Cyber security is a vital aspect of any modern business, especially in the UK, where cyber attacks and data breaches are becoming more frequent and damaging. According to the Cyber Security Breaches Survey 2023, 46% of UK businesses reported having cyber security breaches or attacks in the last 12 months, and the average annual cost of such incidents was £10,400 for small businesses and £22,700 for medium and large businesses1. Moreover, cyber attacks can have severe consequences for the reputation, customer trust, legal compliance and operational continuity of a business.
One of the most effective ways to prevent or mitigate cyber attacks is to conduct regular penetration testing, also known as pen testing. Pen testing is a simulated cyber attack against a computer system, network, web application or other IT asset, performed by ethical hackers or security professionals, with the aim of identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities, weaknesses and misconfigurations that could be exploited by malicious hackers. Pen testing can help a business to:
- Assess the level of risk and impact of potential cyber attacks
- Validate the effectiveness of existing security controls and policies
- Comply with regulatory and industry standards, such as PCI DSS, ISO 27001, GDPR, etc.
- Improve the security awareness and culture of the organisation
- Enhance the security posture and resilience of the organisation
Understanding Penetration testing
Pen testing can be performed using various methods, techniques and tools, depending on the scope, objectives and requirements of the test. Some of the common types of pen testing are:
- External pen testing: This targets the assets of a business that are visible or accessible from the internet, such as websites, email servers, domain name servers, etc. The goal is to simulate an attack from an external threat actor, such as a cybercriminal, a competitor or a nation-state.
- Internal pen testing: This targets the assets of a business that are located within its internal network, such as workstations, servers, databases, etc. The goal is to simulate an attack from an internal threat actor, such as a disgruntled employee, a contractor or a visitor.
- Web application pen testing: This targets the web applications of a business, such as online shops, portals, forms, etc. The goal is to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in the web application code, logic, functionality and design, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting, broken authentication, etc.
- Wireless pen testing: This targets the wireless networks and devices of a business, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, RFID, etc. The goal is to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in the wireless protocols, encryption, configuration and access control, such as rogue access points, weak passwords, man-in-the-middle attacks, etc.
How often should I carry out Penetration testing?
The frequency of pen testing depends on various factors, such as the size, nature and complexity of the business, the type and sensitivity of the data and systems involved, the likelihood and impact of cyber attacks, the compliance requirements and the changes in the IT environment. However, as a general rule, pen testing should be performed at least once a year, or more often if there are significant changes or updates in the IT infrastructure, applications or security controls. Additionally, pen testing should be complemented by other security measures, such as vulnerability scanning, patch management, security monitoring, incident response, etc.
The benefits and importance of Penetration testing
Pen testing can provide a valuable insight into the security strengths and weaknesses of a business, and help to prevent or reduce the damage caused by cyber attacks. However, pen testing is not a silver bullet, and it does not guarantee that a business is completely secure or immune to cyber attacks. Therefore, pen testing should be seen as a part of a holistic and continuous security process, rather than a one-off or periodic activity.
The NHS Ransomware attack
To illustrate the importance of pen testing, let us consider a recent example of a cyber attack that could have been prevented or mitigated by pen testing. The WannaCry ransomware attack inflicted severe damage on the National Health Service (NHS) in May 2017, exposing vulnerabilities in its cyber security infrastructure. The attack targeted NHS computer systems running Windows, encrypting critical data and demanding a ransom for its release. This resulted in widespread disruption, with at least 81 NHS trusts affected, 600 GP practices’ computers compromised, 19,000 appointments canceled, and the redirection of ambulances from five hospitals.
The attack exploited weaknesses that could have been identified and addressed through penetration testing. Had the NHS conducted penetration tests, potential vulnerabilities, such as unpatched systems or insecure firewalls, might have been uncovered and mitigated in advance, preventing the extensive fallout from the WannaCry attack. The incident underscored the importance of robust cybersecurity practices and highlighted the need for organizations, including healthcare institutions, to regularly assess and fortify their digital defences against evolving threats.
Pen testing is a crucial security practice for any UK business that wants to protect its data, systems, customers and reputation from cyber attacks. By simulating real-world cyber attacks, pen testing can help a business to identify and fix its security vulnerabilities, comply with its legal and ethical obligations, and enhance its security posture and resilience. Pen testing should be performed regularly and professionally, using appropriate methods and tools, and following best practices and standards. Pen testing should also be integrated with other security measures, such as vulnerability scanning, patch management, security monitoring, incident response, etc. By doing so, a business can reduce the risk and impact of cyber attacks, and gain a competitive edge in the digital market. If you would like to discuss Penetration testing for your business contact our team today.