Penetration tests, sometimes short-formed as pen tests, are simulated cyberattacks deployed against an enterprise’s computer system to examine it for potential vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit. In a web app security context, pen testing is often used to enhance a web application firewall (WAF).

Penetration tests can involve attempted breaches of a wide range of application systems like backend and frontend servers as well as application protocol interfaces (APIs). The tests aim to uncover any vulnerabilities present in systems such as those that may be susceptible to code injection-type attacks.

Companies can gain fresh insights from pen test that can help them fine-tune their security policies for WAF and take the appropriate course of action, patching any vulnerabilities identified.

The five phases of penetration testing

The process of pen tests can be split into five separate phases: planning, scanning, obtaining access, maintaining access and finally, analysis.

Phase one involves planning with reconnaissance. The goals and scope of the test must be defined, along with which systems will be tested and the methods to be employed. Intelligence must then be collected to understand different targets and how they work to assess possible vulnerabilities.

Scanning in phase two focuses on how a target app responds to different intrusions. Static analysis inspects an app’s code and estimates how it behaves when running. This scans all the code in one pass. The other option is dynamic analysis, a more practical and accurate scan method, it involves an app’s code being inspected while running in real-time.

In phase three, web app attacks are launched like SQL injection, cross-site scripting and SQL injection to find access vulnerabilities. Pen testers try to exploit any vulnerabilities found, attempting to steal data, intercept traffic or escalate privileges.

The aim of phase four is to maintain access, and pen testers evaluate how long they can persist on an exploited system to assess the risks of in-depth access.

In the final stage, phase five, analysis takes place. The penetration test results are collated, and a report is issues. After assessment of the vulnerabilities detected and how long testers were able to remain unnoticed on the system, security personnel can draw up plans to mitigate risks.

Discovered vulnerabilities can be patched and, if necessary, additional security protocols and measures can be put in place to safeguard the system against attack.

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