16 June, 2023

Beyond Hacking: Expanding Your Security Arsenal

Beyond Hacking: Expanding Your Security Arsenal
Eric Kuehn
Author: Eric Kuehn

Understanding the Need for Penetration Testing

You’ve been told you need a penetration test.  Maybe you are coming from an organization that recently fell under broadened regulations (like higher education institutions and GLBA).  Maybe you are involved with the vendor management process with a larger organization.  No matter the reason, you are delving into something your organization has never done before.  Or perhaps all you have had penetration tests in the past but they come back with no findings or too many findings.  Regardless, there is a laser focus on penetration tests within the security community but they may not be the right solution for what you need in your organization's security journey.

What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration tests, performed by reputable firms, are a great method to test and validate your organization's security controls.  A penetration test is a simulated attack on an application, system, or network to find vulnerabilities and exploit them.  The goal is to mimic the actions of a real attacker and see how far they can get into the target.  Penetration tests can be useful to identify technical weaknesses and gaps in security controls, but they can't tell you everything.

The Limits of Penetration Testing: Human Factors

One thing that penetration tests can't determine is process and policy related issues.  These are the human factors that affect security, such as how employees handle sensitive data, decisions made that influence an implementation design, how incidents are reported and handled, etc.  For example, a penetration test can tell you if an attacker can reach your organization's backups but not if the backup policies and methods are effective enough so they could be used to recover your organization in case of a disaster.

Scope Limitations in Penetration Testing

Another thing that penetration tests can't do is cover all possible scenarios and attack vectors.  Penetration tests are usually scoped and limited by time, budget, and resources.  They can't test every system, every port, every user, every application, every configuration, or every patch level.  Penetration tests are snapshots of a moment in time, not a guarantee of future security.  If there is some underlying issue in an implementation that isn’t exposed to the tester, it will not be discovered or used.  It doesn’t mean the problem isn’t there, just that it wasn’t available at that moment.  For example, if your cloud-based application has been granted broader permissions than it should within the cloud environment, it can’t be exploited unless the tester gets some method to gain the instance's cloud identity.  The only way to know if the permission issue exists is by reviewing the actual configuration of the cloud environment.

Penetration tests are still a valuable tool to test security defenses and find vulnerabilities, but they are not the end-all-be-all of security assessments. They should be used wisely and with caution, not as a substitute for good security practices and policies. Remember, security is not a one-time event, but a continuous process that requires constant monitoring and improvement.

Broadening the Horizon: Other Security Assessments

So what can you do to complement your penetration tests and get a more comprehensive view of your security posture?  Well, there are other types of security assessments that can help you with that, such as:

  • Vulnerability assessments: These are scans that look for known vulnerabilities in your systems and networks, without attempting to exploit them. They can help you prioritize and remediate the most critical issues before they become a problem.
  • Risk assessments: These are analyses that evaluate the likelihood and impact of various threats to your organization, taking into account your assets, threats, vulnerabilities, controls, and impact. They can help you identify and mitigate the most significant risks to your business objectives and operations.  They can focus on one specific technology (such as the backup or cloud examples of above) or cover more general topics such as pre-audit checks.
  • Compliance audits (such as PCI DSS): These are reviews that check if your organization meets the requirements and standards of relevant regulations, laws, or frameworks. They can help you ensure that you comply with the rules and best practices of your industry and avoid fines or penalties.
  • Security audits: These are evaluations that examine the effectiveness and efficiency of your security policies, procedures, and controls. They can help you measure and improve your security performance and maturity.


As you can see, there are many ways to assess your security besides penetration tests. Each type of assessment has its own scope, purpose, and benefits. Depending on your needs and goals, you may want to use one or more of them to get a holistic picture of your security situation.

Now that you understand the complexities of cybersecurity assessments, it's time to take a deeper dive. We have a wealth of resources and expertise on our Security Assessments page, where you'll find more detailed information on each type of assessment and how they can be tailored to fit your organization's unique needs.

Don't leave your cybersecurity to chance — explore our Security Assessments page today. 

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