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What is penetration testing? The basics and requirements

Roger A. Grimes | Nov. 22, 2017
Penetration testing, or ethical hacking, is an in-demand skill for testing an organization’s defenses. Here’s what it entails and tips for breaking into the role.

An example of this type of tool is opensource Bloodhound. Bloodhound allows attackers to see, graphically, relationships among different computers on an Active Directory network. If you input a desired target goal, Bloodhound can help you quickly see multiple hacking paths to get from where you start to that target, often identifying paths you didn’t know existed. I’ve seen complex uses where pen testers simply entered in starting and ending points, and Bloodhound and a few scripts did the rest, including all hacking steps necessary to get from point A to Z. Of course, commercial penetration testing software has had this sort of sophistication for much longer.

A picture is worth a thousand words: It used to be that to sell a defense to senior management, pen testers would hack senior management or show them documentation. Today, senior management wants slide decks, videos or animations of how particular hacks were performed in their environment. They use it not only to sell other senior managers on particular defenses but also as part of employee education.

Risk management: It’s also not enough to hand off a list of found vulnerabilities to the rest of the company and consider your job done. No, today’s professional penetration testers must work with IT management to identify the biggest and most likely threats. Penetration testers are now part of the risk management team, helping to efficiently reduce risk even more so than just pure vulnerabilities. This means that ethical hackers provide even more value by showing management and defenders what is most likely to happen and how, and not just show them a one-off hack that is unlikely to occur from a real-life intruder.

Training and certifications: Today, there exists all sorts of avenues for people to become professional penetration testers, including a wide range of courses and certifications. This courses often come with exposure to different hacking tools in sophisticated looking simulation labs, taught by expert instructors. Students graduating or earning certification often become part of a larger community of pen testers, continuing their education and contributing back to the society that taught them so much.

Professional penetration testing isn’t for everyone. It requires becoming a near-expert in several different technologies and platforms, as well as an intrinsic desire to see if something can be broken into past the normally presented boundaries. If you’ve got that desire, and can follow some legal and ethical guidelines, you, too, can be a professional hacker.

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