Dissecting a Penetration Testing Report

penetration testing report

Companies employ penetration testing for many reasons. Often, it’s a compliance requirement. Organizations also want to be proactive in their cybersecurity efforts, and using pen testing helps them find weaknesses before hackers do. At the end of the exercise, the testing firm delivers a penetration testing report.

This analysis is critical to having a deeper understanding of their network, applications, cloud environment, and threat landscape. It identifies the specific weaknesses, their priority, and remediation steps.

However, not every penetration testing report looks the same. Some can be overly complex or confusing. Others may be light on how to fix discovered vulnerabilities. Before you engage a firm for these simulated cyberattacks, here’s what you need to know about the report.

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing describes ethical hackers simulating a cyberattack to find vulnerabilities and exploit them. These exercises can evaluate various areas, including applications, networks, the cloud, IoT (Internet of Things) devices, and more.

A penetration tester employs cybercriminals’ tools and techniques in the real world. They deliver many benefits for those who consistently conduct them.

What Are the Benefits of Penetration Testing?

The reasons why you conduct pen tests can be multifaceted. The benefits you gain from these are considerable. By employing them consistently, you can realize these gains:

  • Pen tests uncover what you don’t know. No matter how great your defenses are, you won’t get this 360-degree view with regular cyber operations.
  • You’ll have clarity about your controls’ robustness and ability to divert or block attacks. You’ve built a fortress; a pen test shows you all the back doors inside.
  • A pen test is often necessary for compliance, including PCI DSS, SOC 2 Type 2, HIPAA, and GDPR. Industries that must comply with these require pen testing at least annually.
  • You’ll see the gaps in security practices upstream, such as automated tools, configurations, and coding standards.
  • Pen tests find software flaws that were previously unknown. They may be high-risk or low, but it’s critical to understand the potential weakness in any application your organization uses.
  • You can determine your current security posture’s qualitative and quantitative aspects. As a result, you can prioritize the areas requiring more attention to plan your budget accordingly.
  • Commencing pen tests is much more cost-effective than a breach or ransomware. Even if you aren’t mandated to conduct them, you’ll be much better off with the information they reveal.

Pen Test Variations

Pen tests have many variations. The access, methods, and types of tests have specific parameters. As such, each is unique to your needs. Thus, the penetration test report is as well.

Let’s review the three categories that help you determine the scope of your pen test.

Pen Test Access Levels

Three access levels for pen tests characterize how much a tester knows about your environment.

  • Black Box Penetration Testing (Opaque Box): Testers have zero prior knowledge relating to the structure of the target system. They function as a hacker would, seeking weaknesses to exploit.
  • Gray Box Penetration Testing (Semi-Opaque Box): This approach provides testers with some target system information. They may know data structures, for example. With it, testers will run through test cases that align with the system’s architecture.
  • White Box Penetration Testing (Transparent Box): Testers can access artifacts and systems in this scenario. It simulates an insider threat test.

Penetration Testing Methods

The next category relates to the testing method of the testers. These options define what you want to test.

  • External testing: Pen testers target visible assets of a company, including websites, email systems, domain name servers, and web applications. The goal is to determine if someone could infiltrate and extract data.
  • Internal testing: This pen test occurs behind the firewall. It would mimic what could happen if a hacker gets stolen credentials through phishing attacks.
  • Blind testing: The blind test method provides only a company name to an ethical hacker. They’ll attempt to breach using hacking tactics. It can deliver a real-time view of what an actual application assault would look like.
  • Double-blind testing: A double-blind test describes a scenario where internal teams are unaware of the exercise. They would then respond to it as a real attack.
  • Targeted testing: Testers and in-house cyber professionals work together. It’s an opportunity for those working for the company to get real feedback from the hacker’s viewpoint.

Types of Pen Tests

The final component of pen tests is what specific components you want to assess.

  • Web application pen tests: These focus on looking at all security and possible risks. The most common things testers are on the hunt for include code errors, broken authentication, and injections.
  • Network pen tests: This option will reveal exploitable problems within your networks that house routers, switches, and network hosts. Testers usually target weak assets and misconfigurations to simulate a breach.
  • Cloud security pen tests: This testing type focuses on the security of your cloud computing environment. Testers are evaluating any risks to cloud integrity. They can apply to public, private, or hybrid clouds.
  • IoT security pen tests: IoT devices are the target in this assessment. As more companies use these, they begin to accumulate on your network and are a favored entry point for cybercriminals.
  • Social engineering pen tests: These pen tests are unique, as they include phishing attempts to your employees via email. From this, you can learn how effective your email security is and if employees can spot and report them. It gives you a sense of how well your staff understands cybersecurity best practices.

You and your testing partner can design different pen tests from these categories. You may choose multiple depending on regulatory requirements, the data you store and use, your industry, and more.

After the conclusion of the pen test, it’s time to uncover your organization’s cyber health with the penetration testing report.

What Is a Penetration Testing Report?

A penetration testing report is a comprehensive document that offers analysis, insight, methodologies, and more. There are six main areas of the report:

  1. A detailed list of all IP addresses, URLs, applications, and APIs tested
  2. The steps the ethical hackers took during the assessment
  3. All discovered vulnerabilities that testers were able to exploit, along with how they did it
  4. If they were successful in accessing sensitive or confidential data and if they extracted or manipulated it
  5. How long the tester was able to remain in the environment without detection
  6. Recommendations for remediation, prioritized from the most urgent to the least

What Is the Format of a Penetration Test Report?

There’s no universal standard for this, but there are general formats that lay out all the findings and data as described above.

Many reports open with a summary of the pen test that is a big picture understandable by technical and non-technical stakeholders. It should be jargon-free and concentrate on the most critical discoveries and what the company should do to fix these.

The next section will include the details of the vulnerabilities found during the simulation. It should technically describe them but not be overly complex. Basically, it needs to cover what the testing team identified as weaknesses, how they found them and the potential exploitation would entail. Again, the language should be simple, concise, and understandable for technical staff and those who aren’t.

Another possible area of the penetration testing report is the impact of the vulnerabilities on the business. Testing firms are cybersecurity experts, and they understand the deep world of cybersecurity. In this part of the report, you learn about the probable effects of a cyberattack. It ranks the severity of the weaknesses and explains what critical systems would be in danger. It’s a technical perspective but also looks at how cyberattacks would disrupt the business side.

Once the report presents the life cycle of the test, the conclusions are next. They include remediation and strategic recommendations.

The remediation section is highly valuable. It’s the output you expect from testing because it defines what to fix and how. Each detected or exploited vulnerability will need instructions on how to address it. These can vary from relatively easy things, like patching applications, to more complex fixes around access levels or infrastructure configurations.

In addition to the remediation plan, your testing provider may offer long-term strategic suggestions to improve your cybersecurity posture. They may provide recommendations on proactive monitoring or moving to zero trust architecture. Another component they may comment on would relate to complying with regulations regarding data security.

Much of the success of pen testing hinges on the report. Requesting a sample from a testing company before you start is always a good idea. Reviewing it will either make you feel confident or raise red flags.

Penetration Testing Reports That Drive Change and Strengthen Security

Ultimately, the report you receive should further your cyber journey and make you more resilient. It shouldn’t further complicate the cybersecurity ecosystem—partner with our team for clear, concise reports and experienced pen testers.

Contact us today to learn more.

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