Penetration Testing Dove Colpire Piergiorgio Venuti

Penetration Testing: Where to Strike to Protect Your IT Network

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Introduction

In an increasingly interconnected and digital world, cybersecurity has become a top priority for companies of all sizes. One of the most effective techniques to identify vulnerabilities and improve security is penetration testing, also known as pen testing or ethical hacking. But in a complex network with different environments, which ones are the most suitable for pen testing efforts? Let’s explore together the differences between development, testing, and production environments, and find out where pen testing can make a difference.

What is Penetration Testing?

Before diving into specific network environments, it’s essential to understand what penetration testing is. In short, it’s a security assessment process that simulates a cyber attack to identify potential vulnerabilities in systems, networks, or applications. Security experts, known as “ethical hackers” or “white hat hackers,” use the same techniques and tools as cybercriminals, but with the goal of strengthening defenses rather than causing harm. Pen testing generally follows a structured methodology that includes phases of information gathering, vulnerability analysis, exploitation, access maintenance, and reporting.

The Environments of an IT Network

Before deciding where to perform pen testing, it’s crucial to understand the different environments present in a typical corporate IT network. Each environment has specific characteristics and security requirements. Here’s an overview of the main ones:

  1. Development Environment: This is where new applications and features are created and tested. The development environment is usually isolated from the rest of the network to allow developers to work freely without affecting other systems. Security is important in this environment, but the emphasis is on functionality and innovation.
  2. Testing/Staging Environment: Before being released into production, applications are thoroughly tested in an environment that replicates the production environment as closely as possible. Here, integration, performance, and compatibility are verified. Security takes on a more central role, as any vulnerabilities could propagate to the production environment.
  3. Production Environment: This is the “live” environment where end-users operate and real data is processed. Security is of vital importance, as any breach could compromise sensitive data, cause service disruptions, or damage reputation. The production environment is often the primary target of cyber attacks.

Other environments you might encounter include:

  1. Disaster Recovery (DR) Environment: Designed to take over in case of failures or disasters in the production environment, ensuring operational continuity. Security must be aligned with the production environment.
  2. Quality Assurance (QA) Environment: Dedicated to in-depth software quality testing, including functional, usability, and security testing.
  3. Sandbox Environment: An isolated environment used to test potentially dangerous applications or code without risk to the main network.

Where to Perform Penetration Testing?

Now that we have a clear understanding of the different environments, where should we focus pen testing efforts to maximize the impact on security? The short answer is: wherever possible, but with priority on the production environment. Here’s why:

Priority on the Production Environment

The production environment is your company’s front-end, where systems and applications interact with users, customers, and partners. This is where the most sensitive and critical data resides and where a cyber attack could cause the greatest damage. Breaches in production can lead to data theft, fraud, service disruptions, and reputational damage, with significant financial and legal consequences.

Performing regular penetration tests on the production environment is essential to:

  • Identify and fix vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious actors
  • Verify the effectiveness of existing security measures
  • Meet compliance requirements such as GDPR, PCI DSS, HIPAA, etc.
  • Maintain the trust of customers and partners by demonstrating a proactive commitment to security

Of course, pen testing in production must be carefully planned and executed to avoid service disruptions or damage. It’s crucial to work with professional testers and apply rigorous control measures.

Don’t Neglect Development and Testing

While the production environment is the priority, neglecting development and testing can lead to security gaps that propagate throughout the software lifecycle. Undetected vulnerabilities in development or testing can make production systems easy targets for attackers.

The benefits of penetration testing in development and testing environments include:

  • Early identification of vulnerabilities, when they are less costly to fix
  • Reduced risk of introducing vulnerabilities into the production environment
  • Increased awareness of security best practices among developers
  • Verification of the effectiveness of security controls before deployment

Typically, pen tests in development and testing are less invasive and more frequent than those in production. Vulnerability scanning tools and automated security tests can be integrated into Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) processes for constant monitoring.

A Holistic Approach to Penetration Testing

Ideally, penetration testing should be part of a holistic cybersecurity strategy that embraces all environments and levels of the IT infrastructure. In addition to development, testing, and production environments, consider including in your pen testing plan:

  • Networks and infrastructure: switches, routers, firewalls, servers, endpoints, etc.
  • Web and mobile applications
  • Cloud and virtual services
  • IoT and OT (Operational Technology) devices
  • Remote work and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) environments

A comprehensive approach helps identify vulnerabilities that might be overlooked by focusing only on specific environments. It also allows testing the overall resilience of the organization against different attack vectors.

Collaborate with Security Professionals

Performing effective penetration tests requires specialized skills, experience, and tools. While some basic tests can be conducted internally, it’s highly recommended to collaborate with external security professionals for comprehensive pen tests. The benefits include:

  • Objectivity and external perspective, unbound by internal biases
  • Specific skills and experience in conducting pen tests
  • Access to state-of-the-art tools and resources
  • Compliance with ethical and legal standards
  • Ability to keep pace with evolving threats

When selecting a pen test provider, evaluate factors such as reputation, certifications (e.g., OSCP, CREST), experience in your industry, and post-test services like remediation support.

Conclusion

In an ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats, penetration testing is an indispensable tool to proactively identify and mitigate risks. By prioritizing the production environment, without neglecting development and testing, organizations can significantly strengthen their cybersecurity posture.

Remember that pen testing is not a “silver bullet” solution, but part of a 360-degree security strategy that also includes security awareness training, continuous monitoring, incident response, and regular updates. With the right approach, pen testing can make a substantial difference in protecting your most valuable digital assets.

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