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Penetration testing

Penetration testing, also known as pen test or ethical hacking, is an authorized simulated cyberattack on a computer system, performed to judge the security of the system. A penetration testing can help resolve whether a system is vulnerable to attack if the defences were enough, and which defences the test defeated. 

penetration testing

Security issues that the penetration test reveals should be reported to the system owner. Penetration test reports may also evaluate possible results on the organization and suggest countermeasures to decrease risk. 

The National Cyber Security Center defines penetration testing as the following: “A method for gaining assurance in the security of an IT system by attempting to breach some or all of that system’s security, using the same tools and techniques as an adversary might.” 

The goals of penetration test depend on the type of approved activity for any given engagement with the primary goal focused on finding vulnerabilities that could be exploited and informing the client of those vulnerabilities along with recommended mitigation strategies. 

Tools of penetration testing

A wide variety of tools are available to assist with penetration testing, including free-of-charge, free software, and commercial software.

Specialized OS distributions for penetration testing

The penetration tester does not have to hunt down each tool, which might increase the risk complications—such as compile errors, dependency issues, and configuration errors. Also, acquiring additional tools may not be practical in the tester’s context.

Notable penetration testing OS examples include:

· BlackArch based on Arch Linux

· BackBox based on Ubuntu

· Kali Linux (replaced BackTrack December 2012) based on Debian

· Parrot Security OS based on Debian

· Pentoo based on Gentoo

· WHAX based on Slackware

Many other specialized operating systems facilitate penetration testing—each more or less dedicated to a specific field of penetration testing.

Software frameworks

· BackBox

· Hping

· Metasploit Project

· Nessus

· Nmap



· w3af

penetration testing

Penetration testing phases

The process of penetration testing may be simplified into five stages:

1. Reconnaissance – The act of collecting important information on a target system. This data can be used to better attack the target. For instance, open-source search engines can be used to obtain data that can be used in a social engineering attack.

2. Scanning – Uses technical tools to assist the attacker’s knowledge of the system. For example, Nmap can be used to scan for open ports.

3. Gaining Access – Using the data collected in the reconnaissance and scanning stages, the attacker can use a payload to misuse the targeted system. For example, Metasploit can be used to automate attacks on known vulnerabilities.

4. Maintaining Access – Maintaining access requires taking the measures required in being able to be persistently within the target environment to collect as much data as possible.

5. Covering Tracks – The attacker must clear any evidence of negotiating the victim system, any type of data collected, log events, to remain unknown.


Beneath budget and time constraints, fuzzing is a common method that identifies vulnerabilities. It aims to get an unhandled mistake through random input. The tester uses random input to access less often used code paths. Errors are useful because they either reveal more information, such as HTTP server crashes with full info trace-backs—or are directly usable, such as buffer issues.

Visualize a website has 100 text input boxes. Some are vulnerable to SQL injections on certain strings. Submitting random strings to those boxes for a while expectedly hits the bugged code path. The error shows itself as a broken HTML page half rendered because of an SQL error. In this case, only text boxes are treated as input streams. However, software systems have many possible input streams, such as cookie and session data, the uploaded file stream, RPC channels, or memory. Errors can happen in any of these input streams. A fuzzer saves time by not checking sufficient code paths where exploits are strange.


The payload in Metasploit terminology can include functions for logging keystrokes, taking screenshots, installing adware, stealing credentials, creating backdoors using shellcode, or altering data. Some companies keep large databases of known exploits and provide products that automatically test target systems for vulnerabilities:

· Metasploit

· Nessus

· Nmap

· OpenVAS

· W3af

Standardized government penetration test services

The General Services Administration has standardized the “penetration test” service as a pre-vetted support service, to rapidly address vulnerabilities, and stop enemies before they impact US federal, state and local governments. These services are commonly referred to as Highly Adaptive Cybersecurity Services (HACS) and are listed at the US GSA Help website. 

This effort has classified key service providers which have been technically examined and vetted to provide these advanced penetration services. This GSA service is intended to improve the rapid ordering and deployment of these services, reduce US government contract duplication, and to protect and support the US foundation in a more timely and efficient manner.

According to 132-45A penetration testing is security testing in which service assessors simulate real-world attacks to identify techniques for avoiding the security features of an application, system, or network. HACS Penetration Testing Services typically strategically test the effectiveness of the organization’s preventive and detective security measures employed to protect assets and data. As part of this service, certified ethical hackers typically perform a simulated attack on systems, applications or different targets in the environment, searching for security lapses. After testing, they will typically document the vulnerabilities and outline which defences are effective and which can be defeated.

Penetration testing services in the UK are standardized by professional organisations working with the National Cyber Security Centre.

penetration testing

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