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Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing: Lifecycle

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Destiny Young
Destiny Younghttp://linktr.ee/youngdestinya
Destiny Young is a highly credentialed information technology professional with over 13 years of industry experience. An HND/BSc (Hons) Computer Science graduate. He holds a Master of Technology degree in Information Technology from the prestigious University of South Africa (UNISA). He is a Distinction-grade MBA alumnus of Nexford University, Washington, DC, where he also obtained a First-class MSc degree in Digital Transformation. He is currently pursuing MSc in Cybersecurity. His professional development direction is in Cybersecurity, Digital Transformation, and Business Intelligence. He is a member of the British Computer Society (BCS), the Chartered Institute of Administration of Nigeria (CIA), the Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), etc.

Vulnerability assessment is the process of discovering and analysing vulnerabilities in a system, network, or application, while penetration testing is the process of exploiting those vulnerabilities to help determine the best mitigation technique.

A vulnerability assessment is a systematic process of identifying, quantifying, and prioritizing the vulnerabilities in a system. This process involves evaluating the security weaknesses in a system or network to determine whether the existing security measures are effective in protecting against potential threats.

The Five Phases of Penetration Testing

There are five penetration testing phases: reconnaissance, scanning, vulnerability assessment, exploitation, and reporting. Let’s take a closer look at the 5 Penetration Testing phases.

  1. Reconnaissance

The first penetration testing phase is reconnaissance. In this phase, the tester gathers as much information about the target system as they can, including information about the network topology, operating systems and applications, user accounts, and other relevant information. The goal is to gather as much data as possible so that the tester can plan an effective attack strategy. Reconnaissance can be categorized as either active or passive depending on what methods are used to gather information. Passive reconnaissance pulls information from resources that are already publicly available, whereas active reconnaissance involves directly interacting with the target system to gain information. Typically, both methods are necessary to form a full picture of the target’s vulnerabilities.

  • Scanning

Once all the relevant data has been gathered in the reconnaissance phase, it’s time to move on to scanning. In this penetration testing phase, the tester uses various tools to identify open ports and check network traffic on the target system. Because open ports are potential entry points for attackers, penetration testers need to identify as many open ports as possible for the next penetration testing phase. This step can also be performed outside of penetration testing; in those cases, it’s referred to simply as vulnerability scanning and is usually an automated process. However, there are drawbacks to only performing a scan without a full penetration test—namely, scanning can identify a potential threat but cannot determine the level at which hackers can gain access. So, while scanning is essential for cybersecurity, it also needs human intervention in the form of penetration testers to reach its full potential.

  • Vulnerability Assessment

The third penetration testing phase is vulnerability assessment, in which the tester uses all the data gathered in the reconnaissance and scanning phases to identify potential vulnerabilities and determine whether they can be exploited. Much like scanning, vulnerability assessment is a useful tool on its own but is more powerful when combined with the other penetration testing phases. When determining the risk of discovered vulnerabilities during this stage, penetration testers have many resources to turn to. One is the National Vulnerability Database (NVD), a repository of vulnerability management data created and maintained by the U.S. government that analyzes the software vulnerabilities published in the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) database. The NVD rates the severity of known vulnerabilities using the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS).

  • Exploitation

Once vulnerabilities have been identified, it’s time for exploitation. In this penetration testing phase, the penetration tester attempts to access the target system and exploit the identified vulnerabilities, typically by using a tool like Metasploit to simulate real-world attacks. This is perhaps the most delicate penetration testing phase because accessing the target system requires bypassing security restrictions. Though system crashes during penetration testing are rare, testers must still be cautious to ensure that the system isn’t compromised or damaged.

  • Reporting

Once the exploitation phase is complete, the tester prepares a report documenting the penetration test’s findings. The report generated in this final penetration testing phase can be used to fix any vulnerabilities found in the system and improve the organization’s security posture. Building a penetration testing report requires clearly documenting vulnerabilities and putting them into context so that the organization can remediate its security risks. The most useful reports include sections for a detailed outline of uncovered vulnerabilities (including CVSS scores), a business impact assessment, an explanation of the exploitation phase’s difficulty, a technical risk briefing, remediation advice, and strategic recommendations.

In essence, a vulnerability assessment provides organizations with valuable insights into the security weaknesses present in their systems, allowing them to take proactive measures to address these vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by malicious actors. 

Destiny Young
Destiny Young is a highly credentialed information technology professional with over 13 years of industry experience. An HND/BSc (Hons) Computer Science graduate. He holds a Master of Technology degree in Information Technology from the prestigious University of South Africa (UNISA). He is a Distinction-grade MBA alumnus of Nexford University, Washington, DC, where he also obtained a First-class MSc degree in Digital Transformation. He is currently pursuing MSc in Cybersecurity. His professional development direction is in Cybersecurity, Digital Transformation, and Business Intelligence. He is a member of the British Computer Society (BCS), the Chartered Institute of Administration of Nigeria (CIA), the Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), etc.
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