6 Stages of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing is a valuable tool in the cyber security world. Without penetration testing, also known as “pentesting”, it’s almost impossible for security teams to know if their systems are effectively secured against threats.


If you’re interested in pentesting, you’ll need to become versed in blue team (defensive) and red team (offensive) tactics. The first step of this is understanding the six penetration testing stages.

1. Authorization, Information Gathering and Planning

The most important step of the penetration testing process is getting authorization to perform the test. Pentesting occurs in a controlled environment and is classified as a means of ethical hacking.

In order to maintain ethics and legal stability, the organization being tested (whether it’s the company you work for or a client) needs to provide written authorization and parameters for the test. Certain types of tests, such as covert tests, could potentially lead to legal trouble for the testers if they don’t have clear, prior authorization from the target.

Additionally, the organization should provide relevant information to the penetration testing team. Using this information, the team can plan the timeline, goals, and expectations for the following stages.

2. Reconnaissance

Next, the red team performs research and reconnaissance to begin identifying possible vulnerabilities while laying the foundations for the next several stages. During this stage, the team is not yet directly interacting with the computer systems. Instead, they try to learn what they can from public sources, metadata, and similar information.

The complexity of this stage varies depending on the type of test performed (black box vs. white box).

3. Fingerprinting and Scanning

During the third stage, the red team uses various tools to scan for and detect technical factors which may be useful in the exploitation phase. This can include ports, services, subdomains, hosts, and similar technical details about the target system.

Nmap and FPing are common tools used during fingerprinting and scanning. This phase also helps the red team understand how the target system may respond to various intrusion attempts. It’s important to maintain subtlety at this stage.

4. Vulnerability Assessment

Once the system has been researched and scanned, it’s time for the red team to organize their findings and assess the potential vulnerabilities. This process will help the red team to plan a strategy for the next phase. In addition, it will reveal potential issues with the current security. However, a vulnerability assessment alone should not be considered a replacement for penetration testing.

By the end of this stage, the red team should have a complete understanding of how it will attempt to exploit the target system to achieve its test goals. Typically, the potential exploits will also be validated, more or less ensuring their success.

5. Exploitation

The penultimate stage of penetration testing is exploiting the vulnerabilities and entry points to gain access to the target system. For the most part, this phase involves executing the strategy developed in the vulnerability assessment based on information gathered in the first three stages. However, in some cases, expert intuition and experience can guide in-the-moment decision-making.

Depending on the scope of the pentest, the red team may limit its exploitation strategy even if it discovered out-of-scope vulnerabilities. Such vulnerabilities will be reported, even if they aren’t exploited.

After successfully exploiting vulnerabilities, the testers should clean up their work and undo their exploits. For example, if malware was used, it would need to be removed from the target system.

6. Analysis and Reporting

Finally, the penetration testing team will analyze the results of the test. The goal of penetration testing is to provide useful information and actionable recommendations to the organization’s cyber security team.

The report should describe the methods used by the red team, the vulnerabilities detected, and recommendations on how they can be corrected. These recommendations may include  ways to harden the security and to improve the response to an attack if and when it happens. In some cases, there is a seventh penetration testing stage involving retesting the system with the recommended changes in place.

Become an Expert in Penetration Testing

An organization’s cyber security defenses can be greatly improved through penetration testing. By understanding the above penetration testing stages, you’ll be able to more easily learn the techniques, procedures, and strategies used in pentesting. INE provides in-depth cyber security training solutions covering the full red team/blue team spectrum.







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