Ethical hacking: how to test the effectiveness of your cyber security

Many businesses assume that the sole purpose of ethical hacking is to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses across networks, systems and applications. However, it can also be used to test and validate cyber security controls – understanding whether people, systems and processes are effective at detecting and responding to threats.

When it comes to cyber security, having a good understanding of your business’ strengths and weaknesses is vital; after all, how is it possible to have confidence in the measures in place to protect your business if you are unsure about how effective they really are? In this article we explain how you can use ethical hacking to review and optimise your cyber defences.

Simulated cyber security assessments

When you consider an ethical hacking assessment, it may be preferable to focus the testing on the effectiveness of a specific control – this could include a firewall or antivirus solution – or response to a certain attack vector. Some real-life scenarios that could be replicated and assessed by a trained ethical hacker include:

  • Gaining access to your network through a targeted phishing campaign designed to harvest user credentials
  • Exfiltrating sensitive information as an insider threat
  • Planting malicious files on a network
  • Taking control of an Internet of Things (IoT) device to conduct reconnaissance

Focusing testing on a specific area enables your organisation to benchmark performance and, where possible, improve the configuration of security technologies to block and detect particular types of threats, enhance incident response procedures, and improve employee awareness.

The fact is that cyber criminals become more advanced every day, and there is no silver bullet to keep your business secure. Understanding the effectiveness of your own system of a crucial part of this: being able to detect and swiftly respond to attacks that evade perimeter defences is now essential to avoid damage and disruption.

Red team operations

Scenario-based security testing can also extend to simulated cyber-attacks, commonly known as red team operations. Red team operations are designed to simulate genuine attempts to compromise organisations, utilising the same strategies and techniques that cyber-criminals could employ. This will generally go much further than a vulnerability or a penetration test, adopting a ‘no holds’ barred approach, including challenging virtual and physical defences. A red team operation could last for weeks or months at a time, as the ethical hackers attempt to find and exploit weaknesses.

Red team operations are usually conducted without the knowledge of key stakeholders to ensure that the test is as an accurate simulation as possible. Doing so ensures that you obtain a genuine understanding of how your defences would stand up to a criminal attack.

Choose an ethical hacking provider

Of course, it is important to choose the right provider for your ethical hacking needs. Firstly, you need to ensure that you work with a company that can be trusted to conduct testing in a safe and controlled way. It is a good idea to talk with a potential provider about their experience in conducting tests for businesses in your industry.

You should also look for an organisation that boasts years of experience in conducting many different forms of ethical hacking and holds professional certifications. They should also be prepared to work with you closely with you to understand the risks facing the business and deliver a customised assessment designed to accurately simulate the latest threats. Ultimately, the end result needs to deliver the actionable outputs required to help improve your organisation’s cyber capabilities – and this will only be achieved if the provider has a good understanding of how your organisation could be breached.

Mike James is a cybersecurity professional and author

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