IT Center Blog

Pentest: The Attacks That Increase Security

February 27th, 2023 | by
Man with hat in front of laptop

Source: Own illustration

Cyber attacks have become a normal part of daily business for companies and organisations, and the question of how to protect against these attacks is playing an increasingly important role. It is particularly important to understand how hackers carry out their attacks. For this reason, many companies and organisations are even voluntarily becoming targets by commissioning IT experts with so-called penetration tests. In this article, we will explain exactly how these tests are performed.

What Is a Pentest?

A penetration test, often simply referred to as a pentest, is a procedure for determining the vulnerability of IT systems and/or networks towards attacks. It uses methods and techniques that are generally used by real hackers. In order to obtain the most accurate and unbiased test results possible, pentests are conducted from the perspective of the attackers. Accordingly, the tests are always conducted by independent third parties.

The goal of a pentest is not to eliminate security holes and vulnerabilities. For the time being, it is merely a matter of uncovering vulnerabilities and thus being able to better evaluate the risk potential of a system. During the test, all the measures carried out are logged in detail. In a subsequent report, the individual measures, the exact course of the test, as well as the vulnerabilities uncovered and the corresponding solution approaches are compiled. It is then the responsibility of the client or the operator of the IT system to eliminate the vulnerabilities uncovered by the pentest on the basis of the final report and to strengthen its own IT infrastructure.

The execution of a penetration test must always be commissioned or authorized by the organization to be tested. Unauthorized pentests are illegal and can be classified as a criminal offense.

Distinction From Other Security Tests

Vulnerability and security scans are carried out completely automatically in most cases. In this process, systems and networks are examined for security vulnerabilities using automated tools and software. While automated tools can also be used in a penetration test, the majority of the work is done completely manually. A pentest is much more effort intensive, as it is customized to the individual organization and its IT systems. In the course of the test, information is collected manually and attacks on the IT infrastructure are also carried out manually in order to uncover as many previously undiscovered vulnerabilities as possible.

Kinds of Pentest

Generally, a distinction is made between three types of pentests: black-box, white-box and grey-box tests.

In black-box penetration tests, the attacks are carried out without any knowledge of the system to be attacked. The pentesters do not even know which organization they are attacking. They only know the IP address of the organization’s website. From this starting point, they must then attempt to penetrate the IT infrastructure using cyberattacks.

In white-box penetration tests, the attacks are simulated by attackers who already have extensive insider knowledge. These tests are conducted, for example, from the perspective of a competing company, former employees or the like. The aim is to simulate the approach of intruders who have selected their target precisely and have already conducted research over a longer period of time.

A grey-box penetration test imitates hackers who have only been able to obtain incomplete or outdated information about an organization, for example through social engineering and other methods, but who nevertheless want to launch an attack attempt.

What Does Pentesting Look Like in Practice?

The exact procedure of a pentest depends on the one hand on the type of test and on the other hand on the organization to be attacked, its size and infrastructure. Beyond that, however, pentests are always subject to a structured procedure in which certain steps should always be followed.

First, the requirements and general conditions are defined in a preparatory meeting. The exact course of the test is discussed and recorded. Contact persons are defined and, depending on the type of pentest, necessary access to user accounts is determined. Once these general conditions have been established, the pentesters can start collecting information. This information is then used to identify specific vulnerabilities. The next step is to actually attack the system. In the process, the previously discovered vulnerabilities are exploited.

A detailed report with a detailed test and vulnerability description is then created. This report describes all the security vulnerabilities that have been discovered, as well as the associated recommended solution measures. Finally, a post-processing phase follows, in which the vulnerabilities are eliminated with the help of the pentesters or third-party security experts and the security holes are closed.

In a final follow-up, the vulnerabilities are then reviewed again to ensure that all solution measures have been successfully implemented and that no vulnerabilities have been overlooked. Finally, a closing meeting is held in which the entire process and the results of the pentest are discussed together once again.

Penetration tests are practical security tests in which companies and organizations can put their IT infrastructure through its paces from a hacker’s point of view. However, it is important to remember that despite their comprehensiveness, these tests only provide a snapshot of the security of an IT infrastructure. A one-off pentest is therefore of little use.

Regular tests are essential for surviving crises and withstanding attacks in the long term. If you want to have pentests carried out at regular intervals, you should also rely on different IT experts. Different perspectives and approaches can lead to different results.


Want to learn more about IT security? You can find all of our blog posts on this topic under the tag IT security.


Responsible for the content of this article is Stéphanie Bauens.

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