What is Cybersecurity Penetration Testing and How Does it Improve Industry Standards Compliance?

Cybersecurity penetration testing plays an important role in SOC 2 audits as well as ongoing security reviews by helping organizations identify, assess and remediate security vulnerabilities. Also known as a pen test, a penetration test is a security evaluation or exercise performed to discover security weaknesses that malicious actors could use to gain access to an organization’s systems and sensitive data.

Penetration testing is also informally called “ethical hacking” because the goal of the test is to remediate vulnerabilities, not to perform malicious actions.By attempting to exploit discovered vulnerabilities safely, trusted pen testers can help organizations remediate security issues in systems, services, applications, and improper configurations.

The Importance of Cyber Penetration Testing

For compliance purposes, pen testing is conducted to help organizations meet well-known industry standards and frameworks, such as SOC, HITRUST, NIST, or other frameworks.

In this context, pen testing complements the organization’s vulnerability management program and demonstrates to third parties that active security evaluations are being done to identify potential risks, and to improve the organization’s overall security posture.

Pen testing allows a third party to identify system vulnerabilities and threats. In turn, this evaluation helps organizations prioritize the most impactful security risks, and to design and implement controls to mitigate these risks.

Who Can Perform the Test?

Penetration testing is typically performed by external resources or specialized firms who bring not only technical experience and abilities, but also an objective assessment of any discovered vulnerabilities and their seriousness. It’s important for pen testers to be certified and to have relevant qualifications.

Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning

Penetration tests are often conducted with vulnerability scans, but the techniques have different purposes. A vulnerability test is an automated process that looks for missing patches, misconfigurations, or other issues a hacker could exploit maliciously.

In contrast, a penetration test simulates a real-world attack on a system or network by humans who combine a variety of techniques to probe a system for vulnerabilities.

How Often Should Testing be Done?

Along with regular vulnerability scans, penetration tests are good controls to help address vulnerabilities consistently. We typically recommend that organizations perform regular vulnerability scans monthly or, at maximum, quarterly, with pen testing occurring annually.

Types of Penetration Tests

Penetration tests fall into three categories:

Internal Penetration Testing

White box (also referred to as internal penetration testing): Penetration testers will have full access and detailed knowledge of the target systems or environments to identify vulnerabilities. The review will also include evaluations of the code and the internal structure of the organization’s software or applications.

Examples regarding code include:

  1. Statement Coverage
  2. Branch Coverage
  3. Path Coverage

From a security evaluation perspective, this test typically yields the most findings for organizations to remediate.

External Penetration Testing

Black box (also referred to as external penetration testing): Penetration testers will have no knowledge of the target systems or environments. The main goal of this approach is to simulate a real attack from an external threat. The tester probes the system and observes how the system reacts and performs under the test.


  1. Functional testing
  2. Non-functional testing
  3. Regression testing

Typically, this type of test yields the lowest findings.

Blended Testing

Grey box: Blending white and black box techniques, penetration testers will have partial knowledge or access to target systems or environments. This type of test typically involves escalating their privileges, if possible, to systems. The tester typically knows the internal components of an application, but not how those components interact. This ensures that testing reflects the experiences of potential attackers and users.


  1. Privilege escalation
  2. Credentialed access
  3. User enumeration

Choosing the type of pen test depends on several factors, including the organization’s risk level, desired scope, and budget. Each the testing approach involves different access levels and systems knowledge, with white box testing being the most expensive, followed by grey box and black box.

Need Assistance?

Penetration testing is an essential component of improving industry standards compliance. It helps organizations identify and remediate vulnerabilities and can be performed by external resources or specialized firms. Regular penetration testing, along with vulnerability scans, is recommended to improve an organization’s overall security posture.

If you want to learn more about how penetration testing can benefit your organization, please don’t hesitate to contact us.