Black, Gray, and White Box Penetration Testing

white, gray, and black box penetration testing

When performing security assessments, there are three main access levels: black, gray, and white box. These refer to what allowances the tester is provided by the client and how comprehensive the testing can be. Each has its advantages and disadvantages compared to the other, and each has its own use case. These levels of testing can be applied to most types of tests to understand security from different points of view.

Black Box Testing

Black box testing means that the tester is going in completely blind with no information about the product. The tester will have to enumerate the network, map out what the purpose of each component is, and begin crafting specified exploits based on what is identified. This testing aims to emulate an attacker targeting a network with no access and seeing how far they can get, with the ultimate goal of accessing as much sensitive information as possible or proving the potential for the most damage.

Meeting these goals means that the tester must employ a wide variety of techniques to gain and elevate access. Every network is unique, and because of that, every attack will also be unique. Testers will look to identify potential software vulnerabilities, attempt to compromise user accounts, hunt for leaked information, and leverage open-source data to craft a targeted attack. These tests will show how secure a network is from an attacker just starting their attack phase against an organization.

The downside of this testing is that the tester usually has a short test window, while the attacker has nearly unlimited time. When attempting to compromise user accounts, a common technique is spraying a few common passwords against enumerated usernames, waiting, and repeating. Penetration testers can only do so many rounds of this in a limited time, but attackers will have much longer to get a successful hit on an account.

Gray Box Testing

Gray box testing means that the tester has some level of knowledge or access to the network. An example would be a tester giving a foothold domain account on an internal penetration test. This testing assumes that an attacker gets some level of access and aims to see how far they can elevate that access. These allowances for the tester can also include just deeper information about the network and its configurations, and the client may still wish for the attacker to go in unauthenticated.

Gray box testing is great for assumed breach scenarios, where it is assumed that an attacker has already gotten into the application or network. Many organizations will focus entirely on hardening their external footprint while neglecting internal networks or applications. If an attacker can access these components, the consequences can be massive. All of this testing is made under that assumption, which may not consider external factors that protect the network.

White Box Testing

White box testing is the most comprehensive and invasive level of testing. This will involve providing the tester with everything about the network/application, including credentials, configurations, source code, and anything relevant. This often finds the most vulnerabilities, allowing the tester to see what would happen in many scenarios. This can also spot certain vulnerabilities that otherwise may have been easy to miss, like minor configuration errors or code flaws.

White box testing is great for organizations looking for the most comprehensive level of security possible. This will be highly involved testing that can find far more than other types of testing. A great use case for white box testing is applications that are either recently or soon to be released. This can comb through the code and configurations and find any bugs before they are exposed to malicious actors.

Performing a white box test will usually take far longer than other types of testing and require much more collaboration between the tester and the client. Frequently discussing the environment and preventing any incorrect assumptions from forming will go to great lengths to prevent vulnerabilities from going unnoticed. This can also allow the client to point out areas of higher concern to them so that the tester can direct their focus there.

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