Evolution of Penetration Testing: Part 1

Posted October 13th, 2008 by

Penetration testing is a controversial topic with an interesting history. It is made all that much more controversial and perplexing because of an common disconnect between the service provider and the consumer.

Penetration started as a grey-art that was often practiced/delivered in an unstructured and undisciplined manner by reformed or semi-reformed hackers. Penetration testers used their own techniques and either their own home-grown tools or tools borrowed or traded with close associates. There was little reproducibility or consistency of results or reporting. As a result, the services were hard to integrate into a security program.

As the art evolved it became more structure and disciplined and tools, techniques, and reporting became more standardized. This evolution was driven by papers, articles, technical notes that were both formally published and informally distributed. In the end, a standardized methodology emerged that was largely based on the disciplined approach used by the most successful hackers.

Hakker Kitteh photo by blmurch.

At about the same time open-source, government and commercial tools began to emerge that automated many of the steps of the standardized methodology. These tools had two divergent impacts on the art of penetration testing. As these tools were refined and constantly improved they reinforced the standard methodology, provided more consistent and reproducible results and improved and standardized penetration reporting. All of this made penetration testing easier for the consumer to absorb and integrate into security programs. As a result, regulations and security protocols emerged that required penetration and security assessments. Nmap and Nessus are excellent examples of the kind of tools that help shape and push this evolution. And, because of their utility they are still indispensable tools today.

However, Nessus also helped to automate both data collection and analysis, it has lowered the bar for the skills and experience needed to conduct portions of the penetration testing methodology. This lowered the cost of penetration testing and made them much more broadly available. Thus, giving rise to so-called “boutique firms.” The problem with penetration testing “boutique firms” is that they fall into two broad categories; specialized highly professional firms led by experienced and technical security professionals who can translate automated tool output into root-cause analysis of vulnerabilities, and security program flaws. The second category of firm consists of opportunist firms with just enough knowledge to run automated tools and cut and paste the tool output into client reports. The later firms are some times called “tool-firms” and their employees “tool-boys.”

The later flourish for two reasons. The first is that they can offer their services at rock bottom prices. The second reason is that security organizations are often so ill-informed of the intricacies of the penetration testing process that can’t make a meaningful distinction between the professional firms and the tool-boys except on the basis of costs.

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Posted in Rants, Technical | 2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1.  Evolution of Penetration Testing: Part 2 | The Guerilla CISO Says:

    […] in my direction, you can do that through my contact page. Thanks for visiting and happy hacking!In part 1 on this blog I outlined the fact penetration testing evolved from a grey-art practiced by hackers into a more […]

  2.  Michael Smiths Penetration Testing Blogs « Mark Curphey - SecurityBuddha.com Says:

    […] value add post from me (sorry) but Michael Smiths articles on the Evolution of Penetration Testing (Part 1 and Part 2) are a pretty accurate assessment of the industry IMHO and well worth a […]

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