A critical tool in the realm of cyber security is penetration testing, which is often shortened to pen testing or pen test. A pen test is an attempt to infiltrate an organization’s digital system in order to expose weaknesses and flaws. This allows them to be addressed before exploitation by cyber criminals. Pen testing is a vital part of the Cybersecurity profession and educational programs. Several key elements of pen testing will be discussed below including necessity, frequency, types, and educational approach.
Pen tests are necessary because hacking is not a matter of if, but when for most organizations. Wherever there is valuable information harbored, the risk of digital intrusion is ever lurking. Pen tests expose weaknesses and blind spots internal IT professionals may not catch (1). They also help organizations prioritize spending on shoring up vulnerabilities rather than spreading an IT budget across a wider range (1).
The frequency of pen testing depends on several factors. Budget is always a consideration as testing can be complex and quite expensive in some cases. The volume of desirable data an organization harbors may also help determine how frequently pen tests are utilized (2). One of the most significant factors is how dynamic an organization’s digital system is (2). Systems that are static may require less testing than systems which require frequent updating.
While there are various types of pen tests based on the type of digital system, the three basic categories of pen tests are full knowledge, some knowledge, and no knowledge of the system being tested. Companies and organizations use different verbiage for the three categories of pen testing, however it is typically obvious which is being referred to. For example, one organization may refer to the categories as black box, white box, and grey box testing (3). The some knowledge test may be the most effective as the tester has s starting point to focus on and can work through other possibilities as they arise (3). This test my represent real world scenarios most accurately as it is not uncommon for cybercriminals to have gained access to bits of information about a system through research and recognizance. Tests with no knowledge are often broad and can take a longer period of time to complete. This is in contrast to full knowledge tests which are often the fastest given testers can zero in on any perceived vulnerabilities and resort to specialized tools quickly rather than wading through a broad spectrum of possibilities as would be necessary if no previous knowledge was provided (3).
Pen testing is generally taught in cyber security education programs through the use of virtual machine projects. Virtual machine projects allow someone to create a virtual computer using a small section of a server (5). Cyber security students create two or more virtual machines and are able to test their ability to penetrate one of them as a target. A virtual machine of this nature can have any number of dimensions such as software or simulated infrastructure, which allows students to hone their skills without causing any damage or outages to actual organizations.
Pen testing is a critical part of cyber security. It allows organizations to vigilantly stay ahead of cyber criminals through the fortification of potential weaknesses. They also are able to prepare more efficiently by allocating resources to their weakest points rather than across a broad spectrum. Cybersecurity programs such as the University of Delaware’s Master of Science in Cybersecurity include pen testing in their curriculum (course CPEG 671) in order to adequately prepare supper security professionals for successful careers.