How to Do Penetration Testing: The Ethical Hacking Technique for Security

Adam Stead
Published 07/22/2023
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Ethical hacking with penetration testingToday’s digital era brings constant and evolving security threats for businesses.

For this reason, taking proactive measures to protect your company from cyber attacks is essential.

One way to do this is by deploying penetration testing techniques. This proactive approach helps to identify security flaws, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses in the system before cybercriminals can move in and take advantage of them.


What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing, also known as pen testing, is a security testing technique that evaluates the security of computer systems, networks, and applications.

Penetration testing is vital to evaluate third-party API security by ensuring that sensitive data is protected. It’s also an essential step in the development process of software security features.

The process involves simulating a cyber attack to identify potential vulnerabilities and weaknesses cybercriminals could exploit.

During the testing process, a skilled penetration tester tries to bypass security controls, exploit vulnerabilities, and gain unauthorized access to the system. This allows them to identify areas where security can be improved, such as implementing better authentication mechanisms or ensuring that sensitive data is appropriately encrypted.


Types of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing can fall into different categories.

Although none of the following testing types are considered Agile testing approaches, they use similar principles, such as continuous testing, frequent iterations, and collaboration between teams.

Some of the most common types of penetration testing include:



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  • Network Penetration Testing: This testing looks to identify security weaknesses in routers, switches, and firewalls.
  • Web Application Penetration Testing: This process assesses the security of web applications, which can include APIs, web portals, and web services. An assessment can also cover the security of the web server and the domain name system records, including the security of the .ai domain, if applicable.
  • Mobile Application Penetration Testing: Identifies security issues in mobile applications running on different operating systems (iOS and Android, for instance).
  • Physical Penetration Testing: Simulates an intrusion attempt to check the physical security of a facility or location.
  • Wireless Penetration Testing: Focuses on assessing the security of wireless networks, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks.
  • Social Engineering Testing: Assesses an organization’s susceptibility to social engineering attacks, such as phishing emails and phone scams.

One crucial aspect of penetration testing that you shouldn’t overlook is accessibility testing.

While accessibility testing is not a type of penetration test, it’s still an essential part of ensuring your systems and applications are secure.

Accessibility testing focuses on assessing your system’s ease of use and usability for people with disabilities. By adding accessibility testing to your security testing strategy, you can ensure your systems are inclusive and accessible to all users.


Penetration Testing as an Ethical Hacking Technique

Penetration testing is considered an ethical hacking technique. This is due to involving hacking methodologies and techniques to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in computer systems, networks, and applications, but with the permission and consent of the system’s owner.

The goal of penetration testing is to simulate a real-world attack. During the process, the system’s ability to identify and withstand such an attack is assessed.

Organizations hire penetration testers to help them improve their security posture to prevent unauthorized access, data breaches, and other cyber attacks.

By conducting penetration testing with ethical standards and under a controlled environment, organizations can strengthen their security defenses and protect their sensitive data from cybercriminals.


How to Do Penetration Testing Step-by-Step

Penetration testing involves the following seven steps:


1. Planning and Preparation

Just as you’d take steps to prepare when you’re learning how to launch a website, it’s essential to define the scope, objectives, and rules of engagement before starting any penetration testing.

Part of these measures includes identifying the target systems or applications and obtaining any necessary permissions or authorizations. Always get agreements signed before undertaking a penetration test.


2. Information Gathering

As with any test or process, it’s vital that you collect as much information as possible about the target system or application before conducting a test. This may include details about the network infrastructure, operating systems, and applications.


3. Vulnerability Assessment

This step involves using automated tools or manual techniques to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the target system or application. Once identified, the weaknesses are categorized based on their likelihood of exploitation. This helps security teams to prioritize the vulnerabilities to address first.


4. Exploitation

After you’ve identified security vulnerabilities, the next action is to try to take advantage of them. This is where ethical hackers gain unauthorized access or execute malicious actions. In this stage, hackers try stealing data and intercepting traffic.


5. Post-Exploitation

If a penetration tester is successful in gaining unauthorized access, they will often attempt to escalate their privileges and move laterally within the network to gain access to additional systems or sensitive data.

The tester will see if they can achieve a persistent presence in the exploited system. This is because, often, real cybercriminals remain in an organization’s system for months before attempting an attack.


6. Reporting

After completing the security breach simulation, the tester should provide a detailed report outlining the identified vulnerabilities, sensitive data they managed to access, steps taken to exploit them, and recommendations for solutions. They’ll also often cover the amount of time the tester was able to remain in the system undetected.


7. Remediation

The final step is to take steps to address the vulnerabilities identified during the testing process. A security team can then help configure more robust system settings to help protect against future attacks and improve their overall security posture.


Penetration Testing Use Cases

Now that you understand how to do penetration testing, here are a few examples of when and how you might put the process into practice.


Binary Protection

Penetration tests are useful in identifying vulnerabilities in software binary code that attackers could exploit to execute malicious code. By identifying such vulnerabilities, penetration testers can recommend changes to the binary code to make it more secure.


Logging and Audit Trails

Logging and audit trails are crucial for tracking system activity and detecting and responding to security incidents. Penetration testing can help identify gaps in the logging and audit trail processes, enabling organizations to implement more robust security measures.


Input Validation

It’s critical to validate input to prevent common attacks like SQL injection and cross-site scripting. Penetration testing can identify weaknesses in these input validation processes, enabling organizations to implement better mechanisms.



Hardcoding sensitive information such as passwords, keys, and credentials in source code can lead to security vulnerabilities. Penetration testing can identify such vulnerabilities and recommend better security practices, such as using encryption and secure key management.


Compliance Requirements

Many industries have compliance requirements that mandate regular penetration testing, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) for companies that handle credit card data.


Third-Party Security

Use penetration testing to evaluate the security of third-party vendors, including software and service providers.



Conducting regular penetration tests to identify advanced security threats is crucial for ensuring the security and integrity of third-party APIs, computer systems, and networks.

By identifying and addressing potential security weaknesses, your business can stop breaches before they happen and protect sensitive data from unauthorized access.

That said, keep in mind that penetration testing is just one part of a wider security approach. By regularly conducting tests and implementing other proactive measures, you can ensure you stay ahead of emerging threats.


Disclaimer: The author is completely responsible for the content of this article. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent IEEE’s position nor that of the Computer Society nor its Leadership.