Penetration testing frequency: what is the ideal approach?

Penetration test frequency
Penetration test frequency

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Introduction

Penetration testing is a process of simulating a cyber attack on a computer system, network, or web application to challenge its defenses and identify vulnerabilities that an attacker could exploit.

It is a crucial part of any organization’s cybersecurity strategy, as it helps to ensure the security and integrity of sensitive data and systems.

But when and how often do you need to perform penetration testing?

It is a common question asked by both startups and established organizations. The short answer is that it depends on various factors, including the size and complexity of the organization’s systems, the amount of Internet-exposed attack surface, the sensitivity of the data being protected, and the company’s risk tolerance and compliance requirements. 

Considering there are many types of penetration tests: internal, external, web app, mobile app, SaaS, red teaming, and more, it may be difficult for companies to know which type of pentest is necessary, when to do it and how often it should be repeated to create and maintain a robust security posture across all platforms.

Below we have put together some general guidelines to help you determine the frequency of penetration testing.

Guidelines for deciding how often to do penetration testing

  • If you are a start-up or a small company, an annual penetration test is a good starting point. It allows you to identify and remediate vulnerabilities regularly, helping to reduce the risk of a cyberattack. Also, it can help you in meeting regulatory compliance requirements and vendor risk assessments.
  • Companies that handle sensitive data, or are at an increased risk of cyber attacks, such as healthcare organizations, government agencies, companies heavy on R&D, financial institutions, or e-commerce businesses, should consider more frequent pen testing, at least quarterly, in scopes strategic to the business. These types of organizations often have strict compliance needs and may face higher risks if data is compromised.
  • Large organizations with complex networks or tech/SaaS in continuous development (such as those constantly updating their systems or adding new devices) may also benefit from more frequent penetration testing. This is because these types of environments can be more difficult to secure, and vulnerabilities may be introduced more quickly. Therefore, quarterly penetration testing is recommended.
  • Some companies may choose to pen test on a continuous or on-demand basis, particularly if they have a high risk tolerance or are in a heavily regulated industry. This approach can be more resource-intensive, but it can also provide the most comprehensive protection.

A summary of the guidelines above can be found in the following infographic.

Infographic penetration test frequency 1

What does compliance say about pen testing frequency?

Organizations need to adhere to different regulatory compliance needs, and each of them has its own penetration testing requirements that dictate testing frequency:

  • PCI DSS: Mandatory pentest once per year or at every major change in the infrastructure – especially in the cardholder data environment. Refer to Requirement 11 of the PCI security guidance for more information.
  • HIPAA, SOC 2, ISO 27001, LGBA: Pen test frequency is not mandated, but industry best practices say that once per year is recommended.

Signs it’s time for a new penetration test

If it’s been a while and you’re wondering if it’s time for another pen test, here is a quick questionnaire to help you decide whether it might be necessary. 

  • Has it been a year/quarter since your last pen test for a given scope?
  • Have you recently updated or made significant changes to your infrastructure (especially to critical systems), networks, or apps?
  • Have you retested after patching vulnerabilities?
  • Have you pushed out several new functionalities in your SaaS platforms lately?
  • Are you preparing to obtain SOC 2, ISO 27001, or another type of ISMS (information security management system) certification?
  • During M&A deals as part of due diligence or before going public in an IPO

We have created an infographic with a summary of the information above for easy visual reference.

When it is the right time for another pentest

Why is it important to retest?

Once a company has had a penetration test performed, received a pen testing report, and implemented patches, another pen test should be performed.

Repeating a penetration test can help assess the effectiveness of security measures put in place after the last test.

Finally, it helps to ensure that the system remains secure over time. A reputable provider will usually offer to retest as part of a penetration test.

What are the benefits of conducting regular penetration tests?

Continuous pen testing is a process during which organizations regularly test their networks, systems, and applications for vulnerabilities. This is in contrast to traditional penetration testing, which is typically conducted annually or on a one-off basis. There are many benefits to continuous pen testing, including the following:

  • It helps to identify vulnerabilities early and allows organizations to address them before they can be exploited.
  • It provides continuous visibility into the security of an organization’s systems and helps to ensure that they are kept up to date with the latest security patches.
  • It helps to build a culture of security within an organization by making employees aware of the importance of security and the need to be vigilant.
  • It can help to reduce the costs associated with penetration testing by making it part of an organization’s regular routine.

Having a yearly pen test plan and conducting continuous penetration tests is an integral part of any organization’s cybersecurity strategy.

How can you prepare for a penetration test?

To ensure that your organization is prepared for a penetration test, there are a few things you should do in advance.

First, you need to find a reputable pentest provider. Be sure to check references and reviews before making your decision. You can find out more about choosing a penetration testing provider in our blog.

Once you’ve selected a provider, you need to define the scope of the pen test. This includes deciding which components and data should be assessed.

You should also consider how much time and resources you are willing to devote to the pen test. 

Finally, ensure all systems are up-to-date and patched, remove unnecessary accounts and permissions, and limit access to sensitive data.

By taking these steps, you can be sure that your penetration test is conducted in a safe and controlled manner.

Conclusion

As a general rule, start-ups and smaller companies should conduct at least one penetration test annually and larger ones quarterly. However, the frequency of penetration testing should be based on the specific needs and goals of the organization. A risk assessment can help to identify security risks and areas of the network that may be most vulnerable and should be tested more frequently. The results of previous assessments can also be used to guide future testing. It is important for organizations to have a clear plan in place for pen testing and to allocate sufficient budget and resources for this crucial task.

FAQ

How often should I perform penetration testing?

At least once a year, in most cases. Organizations with a less tolerant risk profile may consider quarterly pentests.

What do compliance standards say about pentesting frequency?

PCI Requirement 11 mandates once per year or at every major change in infrastructure. Others, such as SOC 2, ISO 27001, etc., do not specify testing frequency.

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