In today's economy, money is obviously tight. As Ken pointed out in his blog post "Economy bad… breaches go up!", companies should be spending MORE money on assessments, not cutting back in the area. With that being said, here is some insight from a penetration tester who hacks daily on some of the things I've seen on the front lines...
So your company decides it is time to have a penetration test performed...whether it is an annual pen test, an RFP that was put out, or for some other reason, that reason for performing one may vary is outside the scope of this blog post. The number one factor for *many* people on anything is budget. Money makes this world go around. The root cause of cybercrime is money. Why do criminals steal SSN's and account numbers? To obtain money in the end. Since everyone seems to be short on budget these days, choosing the least expensive security assessor is not always the best way to go. In fact, the majority of the time I've seen it to turn out poorly much of the time. Of course, there are many things that factor into it. Some of these would be which assessors were considered for the work, how many there were in the running, etc.
To put things into perspective, here are some of things to consider when looking to have an information security assessment performed:
1. [insert large popular assessor name here] gives us a discount each year, and they told us we were good.
Does bigger always mean better? No. We can go back and look at several data breaches, especially those involving PCI data to see that large/well-known assessors had signed off on the companies that were broken into as being compliant despite not having fulfilled all of the requirements of the PCI DSS.
2. I used the local ISP, they are cheap and right here in my backyard.
That's great that they are local, but they are an ISP. They provide your Internet connection, and most likely don't specialize in security. At the end of the day, do you think they could tell you more about the latest attack trends out there or MPLS and OC45's?
3. We took the low bid on our RFP, and the assessor didn't break in for the internal penetration test...
This came from a multi-billion dollar company and the RFP included extensive internal penetration testing. If the penetration testing team does not break in on the internal network, their skills are quite questionable. The internal network is usually the squishy center of the network whereas the external facing portion is usually hardened. Unless it is a network with crazy security controls in place such as some government networks or other extremely confidential networks, there will be vulnerabilities present. The success rate of the assessor for breaking in might be a good thing to ask when shopping around.
4. For our last "penetration test", the vendor asked for a domain administrator account.
Are you kidding me?! Anyone can run nessus with credentials and reformat the report to look differently. A penetration test should be treated as if it were a real attack. What does this mean? This means that externally, the only information given should be the company or organization name. We can safely assume at the very least level that is what an attacker might have. For internal penetration tests, have the penetration testing team simply plug into the network and start from there. You shouldn't always have to give them an IP address, have them test out your NAC(network access control) perhaps, or even have them do a physical pen test to attempt to physically penentrate the building and do it all as if they are a true criminal targetting the organization. Whatever the scenario is, using a domain administrator account or any other credentialed automated scan is NOT a penetration test. A "vulnerability assessment" is running automated tools to identify vulnerabilities. When performing a penetration test, running such "noisy" tools will obviously get detected. A penetration test involves manual attacks targetting specific systems that in the end, will allow for unauthorized access. Don't get me wrong, automated vulnerability scanners are great for say, checking systems for the latest patches, but a vulnerability assessment does not equal a penetration test. I see this presented on many security assessors websites, and I am in disbelief every time. Be aware of what the security assessor is proposing in their statement of work.
There are tons of assessors out there. How do you know which are the best choice? Obviously price is a major factor, and when choosing, there are other things to consider too. What all does the vendor do? Do they perform penetration tests, sell products, do implementations, manage those solutions, and even support them? Can you trust them to not have a biased or swayed opinion or report if they have a financial interest in fixing what they found, selling you new products, as well as implementation and support of them? If the vendor conducting your testing does "everything" for you, the end all be all solution provider, they probably are not. Everyone says they can do everything, however it has been shown that once you "do everything", you become a generalist, and start to lack expertise in what you used to be good at. Ask for resumes or individual expertise for assessors that will be on the assessment team performing work for you. Someone who hacks all day every day versus your local ISP is going to be a no-brainer on what the outcome will be. Your local computer shop probably advertises building PC's, wireless networks, doing security, etc. Again, you may want to question any vendor that says they can do everything, and limit your selection to vendors that only do security assessments as their specialty.
Whether you choose SecureState or another security assessor for your assessments, remember that cheaper does not always mean better.