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Web Application Penetration Testing: Why You Need It & Where to Start

Posted July 7, 2020

You’ve seen the headlines — Hackers Attempt an Attack Every 39 Seconds. You’ve may have read so many articles on cybersecurity that the statistics blur together. Yet, you’re still struggling to decide the best approach to secure your web applications. Have you considered web application penetration testing? It is an effective method for keeping your applications secure as they mature.

What is Web Application Penetration Testing?

A web application penetration test is a simulated cyberattack against your computer system. Also known as a pen test, this testing checks for vulnerabilities that can be exploited to gain access to your system. A pen test is designed to:

  • Test your cybersecurity control
  • Identify exploitable vulnerabilities in critical assets
  • Satisfy PCI, NERC and other compliance requirements
  • Test infrastructure

Using pen tests lets you see how your system behaves in a real-time environment.

Why Do Penetration Testing?

Companies use penetration testing to improve cybersecurity, but they also use it to improve site and application performance. While vulnerabilities are being checked, data is collected that can help pinpoint delays in application loading or response times. It can even verify cross-browser compatibility. These are just a few of the benefits of web application penetration testing.

Identify Vulnerabilities

Web application pen testing can identify vulnerable routes through your infrastructure. It can locate loopholes in applications that leave sensitive data open to attack. It can even help strengthen your security policies by highlighting areas that need improvement.

Check Security Policies

Companies need up-to-date security procedures. Some processes are related to password management and user authentication. Others include how to respond to a security incident. Policies need to be in place for the identification and escalation of possible threats. Deciding what to do in the middle of an attack only adds to the chaos and increases the chance of error.

Test Infrastructure

Your public-facing infrastructure such as firewalls, routers and DNS servers are not static. Changes are made to accommodate new connections or to adjust traffic filters. Sometimes these changes are made in isolation, which can increase the likelihood of an unintended breach. It’s essential to test your infrastructure to avoid possible vulnerabilities.

Improve Performance

Using appropriate test methods, a pen test can help identify delays in application load and response times. Evaluating performance across all browsers and at different traffic volumes enables staff to make adjustments in the application or the infrastructure to improve performance. There’s nothing worse than having your site load slowly or your home page display differently in IE and Chrome.

Meet Compliance Requirements

Depending on your business, you may have compliance requirements that include pen testing. For example, storing financial or sensitive personal information requires compliance with PCI_DSS. Organizations that participate in power grids must comply with NERC standards, which include penetration testing.

Web application pen testing can do more for your organization than meet compliance requirements. It can help improve the overall performance of your applications and your infrastructure.

How is Pen Testing Performed?

Web application penetration testing is performed in the following three phases:

  • Configure Tests
  • Execute Tests
  • Analyze Tests

As a first step, a test methodology should be established for how the testing will be performed. Some well-established methods and standards, such as the following, can be used.

  • OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project)
  • NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corporation)
  • PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard)

Since web applications can vary significantly, most testers create their own methodologies using the applicable standards as the basis.

Configure Tests

Before testing, define the project’s scope and goals. What are the objectives of the pen test? Compliance? Performance checks? Whatever the goal, you’ll need tests that deliver those results. Once you have your goals in place, start collecting information that will be used during testing such as

  • Web architecture
  • Integration points, such as APIs
  • Infrastructure, including domain names, routers and firewalls

Often a vulnerability assessment is completed as a precursor to penetration testing.

Vulnerability assessments use a static (code check) or dynamic (runtime) analysis to give testers a better picture of where vulnerabilities might exist. Assessments are a detective control method that identifies weaknesses. Pen tests are a preventive control method that looks at your existing security layer.

Execute Tests

Typical tests include attacks to gain access to the application, such as backdoors or SQL injection. If a vulnerability is uncovered, testers will exploit the weaknesses by capturing data or intercepting traffic to understand the damage the vulnerability may cause. Advanced persistent threats remain in a system for months extracting sensitive information for malicious use.

  • External Penetration. These tests target components that are accessible via the internet, such as web applications, websites or email servers.
  • Internal Testing. Testers acquire access to an application behind the firewall. This insider attack is not simulating a disgruntled employee, but a hacker who has managed to steal employee credentials.
  • Blind Tests. Testers are given the name of the company but nothing else. Security staff can watch how an actual attempt might take place.
  • Double-Blind Testing. Security personnel are not informed that a test is being conducted. This configuration does not allow a company to prepare for an upcoming breach attempt.
  • Targeted Penetration. Testers and security personnel collaborate so security staff can receive real-time feedback from “hackers.”

The types and numbers of tests are extensive. That’s why it is necessary to define the scope and goals of the project.

Analyze Tests

After the tests are complete, review the results with all concerned personnel. They need to analyze:

  • Specific vulnerabilities that were exploited
  • Sensitive data that was accessed
  • Length of penetration

From this information, vulnerabilities can be addressed and retested. Any settings or configuration changes should be implemented to prevent unauthorized access.

Best Practices

No matter the specific penetration testing, the following best practices should be observed:

  • Test for cross-browser compatibility. Every browser interacts with web applications differently, which means security behavior is different.
  • Evaluate performance under multiple scenarios. Don’t just test the best-case scenario—test applications under heavy load or varying response times.
  • Perform usability tests. These tests not only identify areas that impact user interaction, but they also highlight vulnerabilities in public-facing code.
  • Retest security issues. Once security concerns are addressed, retest the application to ensure that the system is secure from end-to-end.

Making sense of all the requirements for web application penetration testing can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t have a dedicated cybersecurity specialist. Luckily GreyCastle Security is here to help! We will help you design the best defense against cybercrime. Learn more about our penetration testing services and request a consultation for your business today!

Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Testing: What’s the Difference?

There are several key differences between a vulnerability assessment and a penetration test – and not understanding those distinctions could impact the effectiveness of your cybersecurity program.


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