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Top 7 Penetration Testing Use Cases with Examples in 2024

In 2023, the average cost incurred from a data breach reached a record high of $4.45 million.1 With the growing reliance on digital platforms and accelerated digital transformation, penetration testing has become an indispensable tool for businesses seeking to fortify their cybersecurity defenses. 

Penetration testing, or pen testing, involves simulating cyber attacks on computer systems, networks, or web applications to identify and address security vulnerabilities. This article delves into the key use cases of penetration testing, highlighting its significance in a modern business environment and giving real-life use cases as examples.

Top 7 Penetration Testing Use Cases

1. Identifying Security Vulnerabilities

Penetration testing is employed to detect vulnerabilities in a business’s digital infrastructure. By simulating real-world cyber attacks, penetration testing goes beyond theoretical assessments to uncover practical weaknesses that could be exploited by malicious actors. This process involves ethical hackers using the same techniques as potential attackers but in a controlled and safe manner, allowing them to identify and document vulnerabilities that automated tools might miss. This hands-on approach is essential in exposing both technical and non-technical vulnerabilities. To ensure security, the IT teams can combine penetration testing with DAST tools to identify and correct vulnerabilities in a runtime environment.

Case Study

Target suffered a massive data breach due to a vulnerability in its payment system, resulting in the compromised personal and financial information of over 70 million customers. 2 A pre-attack vulnerability scan had identified this weakness, but the issue was not immediately remediated, leading to the breach. This case underlines the importance of identifying vulnerabilities through penetration testing and prioritizing their immediate rectification.

2. Testing Security Measures and Enhancing Awareness

Regular pen testing assesses the effectiveness of existing security measures. It ensures that firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and other security protocols are functioning correctly and provides insights into areas needing enhancement. 

Through penetration testing and pen testing tools, businesses can identify vulnerabilities in their systems and assess the resilience of their security protocols. For example, if a penetration test successfully breaches a network, it indicates a need to strengthen the network’s defenses. This process goes beyond theoretical analysis, offering concrete evidence of security performance.

Penetration testing also helps in validating the efficacy of employee security training and awareness programs. For instance, pen tests can reveal flaws in security policies, configurations, and even employee susceptibility to social engineering tactics like phishing. By doing so, organizations can gauge how well employees adhere to security policies and procedures in the face of a simulated attack.

3. Compliance and Regulatory Requirements

Figure 1: The rising cost of Compliance

Source: Reuters3

The average total data breach cost in smaller companies (500 employees or less) increased from $2.92 million in 2022 to $3.31 million in 2022.4, and for large firms, compliance costs can be $10,000 per employee. 5 The cost of compliance is growing, and firms are putting in significant effort to overcome challenges related to compliance see Figure 1. 

Penetration testing plays a crucial role in helping organizations comply with regulatory and compliance requirements. Many industries and data protection laws require regular security assessments to ensure the protection of sensitive data. For instance, standards like the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) mandate regular penetration testing for entities handling credit card transactions. Similarly, healthcare organizations under HIPAA, financial institutions under GLBA, and companies subject to GDPR must adhere to stringent data security measures, often validated through penetration testing. 

Through penetration testing, organizations can demonstrate due diligence in identifying and addressing security vulnerabilities, which is often a key component of compliance frameworks. Pen tests provide detailed documentation of the security assessment process, including the discovery, exploitation, and remediation of vulnerabilities. This documentation is essential for audits and regulatory reviews, as it provides evidence of the organization’s commitment to maintaining a secure environment. Furthermore, penetration testing helps uncover gaps that might not be apparent through compliance checklists, thus ensuring a more thorough adherence to regulatory standards.

Case Study

A U.S. government lab faced challenges in protecting its massive database of sensitive information and sought to improve its interpretation of vulnerability scanner results. By implementing regular penetration testing, they were able to better prioritize risks and demonstrate due diligence in compliance audits. This approach highlights the complementary nature of penetration testing to other vulnerability management practices. This integration helped rapidly weed out false positives and effectively prioritize the most crucial security threats, thus reducing the time and manual effort needed to manage IT security risks. 6

4. Business Continuity Planning

Penetration testing significantly contributes to Business Continuity Planning (BCP) robustness. For example, if a penetration test reveals that specific cyber attacks could disrupt critical business services, the organization can prioritize protecting these services in its BCP. This includes preparing for scenarios like data breaches, system outages, or other disruptions caused by cybersecurity incidents.

Case Study

A real-life example of how penetration testing aids in Business Continuity Planning can be seen in the 2021 ransomware attack on Ireland’s healthcare system. The attack led to widespread operational disruptions, affecting outpatient services, hospitals, employee payment systems, and COVID-19-related services. This incident highlights the critical nature of cybersecurity in maintaining business continuity, especially for healthcare organizations.

The attack’s impact, including significant recovery costs and the implementation of new security protocols, underscores the importance of proactive measures like penetration testing in identifying and mitigating such threats before they manifest into major disruptions. This case demonstrates the integral role of penetration testing in preparing and safeguarding an organization’s continuity plan against cyber threats. 7

5. Assessing Third-Party Risks

Penetration testing is a vital tool for assessing third-party risks, especially in an era where organizations increasingly rely on external vendors for critical services and data processing. When an organization integrates third-party services into its infrastructure, it also inherits the cybersecurity risks associated with those services. Penetration testing can be used to evaluate the security posture of these third-party systems, ensuring that they meet the organization’s security standards and do not introduce vulnerabilities into the broader network. 

By conducting penetration tests on third-party services and applications, organizations can gain access to potential security gaps that could be exploited by cyber attackers. This is particularly important for vendors who have access to sensitive data or critical systems. The test results provide valuable insights into the security practices of these vendors, enabling organizations to make informed decisions about continuing or altering their partnerships. Additionally, it helps in ensuring compliance with various regulatory requirements, as the responsibility of protecting sensitive data extends to third-party handlers.

Case Study

SolarWinds, a software provider, was compromised in a supply chain attack, affecting numerous government agencies and private companies. At the beginning of 2020, cyber attackers covertly infiltrated the systems of Texas-based SolarWinds, inserting malicious code into the company’s software. Starting from March 2020, SolarWinds unknowingly distributed software updates to its clients, which contained the compromised code. This scenario emphasizes the importance of conducting security assessments not only on your own systems but also on third-party systems or software you rely on. 8

6. Automation

Penetration testing and automated penetration testing tools play a pivotal role in enhancing automation strategies, particularly in the realms of cybersecurity and IT operations. Penetration tests often lead to the discovery of repetitive and predictable vulnerabilities, which can be targeted for automation. For instance, once a specific type of vulnerability is identified through pen testing, organizations can develop automated tools or scripts to continuously monitor and mitigate similar vulnerabilities across their network. Automated testing tools can help businesses in this process. This approach streamlines the vulnerability management process and ensures consistent and efficient threat detection and response.

Furthermore, the insights gained from penetration testing can inform and refine automated security solutions. Organizations can tailor their automated security tools, such as intrusion detection systems (IDS) and security information and event management (SIEM) systems, by understanding the nature and complexity of identified vulnerabilities to be more effective. This tailoring is crucial because it ensures that automated systems are well-equipped to detect and respond to sophisticated and evolving cyber threats.

7. Secure Product Development

During the development process, penetration testing helps identify security vulnerabilities that might not be evident during regular testing phases. By simulating real-world attack scenarios, penetration testers can uncover weaknesses such as injection flaws, broken authentication, or insecure configuration. Early detection of these issues allows developers to address them before the product is released, significantly reducing the risk of security breaches post-launch.

Penetration Testing FAQ

Q1: What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration Testing, commonly referred to as pen testing, is a simulated cyber attack against your computer system, network, or web application to check for exploitable vulnerabilities. It’s akin to a controlled experiment to identify security weaknesses. It can also identify spam attacks.

Why is Penetration Testing Important for Businesses?

Penetration Testing is crucial for businesses to identify and fix security vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by hackers. It helps safeguard sensitive data, ensure compliance with regulatory standards, verify wifi network security, and maintain customer trust.

How Often Should a Business Conduct Penetration Testing?

The frequency of penetration testing can vary depending on several factors, such as changes in network infrastructure, introduction of new applications, compliance requirements, or major upgrades. Typically, it’s recommended to conduct pen testing annually or bi-annually.

What Are the Different Types of Penetration Tests?

Common types of penetration tests include network services testing, web application testing, client-side testing, wireless security testing, and social engineering tests. Each type focuses on different aspects of your organization’s security.

Can Penetration Testing Disrupt Business Operations?

While pen testing is designed to be non-disruptive, certain tests may pose risks to operational stability. It’s important to plan the testing carefully and possibly conduct it during non-peak hours to minimize potential disruptions.

What Should a Business Do After a Penetration Test?

After a penetration test, businesses should review the report provided by the testers, prioritize the vulnerabilities found, and implement the recommended security measures. Ongoing monitoring and additional testing after fixes are also essential.

Is Penetration Testing the Same as Vulnerability Scanning?

No, they are different. Vulnerability scanning is an automated process to identify potential vulnerabilities, while penetration testing involves a more in-depth, manual process of exploiting vulnerabilities to understand their impact.

Who Should Perform Penetration Testing?

Penetration Testing should be performed by skilled and experienced security professionals, often from a third-party organization, to ensure an unbiased and comprehensive assessment.

Yes, legal considerations include obtaining explicit permission to perform the tests, ensuring data privacy, and adhering to legal and regulatory standards. Always consult with legal advisors before initiating a pen test.

How Does Penetration Testing Improve Cybersecurity?

Penetration testing improves cybersecurity by proactively identifying and addressing vulnerabilities, enhancing incident response capabilities, and informing better security strategies and policies.

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Cem Dilmegani
Principal Analyst
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Altay Ataman
Altay is an industry analyst at AIMultiple. He has background in international political economy, multilateral organizations, development cooperation, global politics, and data analysis. He has experience working at private and government institutions. Altay discovered his interest for emerging tech after seeing its wide use of area in several sectors and acknowledging its importance for the future. He received his bachelor's degree in Political Science and Public Administration from Bilkent University and he received his master's degree in International Politics from KU Leuven .

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