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Pentests Don't Make You Secure

I was asked to provide details of the 'Penetration Testing Phase' for a particular project by someone who was putting together a Test Approach Document today. The categories I was asked to fill in were:
  • Objective of the phase
  • Responsibility & Authority
  • Dependencies, risks & assumptions
  • Entry & Exit criteria
When discussing what they really wanted it became clear that they didn't know what a penetration test was or why we do them. The questions and document were set up expecting a deliverable from the pentest itself. The report was being treated as the deliverable without any thought of why a report was being produced or how it will be used. It was a tick in the box - "We require a pentest to be able to go live, so if we've had the report we can tick that box and move on."

Pentesting is not an end in itself. Pentesting is a standard, finite snapshot of the security of a system, which, if taken in isolation as a goal, is fairly useless. Pentests don't make you secure. Performing a pentest and having a report with lots of pretty colours and charts saying that high and critical vulnerabilities exist is only any good if you then remediate or mitigate those vulnerabilities. You could pentest your system every month, but if you never change anything in the system, every report will be the same and you will be as much at risk as you were before you had the pentest done. Indeed, you are likely to get progressively worse results as new vulnerabilities are discovered all the time.

The test and report themselves don't do anything for security. A pentest is used by security professionals to inform and shape a project and decisions. The actions taken based on the findings from a pentest are what improve your security and help you identify the best use of finite resources or, at the very least, enable you to understand the risk. Do you need to perform a pentest? Absolutely you do in order to understand the threat landscape properly and identify vulnerabilities, but it's what you then do with that knowledge that is important and will make you more secure (or not).

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