Differences between external and internal penetration tests explained

What is a penetration test?

Penetration testing is a cybersecurity procedure during which a team of specialists checks networks, software, hardware, applications, etc. for security weaknesses. Essentially, penetration testing is ethical hacking performed for the benefit of the company that orders the test on its own systems.

What is an external penetration test?

An external penetration test is a pentest conducted without any insider knowledge or access into the company’s networks and systems. Essentially, the person who performs an external pentest acts just like a hacker who might aim to attack the company. Except, in the case of a pentest, the goal is to identify and attempt to exploit vulnerabilities without causing any actual damage to the company. As a result, an external pentest allows to accurately assess what vulnerabilities outside threat actors can exploit and what information hackers can manage to access.

Common external penetration tests

Some examples of external penetration tests that are commonly conducted by cybersecurity officials include identity management testing, assessment of cryptography weakness, authorization and authentication testing, error handling assessment and many others.

These tests are typically performed using IDS/IPS testing, footprinting, manual testing, password strength assessment, system, port and service scanning and others.

What is an internal penetration test?

An internal penetration test is a procedure conducted to evaluate what kinds of vulnerabilities a threat actor with inside access to the company’s networks and systems can exploit and what information he or she can access. Typically, threat actors with internal access can include rogue employees, contractors, staff and even clients.

What is tested during an internal pentest?

When conducting an internal penetration test, a cybersecurity team will analyze wireless networks, servers, computer systems and other devices, firewalls, IDS/IPS and even employee behavior and procedures. Once the vulnerabilities in those components are identified, the cybersecurity professionals will try to exploit them to identify the extent of potential unauthorized access and damage that could arise from it.

Why is it necessary to conduct internal penetration tests?

Internal penetration tests might seem redundant – after all, if your systems are secured against outside threats, then there’s no need for an internal pentest since an attacker won’t be able to gain access to your internal systems, to begin with. However, even if your systems are secure, it is still necessary to know exactly how much damage a threat actor could do if he or she manages to get access.

Frequently asked questions

How much time does an external penetration test take?

An external penetration test is an extensive and complicated task that can take a team of specialists up to 2-3 weeks to finish. The final timeline depends on the specifics of your networks and systems and the goals of the test.

What tools are used to conduct external penetration tests?

Cybersecurity professionals use a variety of freely available software programs to conduct external penetration tests. These programs include Metasploit, Nikto, Nessus, Nmap, Burp Suite Pro, Sqlmap and others.

Are external and internal penetration tests conducted simultaneously?

No, in most cases, an external penetration test is conducted first and then it is followed by an internal pentest.

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    Vitaly is a principal consultant at Hackcontrol as wall as aa business and IT thought leader. He has over 15 years of experience in consulting, account management and is a specialist in cybersecurity.