conduct a more in-depth security posture assessment, as it can identify vulnerabilities at a more detailed level.

White box testing is often used for more comprehensive audits and security standards compliance assessments.

Grey Box Pentest

This type of testing is between black box testing and white box testing.

The pentester receives limited information about the organization, usually public information and some confidential information.

This allows it to stand between the unknown attacker and the attacker with access to internal information.

Gray box testing is often used when an organization wants a more realistic assessment than black box testing, but does not want to disclose too much internal information.

Grey box

Choosing the appropriate type of pentest will depend on the specific objectives of the organization.

  • Black box testing is ideal for assessing overall security posture and identifying potential risks from unknown attackers.
  • White box testing is more suitable for in-depth audits and compliance assessments because it can detect vulnerabilities at a more detailed level.
  • Gray box testing is typically used to strike a balance between realism and confidentiality, providing a more realistic assessment than black box testing while preserving some internal information.

Advantages of External Pentest

External pentesting offers several benefits to organizations, including:

Improved security posture

External pentesting can help organizations identify and remediate security vulnerabilities in their external infrastructure. These vulnerabilities can be exploited by attackers to access sensitive data, disrupt operations, or cause other damage.

For example, an external pentest can identify an erroneous configuration of a web server that allows an attacker to access sensitive data. Once the vulnerability is fixed, the organization is better protected against this attack.

Risk mitigation

External pentesting can help organizations prioritize security investments and make informed decisions on risk mitigation strategies. This can help organizations reduce their exposure to cybersecurity risks.

For example, an external pentest may identify that the organization is vulnerable to a denial of service (DoS) attack. The organization may then decide to invest in DoS attack protection measures to mitigate this risk.

Compliance Assurance

External pentests can help organizations demonstrate compliance with security standards and regulations. This may be important for organizations that must comply with specific regulatory requirements, such as PCI DSS or HIPAA.

For example, an organization that accepts credit cards must comply with PCI DSS. An external pentest can help the organization identify areas where it is not meeting the standard and take the necessary steps to become compliant.

Security Awareness

External pentests can raise employee awareness of security threats and encourage responsible behavior. This can help reduce the risk of human errors, which are often the cause of cyber attacks.

For example, an external pentest might reveal that an employee is using a weak password. The organization can then educate its employees about the importance of using strong passwords to reduce the risk of account compromise.

In addition to these general benefits, external pentests can also offer specific benefits to organizations of different industries or sizes. For example, organizations that process sensitive data, such as banks or hospitals, can benefit from external pentesting to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited to steal or corrupt that data.

Smaller organizations may also benefit from external pentesting, as they may have limited resources to invest in security. External pentesting can help these organizations identify the most critical vulnerabilities and take the necessary steps to remediate them.

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