Organizations implement a broad range of security measures to maintain a sound security posture. These security measures can be either reactive or proactive. Penetration tests are an example of proactive security measures that organizations conduct to assess the security of their IT infrastructure. Many regulations, laws, and standards across the globe require organizations to perform pentesting exercises. Reference to penetration testing requirement can be direct (Requirement 11.3 in PCI DSS) or indirect (Article 32 of GDPR).
Over the years, various types of penetration testing exercises have taken center stage. If you are working in the cybersecurity industry, you would often come across terms like external and internal penetration tests, black box and white box penetration tests, etc. While it is easy to understand internal and external penetration testing, we often find our clients confused about white box and black box pentesting activities.
White box testing is an approach to pentesting where testers are familiar with the architecture of an organization’s IT infrastructure. Other names for this type of penetration tests include glass box testing, clear box testing, and internal penetration testing. Information for designing tests in this approach is readily available with penetration testers. In most of the cases, an organization’s internal security team conducts these testing exercises. However, organizations may onboard a vendor and provide them with the required information. While this approach is useful, experts believe that it is not entirely realistic as the testing team is not in the same position as a malicious attacker.
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What is black box pentesting?
In the last few years, black box pentesting exercises have become routine security tests for many organizations. In this approach to testing, the pentesting team does not have any knowledge of the internal working of target systems. In white box testing, the testing team may be biased due to their familiarity and miss existing vulnerabilities. However, in black box pentesting, testers are free from any bias. The goal of these tests is to identify exploitable vulnerabilities from outside the network.
It means that this type of pentesting activities relies on dynamic analysis of applications and systems on a target network. The testing team should be well-versed with automated scanning tools as well as manual testing methodologies. As the organization does not provide a ready-to-use network map, the pentesting team should be capable of creating a network map based on their observations. The success of black box pentesting exercises highly depends on the skills and experience of the testing team.
Benefits of black box pentesting
One outstanding benefit of black box pentesting is the simulation of realistic scenarios while attempting to find vulnerabilities. For maximum utilization, it is recommended to use the same set of tools, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) just like an attacker would do. However, if the pentesting team cannot break into the testing perimeter, they will not be able to discover vulnerabilities present in internal services, systems, and applications.
As far as application security is concerned, black box testing activities play a crucial role. However, this does not mean that an organization can absolutely rely on one single testing approach. Other benefits include:
- Adopting attacker-like techniques to conduct penetration tests
- Covering common vulnerabilities such as XSS, CSRF, SQL injection, and server misconfiguration
- Providing better understanding of impact if attackers break into an organization’s network
There are trade-offs for each type of penetration testing engagement. These trade-offs are in terms of speed, coverage, and efficiency. Black box pentesting is considered to be the fastest exercise; while the same is not true for white box testing. While the chances of bias are minimal, the pentesting team may overlook vulnerabilities as they do not have sufficient information about target systems. Our experts recommend adopting a security testing strategy consisting of multiple types of pentesting engagements for comprehensive coverage of your IT infrastructure.