As a business leader, you’re aware that data security has become an increasing concern, and yet your business can’t afford to simply stop using web applications, network communication, and cloud-based data storage systems. The conveniences, financial savings, and organizational enhancements these tools offer are far too valuable to remove them from your processes — and as long as you use them safely, they’re well worth it.
In order to continue securely using the web applications your business depends on, your company needs a viable penetration testing procedure to protect your systems from cyberattacks.
Penetration testing (sometimes called “pen testing”) is a valuable strategy for determining a web application’s ability to withstand an attack. In addition to testing your web applications, you should also be performing mobile penetration testing to protect your mobile data.
It’s essential to understand exactly how to employ penetration testing, because if testing isn’t conducted properly, your system may remain vulnerable to attack — and, even worse, you may be lulled into a false sense of security.
What is Web Application Penetration Testing?
A penetration test is a series of tests designed to expose a system’s vulnerabilities to attack. The main purpose of this test is to find an application’s exploitable vulnerabilities before hackers discover them. Think of it as a controlled cyberattack, to determine whether your system’s defenses are adequate to protect against real attacks.
The objectives of penetration testing are to:
- Identify security flaws in the network
- Understand the risk level
- Fix flaws in the application
No system is invulnerable to attack. Penetration testing decreases the potential for attack by discovering vulnerabilities, allowing them to be eliminated. The testing will reveal how a hacker might compromise the application in a way that provides access to sensitive data, or allows the system to be taken over by hackers. Once weak points in the system are revealed, you can quickly and efficiently address them before a malicious hacker has an opportunity to exploit your system.
How Often Should I Penetration Test my Applications?
The frequency of penetration testing depends on your particular industry. For instance, Payment Card Industry (PCI) security standards were created in 2006, to ensure secure systems are provided by all businesses handling credit card information. PCI standards require a penetration test at least once a year, or after a major change in infrastructure or code. These standards apply to any company that accepts, transmits, or stores customer credit card data, regardless of its size or the number of transactions it performs.
Make sure you’re familiar with the security standards and recommendations for your own industry; ensure that your business complies with them, and don’t be afraid to go above and beyond the industry-defined standards. Many attackers are skilled cyber criminals, who in some cases may be attached to national governments with considerable resources. This means that hackers are almost always a few steps ahead of security experts. It’s better to grab the bull by the horns, and perform penetration testing on a frequent basis than risk exposing confidential information.
In addition to regular penetration testing, businesses should deploy penetration testing whenever one of the following events occurs:
- Your industry requires it. Some industries require quarterly penetration testing, while others require annual testing.
- You’ve made changes to your web applications. This includes upgrades, security patches, new additions/modifications or complete changes.
- Your policy changes. End-user policy changes can affect the way a user interacts with the web application, creating new concerns or vulnerabilities.
- Your company relocates or adds a new location. This includes hiring employees who work remotely and will access your company’s web applications through their home internet service provider, rather than your business’s secure network.
Web Application Penetration Testing Methodologies
There are six testing methodologies used for web applications, all designed to check different functions and aspects of the application’s performance.
1. Usability Testing
This tests whether web applications conform to user interface standards, as well as accessibility standards. Some guidelines for usability testing include:
- Make sure the navigation between web pages works properly.
- Confirm there is a site map provided.
- Use best practices for color combinations.
- Avoid crowding content.
- Ensure that both beginners and experts are able to use the web application.
- Make provisions to support physically challenged users.
2. User Acceptance Testing
This tests whether the web application meets the user’s expectations, and whether it’s difficult to use. User acceptance testing can be done in two different phases of development — “alpha testing” is performed by developers, while “beta testing” is done by end users. User acceptance testing includes:
- Testing for browser compatibility.
- Checking mandatory form fields include the required data.
- Checking for timeouts, and field widths.
- Ensuring data uses proper controls.
3. Performance Testing
Performance testing for web applications gauges the app’s performance in different situations. These tests include:
- Stress Testing: This measures the performance limitations of the application.
- Scalability Testing: This determines the adaptability of the application to changes in hardware and software.
- Load Testing: This will uncover how well the application performs under a heavy load, and records details such as memory usage, CPU usage, etc.
4. Security Testing
Security testing for your web application should ensure there are no security holes a hacker can exploit to gain access to your system. In addition, this testing should confirm that proper authentication and authorization procedures are being used.
There are two types of security testing:
- Static: This involves checking the application’s code for security vulnerabilities. Stepping through the code can reveal security threats.
- Dynamic: This testing involves running the application to see if it responds properly to various commands.
5. Functional Testing
This type of testing checks whether individual functions are working correctly. Functional tests include:
- Database testing
- Configuration testing
- Compatibility testing
- Flow testing
6. Interface Testing
This ensures that individual components of a web application are connected correctly. Interface testing checks that:
- Data flows successfully from one module to the intended module.
- Data flows smoothly from one module to another, and from one application to another.
Retest, Retest, Retest
Hackers are constantly developing new attack methodologies, and many of them are working with advanced tools and resources that help them stay on top of the latest developments in software programming. Perform penetration testing on a regular basis, to continually check that your systems are secure and working properly, but don’t get comfortable just because your last test detected no issues.
The biggest risk your company faces is assuming your web application is secure when it’s not. Retesting should be performed at intervals even greater than industry regulations, or recommendations. This may mean quarterly testing, which may seem costly for your business, but is much less expensive (and safer) than exposing your company’s private data to hackers.