With the cost of data breaches at an all-time high, organizations are working to proactively identify areas of risk on the network. Using pentesters to conduct penetration (pen) testing is becoming more common. To protect themselves, businesses must know their risk areas before hackers find vulnerabilities. Organizations can lower their attack risk by protecting against weaknesses or eliminating them.

The 2022 IBM Cost of a Data Breach found that data breaches cost an average of $4.35 million per breach, an increase of 12.7% from 2020. For many businesses, breaches are becoming a “when”, not an “if” proposition. Of the organizations participating in the study, 83% have experienced more than one data breach — and only 17% said it was their first time.

As a result, many organizations are turning to pen testing to improve their overall security.

What is penetration testing?

During pen testing, pentesters determine how secure an app or network is by trying to break into it. Pentesters often use black box testing, where the tester does not know the underlying infrastructure, apps or code. The process allows pentesters to conduct the tests from the perspective of an outside hacker and uses automated processes to test vulnerabilities.

Other forms of pen testing can be used as well. White box pen testing relies on the tester’s knowledge of the infrastructure to quickly test security using specialized tools. Gray box testing blends white box and black box testing as the tester uses personal knowledge of the infrastructure and both manual and automated tools to exploit weaknesses.

Pen testing provides numerous benefits to companies, including infrastructure knowledge and fewer errors. While some companies balk at the initial price, the approach saves significant costs by reducing risk and the likelihood of a breach. Companies regulated by compliance guidelines often turn to pen testing as part of their compliance process.

While penetration testing is similar to ethical hacking, some differences exist. Mainly, penetration testing focuses on breaching specific systems to take over the environment. Ethical hacking, on the other hand, uses all hacking techniques. Ethical hackers are usually not company employees, although some companies hire ethical hackers as full-time employees. Bug bounty programs are a bit similar, but they’re more focused on all types of bugs instead of just breaching a system. Because bug bounty programs are open to the cybersecurity community, external hackers typically participate as well as the occasional internal employee.

Responsibilities of a pentester

Pentesters who work as contractors are typically responsible for following testing protocols designed by the hiring agency or organization. Full-time pentesters usually start with a goal and then determine which tools and methods will best help them reach it. After completing their tests, pentesters write documentation detailing the results to help make security changes.

In addition to technical skills, pentesters need good written and verbal communication skills. Pentesters often need to collaborate with the IT department to help create solutions based on the results of the tests. Because of the types of attacks happening in the real world and the technology used by cyber criminals, pentesters need to stay on top of the latest trends in the cybersecurity industry.

Pursuing a career as a pentester

Some companies require pentesters to have a computer science degree or cybersecurity certificate. However, many others accept on-the-job experience — especially experience in the cybersecurity industry. While some companies may require a bachelor’s degree, others look for candidates with digital badges or certifications.

Some companies hire internal pentesters, especially for white box pen testing. However, contract pentesters hired for specific projects typically conduct black box pen testing to ensure they don’t have prior knowledge of the infrastructure. If you are looking for a job as a pentester, consider looking for both full-time employment and contract gigs.

Pentesters looking for full-time employment often find jobs at non-technical companies that want to ensure their infrastructure is secure. Other testers work for cybersecurity firms that offer services to other companies. With IT spending on cybersecurity increasing as risks escalate, the demand for pentesters will also likely continue to climb.

Overall, pen testing is a great entry-level career for tech workers or people who want to enter the cybersecurity field. While some technical knowledge is needed, many of the tools and techniques are learned on the job.

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