Penetration testing aka Pen Test is the most commonly used security testing technique for web applications.
Web Application Penetration Testing is done by simulating unauthorized attacks internally or externally to get access to sensitive data.
A web penetration helps end user find out the possibility for a hacker to access the data from the internet, find about the security of their email servers and also get to know how secure the web hosting site and server are.
To know more about Penetration Testing, please read below related articles:
- An approach for Security Testing of Web Applications
- Penetration Testing – Complete Guide with Sample Test Cases
- How to Test Application Security – Web and Desktop Application Security Testing Techniques
Well, let’s now cover the content of this article.
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In this penetration testing tutorial I have tried to cover:
- The need of Pentest for web application testing,
- Standard methodology available for Pentest,
- Approach for web application Pentest,
- What are the types of testing we can perform,
- Steps to be taken to perform penetration test,
- Tools which can be used for testing,
- Some of the penetration testing service Providers and
- Some of the Certifications for Web Penetration testing
Why Penetration Testing is required:
When we talk about security, the most common word we hear is Vulnerability .
When I initially started working as a security tester, I used to get confused very often with this word Vulnerability, and I am sure many of you, my readers would fall in the same boat.
For the benefit of all my readers, I will first clarify the difference between vulnerability and pen testing.
So, what is Vulnerability ? The vulnerability is a terminology used to identify flaws in the system which can expose the system to security threats.
Vulnerability Scanning or Pen Testing?
Vulnerability Scanning lets the user find out the known weaknesses in the application and defines methods to fix and improve the overall security of the application. It basically finds out if security patches are installed, whether the systems are properly configured to make attacks difficult.
Pen Tests mainly simulates real-time systems and helps the user find out if the system can be accessed by unauthorized users, if yes then what damage can be caused and to which data etc.
Hence, Vulnerability Scanning is a detective control method which suggests for ways to improve security program and ensure known weaknesses do not resurface whereas pen test is a preventive control method which gives an overall view of the system’s existing security layer.
Though, both the methods have its importance, but it will depend on what really is expected as part of the testing.
As testers, it is imperative to be clear on the purpose of the testing before we jump into testing. If you are clear on the objective, you can very well define if you need to do a vulnerability scan or pen testing.
Importance and the need for Web App Pen Testing:
- Pentest Helps in identifying unknown vulnerabilities.
- Helps in checking the effectiveness of the overall security policies.
- Help in testing the components exposed publicly like firewalls, routers, and DNS.
- Lets user find out the most vulnerable route through which an attack can be made
- Helps in finding the loopholes which can lead to theft of sensitive data.
If you look at the current market demand, there has been a sharp increase in the mobile usage, which is becoming a major potential for attacks. Accessing websites through mobiles are prone to more frequent attacks and hence compromising of data.
Penetration Testing thus becomes very important in ensuring we build a secure system which can be used by users without any worries of hacking or data loss.
Web Penetration Testing Methodology:
The methodology is nothing but a set of security industry guidelines on how the testing should be conducted. There are some well established and famous methodologies and standards which can be used for testing, but since each web application demands different types of test to be performed, testers can create their own methodologies by referring the standards available in the market.
Some of the Security Testing Methodologies and standards are –
- OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project)
- OSSTMM (Open Source Security Testing Methodology Manual)
- PTF (Penetration Testing Framework)
- ISSAF (Information Systems Security Assessment Framework)
- PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard)
Listed below are some of the test scenarios which can be tested as part of Web Application Penetration Testing (WAPT):
- Cross Site Scripting
- SQL Injection
- Broken authentication and session management
- File Upload flaws
- Caching Servers Attacks
- Security Misconfigurations
- Cross Site Request Forgery
- Password Cracking
Even though I have mentioned the list, testers should not blindly create their test methodology based on above conventional standards.
Here’s an example to prove why I am saying so.
Consider you are asked to penetration test an eCommerce website, now give it a thought if all vulnerabilities of an eCommerce website can be identified using the conventional methods of OWASP like XSS, SQL injection etc.
The answer is a No because eCommerce works on a very different platform and technology when compared to other Websites. In order to make your pen testing for eCommerce website effective, testers should design a methodology involving flaws like Order Management, Coupon and Reward Management, Payment Gateway Integration and Content Management System Integration.
So, before you decide on the methodology, be very sure on what types of website are expected to be tested and which method will help in finding the maximum vulnerabilities.
Types of Web Penetration Testing:
Web applications can be penetration tested in 2 ways. Tests can be designed to simulate an inside or an outside attack.
#1) Internal Penetration Testing –
As the name suggests, the internal pen testing is done within the organization over the LAN, hence it includes testing web applications hosted on the intranet.
This helps in finding out if there could be vulnerabilities which exist within the corporate firewall.
We always believe attacks can happen only externally and many a time’s internal Pentest is overlooked or not given much importance.
Basically, it includes Malicious Employee Attacks by disgruntled employees or contractors who would have resigned but aware of the internal security policies and passwords, Social Engineering Attacks, Simulation of Phishing Attacks, and Attacks using User Privileges or misuse of an unlocked terminal.
Testing is mainly done by accessing the environment without proper credentials and identifying if an
#2) External Penetration Testing –
These are attacks done externally from outside the organization and include testing web applications hosted on the internet.
Testers behave like hackers who aren’t much aware of the internal system.
To simulate such attacks, testers are given the IP of the target system and not provided any other information. They are required to search and scan public web pages and find our information about target hosts and then compromise the found hosts.
Basically, it includes testing servers, firewalls, and IDS.
Web Pen Testing Approach:
It can be conducted in 3 phases:
#1) Planning Phase (Before Testing)
Before testing starts, it is advisable to plan what types of testing will be performed, how the testing will be performed, determine if QA needs any additional access to tools etc.
- Scope definition – This is same like our functional testing where we define the scope of our testing before starting our test efforts.
- Availability of Documentation to Testers – Ensure Testers have all the required documents like documents detailing the web architecture, integration points, web services integration etc. The tester should be aware of the HTTP/HTTPS protocol basics and know about the Web Application Architecture, traffic interception ways.
- Determining the Success Criteria – Unlike our functional test cases, where we can derive expected results from user requirements/functional requirements, pen testing works on a different model. The Success criteria or the test case passing criteria needs to be defined and approved.
- Reviewing the test results from the Previous Testing – If prior testing was ever done, it is good to review the test results to understand what vulnerabilities existed in the past and what remediation was taken to resolve. This always gives a better picture to the testers.
- Understanding environment – Testers should gain knowledge about the environment before starting testing. This step should ensure to give them an understanding on firewalls, or other security protocols which would be required to be disabled to perform the testing. Browser to be tested should be converted into an attack platform, usually done by changing proxies.
#2) Attacks/Execution Phase (During Testing):
Web Penetration testing can be done from any location, given the fact that there shouldn’t be restrictions on ports and services by the internet provider.
- Ensure to run a test with different user roles – Testers should ensure to run tests with users having different roles since the system may behave differently with respect to users having different privilege.
- Awareness on how to handle Post-Exploitation – Testers must follow the Success Criteria defined as part of Phase 1 to report any exploitation, also they should follow the defined process of reporting vulnerabilities found during testing. This step mainly involves the tester to find out what needs to be done after they have found that the system has been compromised.
- Generation of Test Reports – Any Testing done without proper reporting doesn’t help organization much, same is the case with penetration testing of web applications. To ensure the test results are properly shared with all stakeholders, testers should create proper reports with details on vulnerabilities found, the methodology used for testing, severity and the location of the problem found.
#3) Post Execution Phase (After Testing):
Once the testing is complete and test reports shared with all concerned teams, the following list should be worked upon by all –
- Suggest remediation – Pen Testing shouldn’t just end by identifying vulnerabilities. The concerned team including a QA member should review the findings reported by Testers and then discuss the remediation.
- Retest Vulnerabilities – After the remediation is taken and implemented, testers should retest to ensure that the fixed vulnerabilities did not appear as part of their retesting.
- Cleanup – As part of the Pentest, testers make changes to the proxy settings, so clean up should be done and all changes reverted back.
Top Penetration Testing tools:
Now, since you have already read the full article, I believe now you have a much better idea on what and how can we penetration test a web application.
So tell me, can we manually perform Penetration testing or does it always happen by automating using a tool. No doubt, I think majority of you are saying Automation. :)
That’s true because automation brings in speed, avoids manual human error, excellent coverage, and several other benefits but as far as Pen Test is concerned, it does require us to perform some manual testing.
Manual Testing helps in finding vulnerabilities related to Business Logic, reducing the false positives.
Tools are prone to give a lot of false positives and hence manual intervention is required to determine if they are real vulnerabilities.
Tools are created to automate our testing efforts. Please find below list of some of the tools which can be used for Pentest:
For more tools, you can also refer – 37 Powerful Pen Testing Tools For Every Penetration Tester
Top Penetration Testing Companies:
Service Providers are companies providing services catering to the testing needs of the organizations. They usually excel and hold expertise in different areas of testing, and can perform testing in their hosted test environment.
Mentioned below are some of the leading companies who provide penetration testing services:
- PSC (Payments Security Compliance)
- HIGHBIT Security
- Skods Minotti
- Security Assessment
- Security Audit Systems
Some Penetration Testing Certifications:
If you are interested to get certified on web app penetration certification, you can opt for below certifications:
- OSWE (Offensive Security Web Expert)
- GWAPT (GIAC Web Application Penetration Tester)
- CWAPT (Certified Web App Penetration Tester)
- eWPT (elearnSecurity Web Application Penetration Tester)
In this tutorial, we presented an overview of how penetration testing is performed for web applications.
With this information, the penetration tester can start vulnerability tests.
Ideally, penetration testing can help us create secure software. It is a costly method so the frequency can be kept as once a year.
Please share your views or experience about Pentest below.