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08 Mar 2023 • Dylan Brink

All About Internal Network Penetration Testing

Network Penetration testing is the process of exploiting one’s system from within to flag the weaknesses present in the system. The purpose here is to protect the system from a cybercriminal who already has access to it.

Internal pen-testing is done by a team of security experts who have access to the network from the start. They act out an attack from someone on the inside to see how bad the systemic bugs are as it wants to find security holes before an attacker closes them up. Also, the best thing about an internal pentest is that it gives you a regular way to keep an eye on your system.

Why Should an Internal Penetration Test Be Performed?

Protecting vital internal systems solely from the outside is unrealistic and if the internal network is not well protected, an insider can quickly gain administrative access once they have access.

As a result, preventing malevolent users from gaining unauthorized access to protected data requires regularly checking the strength of network defenses using internal penetration testing tools and methodologies.

When an organization is attacked from within, the effects are much more devastating and can go unnoticed for much longer. By doing an internal pen test, you can find out what assets of the organization are most susceptible to attack, see what would happen if those vulnerabilities are subject to exploitation, and get clear recommendations for how to fix the problems. Unless you are a service provider, in which case you must perform internal penetration tests every six months, PCI DSS mandates that you perform annual network penetration tests and network segmentation testing.

Operating Method of Internal Penetration Testing

A pen test and an actual attack are almost identical. A hacker gains access to the systems and makes an effort to either reach a specific target or gain control of as many assets as they can. The greater the authenticity—or how closely it resembles the techniques of an actual malicious hack—the more profound the insights it can offer. Hence, for the hacking to be successful, it must be as realistic as possible.

Before you start, however, it is crucial to establish ground rules and expectations because ethical hacking is still hacking.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)'s publication SP 800-115: Technical Guide to Information Security Testing and Assessment outlines recommended practices for all pen tests. 

NIST recommends four steps for pen testing:

  • Planning
  • Discovery
  • Attack
  • Reporting

A constant feedback loop exists between the second and third levels. Attacking permits discovery, which encourages additional research, which in turn encourages and diversifies additional attacks. Yet, these procedures are adaptable and serve more as guides than as rules.

Different stages of the Practice

Stage I: Planning

This is the stage at which all legal and regulatory expectations are established. During the initial phase, the organization and the contracted hacker agree on rules and parameters such as:

  • The test's objective(s)
  • Attack duration and overall scope
  • Off-limit practices and information (if any)
  • Specifications required for reporting
  • The safeguards that are in place to deal with the fallout from the attack

This is where the exact specifications of baseline information and starting positions are established for internal pen tests. The organization may give the hacker a general idea of the types of vulnerabilities it is most interested in analyzing. In addition, the hacker may indicate a specific attack strategy. Alternatively, both parties may prefer to disclose less information at the outset to maximize potential discovery.

Stage II: Discovery

This stage is all about analyzing your defenses. The attacker will exploit discovered weaknesses using the information provided. The following is actionable information:

  • Internet Protocol addresses
  • Port and end-point locations
  • System names and entity names
  • Data from applications and networks

After gathering information, the attacker will analyze it to identify active and potential vulnerabilities. To that end, they will make use of resources such as the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) and proprietary tools.

This stage is more robust with external tests because the hacker is attempting to gather as much information as possible. Internal testing starts with a foundation of information. However, the hacker may still conduct additional discovery to fill in any gaps or uncover additional vulnerabilities that go beyond what was initially provided. 

Stage III: Attack

This is the main focus and purpose of a pen test. The hacker conducts the actual attack on your systems before attempting to gain access and seize control. They are documenting the entire process from start to finish.

This stage of an external pen test is all about breaking into your systems. To accomplish this, the hacker will proceed systematically through the list of vulnerabilities generated during the discovery phase. This is a trial-and-error process, and the hacker will keep track of the success of each exploit:

  • If the exploit fails, a new one will be tried.
  • Following the success, the hacker may proceed (inward) to other layers.

Alternatively, even after a successful attempt, the hacker may try another exploit.

This stage of an internal pen test is about gaining complete control of all systems or meeting another predetermined goal as quickly as possible. Similarly, the hacker will proceed through the list of internal security vulnerabilities. Depending on the specifications negotiated, the analysis may concentrate on factors such as:

  • The effectiveness of a given path to total control.
  • Number of possible control paths
  • Infiltration's relative difficulty

In any type of pen testing, a hacker may also install backdoor measures to facilitate future attacks.

Stage IV: Reporting 

The reporting phase is the pen test's conclusion. Depending on the terms agreed upon by the hacker and the organization, it may include a combination of the following:

  • Putting together findings
  • Offering suggestions and tools for defending against discovered vulnerabilities by summarising and highlighting key information
  • The reports show not only the final result but also how the hacker behaved throughout the process.

Internal Network Penetration Methodologies

Common methodologies for internal network penetration testing are as follows:

  1. Access control list (ACL) testing
  2. Administrator privileges escalation testing
  3. Database testing
  4. Internal network scanning
  5. Network equipment testing
  6. Password strength testing
  7. Port scanning
  8. System fingerprinting
  9. Third-party/vendor configuration testing
  10. Segmentation testing
  11. Network traffic listening

Advantages of Internal Penetration Testing

It is believed that 47% of the time, the cybercriminal is someone inside the company. An internal penetration test finds out what an attacker could do if they were able to get into the system in the first place. An internal network pen test can show threats from the inside, like employees who do something bad on purpose or by accident.

  1. Compliance with security: When you use an internal team for pen-testing, you do not have to outsource, and your project’s security is checked periodically. By doing their tests, organizations can save money and make sure that all important vulnerabilities are found and fixed.
  2. Protection of data: The data breach has caused a lot of worry among both organizations and users. Pentesters, who act like hackers in the real world, try to create cyberattacks that are as close to the real thing as possible. This lets data leakage points be found, which can then be used to stop data attacks in the future.
  3. Assessing the extent of errors: The main goal of pen tests is to find vulnerabilities and find out how much damage they can do to your system. This is a way to stop possible threats from happening in the future.
  4. Increasing the security of the project: Penetration testing keeps your project safe from dangers like:
  • DDoS attacks
  • Insider assaults
  • Cyber-heists.
Dylan Brink
8 years of Cyber Security experience, passionate about having a secured future. Focused on ensuring organizations have a strong and positive mindset towards security through the use of optimal solutions and products that seamlessly integrate with the day to day operations of companies.
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