Three dark figures moved swiftly through the night as the sleet pelted the pavement leading to the office complex. It was after midnight, and two members of the trio watched for security personnel, while the other one tried to pick the lock to a side entrance. When the effort failed, the group began to search the perimeter of the building looking for another way to get inside. After prying open a slightly cracked window and climbing through, their mission officially began.

The organized team spent roughly two hours scouring the building completely unnoticed by on-site security. They rifled through papers, took documents and laptops, and successfully infiltrated the company’s network through unsecured network ports. After leaving the premises unchallenged, the team returned the following evening – this time through the front door sporting cloned employee badges. The team freely strolled throughout the entire campus, even after speaking with security officers.  Although this illustration sounds like the beginning of a plot for an action thriller, it was actually a legitimate assignment executed by a team of ethical hackers hired by the organization to expose its security vulnerabilities. 

It is estimated that cybercrime costs the global economy more than $445 billion annually, with the average cost of a data breach amounting to $3.5 million in 2014. While password flaws will continue to be a source of many system and network compromises, three other types of vulnerabilities most commonly discovered by ethical hackers include insecure/misconfigured services, input validation on Web services and susceptibility to social engineering.

While the thought of a security breach can strike fear in just about any Chief Security Officer’s mind, with a bit of foresight, strategic planning and penetration testing, any organization can fortify their security defenses by addressing these vulnerabilities:

  1. Insecure or Misconfigured Services
    Many Web services come with advanced capabilities that, if not properly secured, can allow a malicious attacker to gain access to a system or network. Some problems can be detected by easily obtainable security scanning tools, then exploited to compromise a website or backend system including databases or other network systems. To properly configure services, most companies do not need to spend thousands of dollars for third-party products that do little more than change system settings. With proper research and time, companies can secure their internal, external and mobile systems themselves. Flat networks, misconfigured firewalls and perimeter devices, and higher security permissions across the domain are also culprits.
  2. Input Validation
    Input validation issues, such as Cross-site Scripting and SQL Injection, have been a constant target for cyber attacks. While the techniques used to exploit these issues have been well documented, there are also many automated tools which can be used to quickly search for and exploit these types of issues.  To protect against potential security holes and vulnerabilities, all input should be tested.
  3. Social Engineering
    Social engineering attacks are one of the most effective ways for attackers to gain access to internal systems. The tactic typically exploits people’s desire to either help others or make their own jobs easier. Whether through a well-crafted email or phone pretext, and sometimes by simply dressing the part, the attacker will often obtain information or access to what was previously unavailable.

    To protect against the expected increase in future cyber attacks, security managers must consider the human element when devising a security program. By educating employees through regular training sessions on current threats, employees can go from being the weakest link to one of the organization’s greatest assets. In addition, continual security assessments and spot inspections can go a long way toward implementing a successful security posture, mitigating the effects of a future attack.

As the number and sophistication of cyber attacks continue to increase, it is more important than ever to consider adding ethical hacking to your security plan. By hiring an unbiased, outside firm with specialized teams of highly skilled penetration testers, you can enable your organization to detect issues that may have been overlooked or never fully mitigated.

Security testing services performed by third-party firms is an art form, and the testers are highly qualified, having spent years honing their craft. The knowledge imparted by ethical hackers mimics real external attackers or malicious insiders. Based on their findings, their recommendations can mean the difference between implementing a fortified security plan before a malicious attack occurs and recovering from the devastation after a serious breach occurs.