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The Beginner's Guide to NIST Penetration Testing

By Ankit Pahuja
Published: February 2, 2022
Key Takeaways

Penetration testing is a cybersecurity practice involving simulating attacks on a target device or environment to discover vulnerabilities. Penetration testing typically involves four steps: planning and reconnaissance, identifying vulnerabilities, exploiting vulnerabilities and documenting findings. 

However, applying the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) five-step cybersecurity framework to this process opens up new possibilities—namely, making your organization more secure.

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If you are looking for a quick guide to penetration testing, then look no further. This article will provide an overview of what penetration testing is, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) framework and how to perform penetration tests using this framework.

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What is Penetration Testing?

When it comes to testing software security—as well as that of websites, mobile applications and the like—companies turn to penetration testing (or "pen-testing").

Pen-testing is a security practice achieved by simulating attacks on a target device/environment with the purpose of discovering vulnerabilities. This typically involves gathering information about the target, identifying potential weak points and determining whether vulnerabilities can be exploited to gain access. (Also read: Benefits of Performing a Vulnerability Assessment.)

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How Does Penetration Testing work?

The goal of penetration testing, generally, is to exploit vulnerabilities to gain access to sensitive data or systems. The pen-testing process generally follows these steps:

  1. Planning and reconnaissance: gathering information about the target, including identifying potential weak points, and determining what type of attack is most likely to be successful.

  2. Identifying vulnerabilities: finding vulnerabilities using automated tools or manual techniques.

  3. Exploiting vulnerabilities: using both automated and manual methods to identify possible attack vectors (including entry points, data flows and communication paths).

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  4. Documenting findings: creating in a report including details about each vulnerability identified during the test. This report can then be used to improve system security and mitigate risks associated with future cyberattacks. (Also read: How Cyberattacks Affect Share Holders and Board Members.)

What is the NIST Framework?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has published a Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) that aims to help organizations identify their cyber risks by providing guidance on best practices in cybersecurity planning and incident response. The CSF is based on five core functions:

  1. Identify: finding assets, systems and networks as well as classifying information to help prioritize security efforts.

  2. Protect: safeguarding systems and data from unauthorized access or modification, including measures such as firewalls, intrusion detection/prevention systems and anti-virus software.

  3. Detect: uncovering malicious activity or anomalous behaviour to respond promptly to potential threats.

  4. Respond: taking the necessary steps when a security incident has occurred, including containment, eradication and recovery.

  5. Recover: restoring normal operations and business functions after a security incident has occurred.

Why is the NIST Framework Important?

The NIST CSF provides organizations with cybersecurity best practices that can help them identify, assess and prioritize their cyber risks. The framework also helps to improve communication between different organization departments by providing an integrated approach to cybersecurity planning across all areas of an organization. (Also read: Cybersecurity and Infrastructure: Current Trends and Future Developments.)

How Do You Perform Penetration Testing Using the NIST Cybersecurity Framework?

Now that you understand the five functions of the NIST CSF, let's take a look at how to perform NIST penetration testing using these guidelines.

First, identify which assets/systems need to be tested. This includes identifying all of the devices on your network as well as understanding your business processes so you can identify which of your assets are most critical.

Second, protect these systems and their data. This means implementing security controls such as firewalls and anti-virus software as well as ensuring all devices have strong passwords in place. You also need to keep track of user-made changes and ensure all software is up-to-date.

Next, detect malicious or unauthorized activity as early as possible. This is critical in order to be able to respond quickly in the event of a security incident. And you can do this by using intrusion detection and prevention systems as well as by monitoring network traffic for suspicious behaviour.

Fourth, respond to security incidents right away. This is one of the most important aspects of information security. It's crucial to have a plan in place for how you will respond when an incident does occur. This includes having procedures in place for dealing with data breaches, ransomware attacks and other types of malware. (Also read: How Should Businesses Respond to a Ransomware Attack?)

And finally, recover from a security incident like nothing ever happened. For things to go smoothly after a security incident, you need to have a strategy in place for restoring systems and data to their pre-incident state as soon as possible. This is done by taking a snapshot of your systems regularly and before running any tests so you can revert to this state at the end of your testing process.

Once you've covered all five functions, you are ready to begin penetration testing. Remember to always use a risk-based approach and focus on the most critical systems first. And don't forget to document your findings so they can be easy to understand and share with other members of your organization.

Conclusion

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework is an important document that can help organizations of all sizes improve their cybersecurity posture. By using the framework for penetration testing, you can identify, evaluate and prioritize your cyber risks—which will help to improve communication between different departments and ultimately make your organization more secure.

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Written by Ankit Pahuja

Profile Picture of Ankit Pahuja

Ankit Pahuja is the Marketing Lead & Evangelist at Astra Security. Ever since his adulthood (literally, he was 20 years old), he began finding vulnerabilities in websites & network infrastructures. Starting his professional career as a software engineer at one of the unicorns enables him in bringing "engineering in marketing" to reality.

Working actively in the cybersecurity space for more than 2 years makes him the perfect T-shaped marketing professional. Ankit is an avid speaker in the security space and has delivered various talks in top companies, early-age startups, and online events.

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