In today’s digital landscape, where cyber threats loom large and data breaches can have devastating consequences, protecting your organisation’s digital assets is paramount. As technology advances, so do the techniques employed by malicious actors seeking to exploit vulnerabilities and gain unauthorised access to sensitive information. In this blog post, we will delve into the world of cyber security assessments, exploring the benefits and drawbacks of three essential tools: Penetration testing, vulnerability scans, and attack surface management (ASM).
Penetration Testing – The art of the Ethical Hacker
A penetration test, also known as a pen test or ethical hack, is a cyber security assessment and testing method conducted to evaluate the security of computer systems, networks, or applications. The primary objective of a penetration test is to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the target system’s security defences.
During a penetration test, a trained cyber security professional, known as a penetration tester or ethical hacker, simulates an attack on the target system, employing a variety of techniques and tools that a malicious attacker might use. The aim is to uncover any vulnerabilities that could be exploited to gain unauthorised access, extract sensitive date, or disrupt the system’s normal operations.
Vulnerability Scans – Scanning the Horizon for Weaknesses
A vulnerability scan is a method of assessing and identifying potential security weaknesses or vulnerabilities in computer systems, networks, or applications. It is a proactive approach to security that helps organisations discover and address vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by attackers.
Vulnerability scanning involves using specialised software tools to scan and examine a target system for known vulnerabilities. These tools compare the system’s configuration, software versions, and other characteristics against a database of known vulnerabilities and security flaws. The scan looks for common security issues such as missing patches, misconfigurations, weak passwords, and outdated software.
Attack Surface Management (ASM) – The Holistic View of Security
An attack surface management tool is a software solution designed to help organisations identify, assess, and manage their attack surface – the set of all potential points of entry or vulnerabilities that an attacker could exploit to compromise a system or network.
ASM tools provide visibility into an organisation’s digital footprint and assets, including networks, systems, applications, and external-facing services. These tools continuously monitor and analyse various data sources, such as public databases, domain registrations, IP addresses, and web application frameworks, to build a comprehensive view of the organisation’s attack surface.
The Pros and Cons
Note: The tables below are not exhaustive and serve as a general overview. Organisations may experience additional pros and cons based on their specific context. You service provider should talk you through this before any work begins.
| Identification of Vulnerabilities
Going beyond automated vulnerability scans, actively simulating real-world attack scenarios. A hand on approach allows skilled professionals to exploit vulnerabilities and weaknesses that may not be detected by automated tools. Carrying this out in a controlled manner, organisations can gain a clear understanding of their potential risks and prioritise remediation efforts.
Carrying out Pen tests can be resource intensive. It requires skilled professionals with expertise in ethical hacking, outsourcing this can come at a price.
Tests require co-ordination between various teams and stakeholders.
|Realistic Security Assessments Providing a realistic assessment of an organisation’s security defences. Simulating the actions of skilled attackers, utilizing a combination of automated and manual techniques. Helping to uncover vulnerabilities that may exist within an organisation’s ecosystem.
| Time Constraints
Planning, reconnaissance, scanning, exploitation, and reporting phases, which can span several days or even weeks, depending on the complexity of the environment. Organisations need to allocate dedicated time slots and resource to accommodate the testing process.
| Validation of Security Controls
Helping to determine if the security systems in place can withstand and repel various attack techniques. By actively attempting to breach the system, penetration testers can assess the organisation’s incident response capabilities, detection mechanisms, and overall resilience to attacks. This can be taken a step further using a Purple Team approach.
| Limited Scope
Typically focused on a specific target or a subset of systems, networks, or applications. The scope of the test is agreed upon in advance, which means that there is a possibility of missing a vulnerability outside of the defined scope.
|Risk Mitigation and Prioritisation Identifying vulnerabilities and assessing their potential impact, penetration testing allows organisations to prioritise their security efforts. Helping them to focus resources and attention on the most critical vulnerabilities with the greatest potential for exploitation and impact.
| False Sense of Security
Pen Tests provide valuable insight into an organisation’s security posture, but it does not guarantee complete protection against all possible attacks. It cannot uncover unknown or emerging threats that do not sit within the scope of testing. Organisations should not assume that carrying out a penetration test ensures their security, the test highlights the vulnerabilities and requires remediation effort to fix them. Organisations should consider penetration test as a weapon in their armoury of security defences.
| Compliance and Regulatory Requirements
Penetration testing can often be required by industry regulations and standards. Many compliance frameworks, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS), explicitly mandate regular penetration testing to assess the security of your systems. Organisations can fulfil their compliance obligations and demonstrate a commitment to protecting customer information.
| Impact on Production Systems
Testing may cause disruption to the production of systems or trigger false positives in security monitoring systems, this can lead to downtime or unintended consequences. This is not the intention of the test, however, is a possible consequence.
| Enhanced Security Awareness
Not only are you identifying vulnerabilities, but you are raising security awareness among employees and stakeholders. Highlighting potential security risks, educates staff about the importance of cyber security and promotes a proactive security culture with the organisation.
| Ethical Considerations
Testers need to adhere to legal and ethical boundaries and organisations must keep a close eye on this. Testers need to obtain authorisation and adhere to rules of engagement to avoid any potential legal or ethical implications.
Overall, Penetration testing provides organisations with a proactive and comprehensive approach to security assessments. By identifying vulnerabilities, validating security controls, and prioritising remediation efforts. It is important to remember that penetration testing should be part of your organisation’s comprehensive security strategy.
| Efficient and Scalable
Vulnerability scanning tools can quickly scan large networks or systems, making them efficient and scalable for organisations with extensive infrastructure.
| Complex or Emerging Threats May Go Un-Detected
Scanning tools rely on a database of known vulnerabilities. If the threats are emerging or not present in the database, then they may go unnoticed. Advanced and sophisticated attacks often exploit unknown vulnerabilities which means your organisation might not be as secure as you think.
Similarly it may not identify vulnerabilities that are unique to a specific application, custom code, or configuration. Vulnerability scanning tools operate using known vulnerabilities from which signatures and patterns have been established.
| Identifies Known Vulnerabilities
Vulnerability scans have a comprehensive database of known vulnerabilities, allowing them to detect common security issues, misconfigurations, weak passwords, and outdated software.
| Lacks Human Intervention/Creativity
Operating on pre-defined algorithms and patterns is okay however, it lacks the adaptability and creativity of human intervention, making them less capable of identifying complex security issues that may require deeper understanding of the system or application being scanned.
| Provides an Initial Security Assessment
Scans highlight potential vulnerabilities helping organisations identify areas that require further investigation.
| False Positives or False Negatives
Tools may flag certain configurations or elements as vulnerabilities when they are not, they may also fail to detect actual vulnerabilities due to various factors such as misconfigurations or evasive techniques employed by attackers.
| Helps to Prioritise Remediation Efforts
Through identifying vulnerabilities and assigning severity levels, vulnerability scans assist organisations in prioritising their remediation efforts and ensure the right resources are allocated to address the most critical vulnerabilities first and work to reduce the overall risk.
| Does Not Assess the Impact of Vulnerabilities
Typically scans focus on identifying vulnerabilities but do not provide an assessment of the potential impact that they may have. They do not simulate actual exploitation attempts or assess the likelihood of an attack being successful.
| Compliance and Regulatory Requirements
Many compliance frameworks, such as the PCI DSS, ISO 27001 and HIPAA require regular vulnerability scanning as part of their assessment process. Organisations can fulfil their compliance obligations and demonstrate a commitment to protecting customer information.
| Limited to Technical Vulnerabilities
Scans primarily focused on technical vulnerabilities, such as software flaws, weak configurations, or open ports. They may not assess vulnerabilities, such as software flaws, weak configurations, or open ports. They may not assess vulnerabilities arising from human factors, social engineering, or organisational processes.
| Cost – Effective
These tools are often more cost effective compared to other methods.
It’s important to note that vulnerability scanning is a valuable component of a comprehensive security program but should be supplemented with other security measures, including penetration tests, proactive monitoring, and training and awareness for staff.
Attack Surface Management (ASM)
ASM provides organisations with a holistic view of their attack surface, which encompasses all the external facing assets. This allows organisations to identify potential entry points and vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers.
|Complexity and Learning
Implementing and managing ASM program can be complex, requiring expertise in data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Organisations may need to invest time and resources in training or hiring skilled personnel to effectively utilise ASM tools and derive meaningful insights from the data collected.
|Proactive Risk Assessment
ASM tools continuously monitor various data sources, including public databases, domain registrations, IP addresses, and more. This proactive approach enables organisations to identify and assess potential risks and vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.
|Data Accuracy and False Positives
ASM relies on data from various sources to build a comprehensive view of the attack surface. However, the accuracy and reliability of this data can vary. False positives can occur, leading to wasted resource and unnecessary remediation. ASM can create a false sense of security, although it provides valuable insight it is only one component of your comprehensive strategy.
| Prioritisation of Security Efforts
By mapping the attack surface and identifying vulnerabilities, ASM helps organisations prioritise their security efforts. It allows them to focus resources on the most critical areas that pose the highest risk, ensuring that remediation efforts are targeted and efficient.
|Data Overload and Noise
ASM generates a large volume of data due to continuous monitoring and data collection. Managing and interpreting this data can be challenging, potentially leading to information overload and difficulty in identifying the most critical risks and vulnerabilities.
| Improved Incident Response
ASM enhances IR capabilities by providing organisations with early detection and rapid response to potential threats. By monitoring the attack surface, organisations can identify indicators of compromise or suspicious activities, allowing for quicker more effective IR.
|Lack of Contextual Understanding
ASM tools primarily focus on external-facing assets and may lack context or understanding of the organisation’s internal infrastructure, configurations, or specific business requirements. This may result in limited insight into internal vulnerability or risk.
|Integration with Other Security Measures ASM can integrate with other security tools and practices, such as vulnerability scanning, penetration testing, and security information and event management (SIEM) Systems. This integration allows for a more comprehensive security program, leveraging multiple layers of defence and enhancing overall protection.
Tools may not have visibility into all potential attack vectors or assets, particularly those hosted on cloud platforms, third-party networks, or devices outside the organisation’s control. These blind spots can leave potential vulnerabilities undetected, creating potential security gaps.
| Continuous Monitoring
ASM provides ongoing monitoring of the attack surface, allowing organisations to stay proactive in their security posture. It helps identify new assets, changes in configurations, or emerging vulnerabilities, ensuring that the security landscape is continuously monitored and updated.
|On-going Maintenance and Updates
ASM requires regular updates and maintenance to ensure its effectiveness. The attack surface evolves overtime, new assets, configurations, or vulnerabilities may emerge. Organisations must invest effort in keeping ASM tools up to date and adjusting their coverage as needed.
Overall, ASM offers organisations a proactive and comprehensive approach to managing their attack surface. By providing visibility, risk assessment, prioritisation, and integration with other security measures, ASM helps organisations strengthen their defences, reducing the risk of successful attacks, and enhance their overall security posture. ASM’s Cons can be limited through other security practices, conducting regular vulnerability assessments, and maintaining a strong security posture through a multi-layered approach to defence.
What one is right for your organisation?
To safeguard your organisation’s digital assets effectively, it is crucial to employ a multi-faceted security approach. While penetration testing uncovers complex vulnerabilities through ethical hacking, vulnerability scans efficiently identify known weaknesses. Attack Surface Management provides a comprehensive view of potential entry points and risks by combining these three approaches, you can build a robust security strategy, mitigating risks and ensuring the resilience of your digital infrastructure in the face of evolving cyber threats.
CyberCrowd offer all three as a service, on demand pen tests, monthly vulnerability scans and Mandiant or Randori ASM tools. Assessing your digital footprint, its shortfalls, and where it is secure, puts you in the best position to mitigate risks and bolster your security.
It is no secret that hackers are continually evolving in their ruthless attacks to target organisations, the best way that we mitigate this is to stay ahead, continue evolving our defensive tactics and recognise where we are falling short. Simply being aware of your weaknesses allows for security measures to be implemented effectively and in line with your organisations risk appetite, one to not disrupt day-to-day business operations.
Penetration Tests, Vulnerability Scans and an ASM Tool all play their own crucial role in your cyber security improvement strategy, the value to organisations comes from using these in line with the rest of their security strategy. Using these tools can be a great place to start and to validate processes that are already in place.
If you would like to hear more about our services, or what solution is right for your organisation, please get in touch.