What Is Penetration Testing? Definition, Process, and Methods

Businesses will face over 33 billion account breaches in 2023 as hackers launch an attack every 39 seconds. While you may think this is limited to larger organisations or enterprise-level companies, nearly half of the businesses targeted (46%) will be SMBs with fewer than 1,000 employees. Many of these attacks will be aimed specifically at executives. 

While many executives are reevaluating and improving the measures they take to protect their company’s risk of cyberattacks, they also need to take additional measures to protect themselves from hackers. Hacker groups are increasingly deploying direct personal attacks against executives as they have a considerable level of access within the company, may have sensitive data on their devices, and can access the company’s financials. An executive’s email account (or other channels) can instruct various employees to perform sensitive tasks, including financial ones, like executing a wire transfer. 

While executives are well-protected within the corporate network, their home networks, personal devices and accounts often have very little protection. Criminal and nation-state organisations are fully aware of this fact and are beginning to focus their efforts on C-suite-level attacks. 

Penetration testing assists organisations with gaining a clearer picture of their current security posture and any potential breach points or vulnerabilities that exist. Penetration testing or pen testing provides IT security experts with an independent, holistic view of the effectiveness of existing security processes and ensures that configuration management practices are being followed correctly.

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is a security exercise conducted by cyber-security experts who attempt to find and exploit vulnerabilities in a computer system to identify weak spots in its defences that could be taken advantage of. Pen tests are best performed by someone with little or no prior knowledge of the system and how it is secured because they are better able to expose weak spots that were missed by the developers who built the system. All networks, applications, devices, and physical security components can be tested as a company might have extremely robust security protocols in one area but find themselves completely lacking in another. 

Considering the high cost of downtime and other financial losses that accompany a successful cyber attack means that no one can afford to wait for a real-world attack to play out before going on the offence. By exposing flaws in your business’ security layer, they can be addressed before becoming serious liabilities. 

The Pen Testing Process

While there are many different methodologies pen testers could follow, there are usually 5-6 steps to the process: 

Planning and reconnaissance

The first stage involves gathering information about the target system or network, including IP addresses, domain names, and other details that may help identify potential vulnerabilities.


In this stage, the tester uses automated tools to identify open ports, services, and other potential entry points into the system.

Gaining and maintaining access

Once potential vulnerabilities have been identified, the tester attempts to exploit them to gain access to the target system or network. Testers can use different methods, including: 

  • Network scanning: Testers use tools to scan a network for open ports, services, and devices to identify potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited by an attacker.
  • Social engineering: Social engineering uses psychological manipulation to trick users into revealing confidential information. Penetration testers may use tactics such as phishing emails or pretexting to test the security awareness of employees.
  • Password cracking: Password cracking is the process of guessing or cracking a password to gain unauthorised access to a system and sensitive information.

Once access has been obtained, the tester may attempt to maintain access to the system, typically by installing backdoors or other persistent access mechanisms.

Covering tracks

To avoid detection, the tester may attempt to cover their tracks by deleting logs, modifying system files, or other means.

Analysis and reporting

Finally, the tester will analyse the results of the test and produce a detailed report that outlines the vulnerabilities that were identified and recommendations for how to address them. They’ll report on the specific vulnerabilities that were exploited, the sensitive data that was accessed, and the amount of time they were able to remain in the system without being detected. 

Different Methods and Types of Penetration Testing

There are several types of penetration testing, each designed to identify and address specific areas of vulnerability: 

Web application penetration testing

Web application penetration testing focuses on identifying vulnerabilities in web applications, including authentication, input validation, and access controls. Security consultants use attack simulations to find application security flaws, summarise the risks they present to the company, and provide insights into how to address these flaws.

Network security penetration testing

Network security penetration testing identifies places a hacker might exploit in various systems, networks, network devices, and hosts. Experts look for ways a hacker might gain unauthorised access to sensitive data or compromise a company’s systems, like weak passwords or poor password protocols. 

Physical penetration testing

Physical penetration testing measures the strength of a company’s existing security controls and identifies any weaknesses that could be vulnerable to discovery and manipulation by hackers. They may compromise physical barriers like sensors, cameras, and locks to gain physical access to sensitive business areas, leading to data breaches through compromising systems and networks. 

Cloud security penetration testing

Cloud security penetration testing is essential in helping companies invested in cloud technology protect vulnerable assets. During these pen tests, experts look for potential exposures in a business’s cloud setup that could give hackers access to company credentials or sensitive data.

IoT security penetration testing

IoT security penetration testing focuses on exposing any hardware and software flaws in IoT devices, like smart printers, security cameras, and televisions, that might become entry points for hackers, including weak passwords or product-specific vulnerabilities. 

What Happens After Pen Testing? 

Once final reports have been received, the company can go over the results and make informed decisions about the ways they can improve company security. Businesses should turn their reports into actionable insights and make the necessary changes to address the risks they face. 

Pen testing shouldn’t be a once-off event. It should form part of a culture of ongoing vigilance to keep organisations safe through different types of security testing and protocols. Any update to security patches, changes to network infrastructure, upgrades, modifications, or office locations can expose the company to new risks and vulnerabilities. 

Make sure that you take charge of your company’s security posture by addressing the flaws in your systems that could lead to data breaches or C-suite-level hacker attacks. Speak to Radiata about pen testing and cyber resilience today.