Like in most professional sectors, penetration testers ask themselves whether machines are capable of taking over their job. In many sales speechs, customers are saying that you no longer need manual web security assessments because automated tools will the same job cheaper. Customers refer to so-called Web Application Security Scanners. These are programs that automatically scan web applications for security vulnerabilities. In the post, we will review the effectiveness and accuracy of web application scanner.
A penetration test – also known as a pentest – is a security and risk assessment of an application(s) and/or a system(s) performed by an IT security professional using manual, and sometimes, automated tests. While automated tests are meant to find low hanging fruits and maximize the coverage of the assessment, manual assessments are still required as many use cases cannot be tested or accurately identified with automated tests.
Anyone who has read the recent news of Yahoo’s data breach which affected around 500 million accounts will probably have questioned their own organization’s ability to defend itself against external attacks of all sorts.
The task of maintaining defences in the face of constant threats is often partly owned by two IT security groups, the “red”and “blue” team.:
Red: focused on testing the effectiveness of the organization by acting as hackers, using penetration testing techniques to identify and expose vulnerabilities. They will use offensive tools and use SQL injection, scan the network and be familiar with firewall and router commands.
Blue: take the role of defending the organisation, being constantly vigilant and ready to respond to any attacks. They will be expected to recognize unusual patterns, behaviours or outliers, and establish how and where attacks are about to take place. The blue team monitors the systems such as the central log file management system and scans this for signs of attempted entry.
Whilst this role playing is a familiar exercise, there are potentially dangers if the approach is not regularly reviewed:
- The mindset and culture developed in an organisation over time can inhibit fresh thinking both in terms of where and how to typically attack, and equally defend against these attacks. It does not prepare teams for a concerted attack by strangers who have no respect for the system.
- Teams can become stuck in their ways and “go through the motions”, repeating similar attacks to the last role play.
- As Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. Unless exceptional, over time, many employees become conditioned by their surroundings and view situations based on their perception of established norms, and the prevailing culture. This can restrict fresh thinking and lead to a narrow testing focus.
There a number of activities which can help keep the red/blue team sharp and effective:
- Regular rotation: it is recommened to switch parts of each group g. 50% change sides on a frequent basis. This improves cross-team skills and also creates a view on how „the other half think“.
- Full debriefs: after each game play has taken place, each team should explain and document how they were successful (either in attacking or defending), so learnings are formalised and captured.
- Continuous learning: funds and time permitting, create an education budget for each team member where they can choose to attend a conference, external course or online learning and increase their knowledge base. It demonstrates investment in talent and also assists team morale.
- Incentivise: introduce a trophy that is passed between teams (e.g. for not being hacked this quarter/half year etc), with the red and blue team exchanging ownership based on which was successful in the last role play.
- Review the team composition: typically in a team of 10 people, three would be responsible for IT Sec Engineering, 5-7 would take a SecOps/Incident response (usually outsourced) role, and two would act as pen testers. How does your team’s make-up look?
- Explore 3rd party participation: a real attacker doesn’t play by the rules or follow established thinking, and is going to overlook any rule, etiquette, company guidelines and ethical issues. Sometimes a genuine outsider approach is needed that does the unexpected, not permitted, daring or simply blindsides the blue team.
FOXMOLE’s penetration testing team has extensive experience in responsibly attacking client sites to identify weaknesses, whether based on an open brief or a speciifc area of concern.
The greatest opportunity offered by commissioning an external group is the discovery of pervasive, underlying vulnerabilities that have not been addressed as these were simply not on the radar. Remedial action plans can be developed in conjunction with clients, with scheduled progress review points.