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Is a Penetration Test for my OT Environment Necessary?

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing is a specific form of vulnerability assessment, it often involves a team (called a Red Team) that actively simulates a real-world cyber-attack and attempts to breach and exploit a clients IT/OT asset in the exact way a malicious adversary would. Penetration testing as a unique way to get greater security insights, manage and prioritise your risk and meet regulatory obligations.

If you don’t test your external/internal defences in a robust way, adversaries will!

Penetration testing (or pen-testing) is becoming an increasingly critical tool for maintaining and fortifying your OT and IT infrastructure against unauthorised access by malicious actors. This article takes and in depth look at penetration testing, its benefits, and how to get started.


Why perform a penetration test?

A penetration test should be thought of as like a financial audit. Your finance team tracks expenditure and income day to day. An audit by an external group ensures that your internal team's processes are sufficient.

With the exponential risk of a cyber-attack combined with the cost of a successful breach, it is increasingly important to uncover any shortcomings before they become critical liabilities. Often, this is not seen as a priority or even a risk, despite becoming more common place in a cyber insurance questionnaire.

An independent assessment from an outside third party often can have a big impact on senior management’s perception of how severe an issue can be, especially when there is a positive result from the ‘red team’.

Engagements often act as a powerful persuasion tool for system managers to secure additional funding to cover these critical areas, especially when the costs become neutral or a saving against insurance premium rises.

Penetration testing may help answer the following questions:

  • How well prepared are you against potential attacks?
  • Have you identified all your potential vulnerabilities?
  • Can you recover from an attack?

The Benefits

It is undeniable there is an incredibly long list of benefits of a professional penetration test, but we have distilled the benefits down into 3 major categories.

1. Compliance with regulation and security certification

The complete records of your pen tests can help you evade substantial penalties for non-compliance. It also allows you to illustrate ongoing due diligence by maintaining the required security controls.
Pen-testing helps your organization align with set industry security standards. Whether you need to meet IEC 62443, GDPR, ISO 27001 to mention a few, or any other compliance and regulation needs, these activities can help you identify the gaps preventing you from reaching compliance certification.

2. Shows how to allocate your budget

A CISO often must deal with a limited budget and there often must be compromises between security and cost, a penetration test will highlight which areas to allocate your budget and where you lose money. Discovering your system’s weaknesses will give you the best insight on how to optimise your security posture.

3. Show real world vulnerabilities and risks

Penetration testers try to exploit identified vulnerabilities in the exact same manner a malicious actor would meaning you see what an attacker could do in the ‘real world’. They might access sensitive data and execute operating system command, but they might also tell you that a vulnerability that is theoretically high risk isn’t that risky at all because of the difficulty of exploitation. Only a specialist can perform that type of analysis.

How a penetration test performed

Penetration tests are commonly performed on a client’s live network; however, OT networks can be uniquely vulnerable to any changes to configurations in the network. For this reason, it is usually common to approach this in a different way to ensure there is no unplanned downtime or system instability.
There are 3 common methodologies of performing a penetration test: 

Black Box Testing: In this scenario, the tester will go in completely blind and will see the system exactly as an outside information. As an unauthenticated tester with limited or no knowledge of your systems this will give us the best picture of how attackers would go about gathering company information when attempting to compromise it.

White box testing: With system level credentials, testers can conduct an in-depth Whitebox test allows them to flag internal vulnerabilities and misconfigurations, not possible from a Blackbox perspective. Blackbox pen testing better reflects the methodology of an attacker with minimal knowledge but can miss key vulnerabilities due to a lack of privileged access.

Grey Box Testing: This is a combination of the 2 previous methods where a test is attempted with limited or partial credentials. This can give an organisation a good idea of where the most obvious security gaps lie and what should be addressed first.

Things a successful penetration test can uncover

In an ideal world, you should know what the penetration testers are going to find, before they find it. Armed with a good understanding of the vulnerabilities present in your system, you can use third-party tests to verify your own expectations.

Some of the most common things can be uncovered are:

  • Misconfigurations
  • Product-specific Vulnerabilities
  • Wireless Network Vulnerabilities
  • Rogue Services
  • Weak Passwords

Default settings that place you at risk
  • Inadequate, Inconsistent or Non-Existent Password Protocols

How to get started

Choosing the right cyber security professional to assess your infrastructure is critical, here are some of the things that we recommend when looking for the right professional:

The pen testers should have strong communication skills. They should easily switch from in-depth and technical discussions to a high-level overview of concepts depending on their audience. They should also present reports in a way that is easy to understand.

They should also be seasoned and understand the environment they are testing, there are different skills to test web apps, infrastructure and wireless. Be clear with your scope of engagement and ensure your tester or testing team have the relevant experience, references and credentials.

Is Pen Testing right for your business?

If you are connected to a public network, it is likely that someone is trying to get into your systems right now. While they may have not yet gained access, there is a likelihood that overtime there will be a vulnerability or a set of leaked credentials that may provide a route in.

While testing for OT is often different, there are ways to address risks using passive means and safe tools to indicate areas of risk. The only way to truly test your system is to validate a reference unit or components in isolation. This approach reduces risk, however it may not always expose every route of access.

Take charge of your company's security posture by addressing vulnerability issues before they become the source of a significant data breach or cause vital loss of revenue from down-time. SolutionsPT helps companies identify and solve security problems within their networks, systems, and other assets.

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