While cybersecurity is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach, assessing your security posture serves as the foundation. Security testing can identify security flaws and weaknesses, help you develop more targeted security controls, and validate your existing measures.
NIST SP 800-53 recommends a comprehensive risk management program as part of a business’s due diligence for information security management. Control assessments are one critical aspect of this process. But unfortunately, there is no one-and-done solution to analyzing computer security risks. Each cybersecurity test explores a slightly different aspect of your posture. Depending on your needs and environment, your business should conduct at least some of the following assessments.
Trying to secure your environment without a clear idea of what’s going on is a lot like trying to paint your house blindfolded. You’re likely to focus too heavily on some areas while completely missing others. Plus, you might not adequately account for Windows.
Vulnerability assessments are probably the most common cybersecurity evaluation. Systematic automated testing searches for flaws in assets, which may include networks, applications, data, software, infrastructure, and more. Identified issues can then be categorized based on the level of risk, allowing you to prioritize remediation efforts.
Types of vulnerability assessments include network-based scans, wireless network scans, host-based scans, database scans, and application scans. Each is incredibly self-explanatory.
This security assessment provides a broad overview of your policies, procedures, and operations to identify potential weaknesses. While the details of the audit depend partially on your industry and organization, auditors may inspect system reports, interview staff, and test your systems. This essentially maps your posture, which you can use to find a path to a more secure environment.
Many compliance standards require regular audits, including HIPAA, PCI DSS, and SOX.
A risk assessment analyzes how a cyberattack might impact mission-critical IT assets. To do this, you must identify key business objectives and the assets necessary to meet them. Then, weigh the likelihood of each cyber risk, and determine its potential impact. Brainstorming for all the ways things could go wrong may not seem like a fun idea, but security teams can use this information to prioritize cybersecurity risk mitigation efforts. It may also be beneficial for preparing an incident response plan.
According to NIST SP 800-30, risk factors may include threats, vulnerabilities, predisposing conditions, likelihood, and impact.
This security test looks at activity, event, and network logs for signs of compromise within your environment. In 2022, companies took an average of 207 days to identify a breach. Even relevantly mundane problems, like slow internet speeds, can be a sign that threat actors have accessed your environment. A compromise assessment collects evidence to pinpoint these breaches so you can mitigate damage.
Some organizations conduct compromise assessments monthly or quarterly just in case. However, compromise assessments are particularly important if you’ve noticed signs of a breach or you’re considering a merger or acquisition and need insight into the target company’s posture.
Penetration tests (also known as pen tests) manually exploit vulnerabilities through ethical hacking to simulate an attacker’s perspective. While a vulnerability assessment uses automated testing to search for exploitable weaknesses, pen testing takes a hands-on approach to illustrate how a threat actor could launch an attack.
Penetration testers may be certified ethical hackers, though certification isn’t essential.
Red team assessment
Sometimes classified as a type of penetration test, red team assessments take attack simulation a step further. A team of skilled professionals prepares for and launches a stealthy full-scale simulated attack that aims to move laterally and escalate privileges without detection. This requires significant time and resources. A red team assessment may target the business’s plans, policies, systems, and people to test the organization’s defensive capabilities.
Red team assessments are one of the most advanced methods of simulating a real-world threat, so they tend to be more expensive. Therefore, they’re usually employed by organizations with sophisticated security postures.
A bug bounty offers bug hunters a financial reward for reporting exploitable vulnerabilities in public-facing systems, websites, or software. Bug bounty hunters are usually highly skilled professionals who specialize in uncovering flaws, so participating in a bug bounty program is kind of like having an expert team you only pay for results.
While bug bounties can be a convenient way to outsource work, bug hunters can’t test internal systems, and you can’t verify that they assessed the full scope of external assets. Therefore, bug bounties are best used in conjunction with other tests.
Social engineering testing
Social engineering testing assesses your users’ security awareness. Since 82% of breaches involve a human element, your team members may be your greatest cybersecurity strength or your inevitable downfall. Regular training can prepare staff to recognize social engineering attempts, such as phishing, spear phishing, whaling, vishing, and smishing. However, you won’t necessarily know if the training worked. Social engineering tests simulate common tactics to see how employees respond, thereby testing both their knowledge and the effectiveness of your training program.
The C-suite also frequently falls for social engineering attempts. A successful attack against one of your executives could be utterly devastating. While you may be tempted to exclude higher-ups from your testing, no one should be exempt. If a leader is susceptible to social engineering, it’s better to learn hard lessons now rather than after they’re forced to resign in disgrace.
Application security testing
Application security testing (AST) targets app development to determine weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the source code. It uses automated tools for more efficient scanning. Catching issues up front can save time and resources down the road.
AST tools may be categorized as static application security testing (SAST), dynamic application security testing (DAST), interactive application security testing (IAST), mobile application security testing (MAST), software composition analysis (SCA), or runtime application self-protection (RASP). Each uses a slightly different approach to detecting vulnerabilities.
While security testing is critical, not every business is equipped to perform assessments in house. You may need to hire a third-party information security analyst. Paying for an assessment can seem like a big investment, but it’s a lot more affordable than dealing with the aftermath of a successful attack.
You can use the results of your cybersecurity testing to continuously improve your posture. In addition, consider leveraging threat intelligence to understand emerging threats that may target your business. Cyber insurance can also add an extra layer of protection to your security operations.
One of the best ways to prevent security issues is updating software regularly. Developers release patches to address vulnerabilities. If you don’t apply those patches, you’re opening yourself up to a world of hurt you could have easily prevented. Plus, the right tools make it remarkably easy. You look like a cybersecurity superhero without putting in tons of work.
Part writer, part sysadmin fangirl, Meredith gets her kicks diving into the depths of IT lore. When she's not spending quality time behind a computer screen, she's probably curled up under a blanket, silently contemplating the efficacy of napping.