A Pen Test is Coming!!

Posted by on October 18, 2014

You have been working hard to create the greatest app in the world.  Ok, so maybe it is just a simple business application, but it is still important to you.  You have put countless hours of hard work into creating this master piece.  It looks awesome, and does everything that the business has asked for.  Then you get the email from security: Your application will undergo a penetration test in two weeks.  Your heart skips a beat and sinks a little as you recall everything you have heard about this experience.  Most likely, your immediate action is to go on the defensive.  Why would your application need a penetration test?  Of course it is secure, we do use HTTPS.  No one would attack us, we are small.  Take a breath..  it is going to be alright.

All too often, when I go into a penetration test, the developers start on the defensive.  They don’t really understand why these “other” people have to come in and test their application.  I understand the concerns.   History has shown that many of these engagements are truly considered adversarial.  The testers jump for joy when they find a security flaw.  They tell you how bad the application is and how simple the fix is, leading to you feeling about the size of an ant.  This is often due to a lack of good communication skills. 

Penetration testing is adversarial.  It is an offensive assessment to find security weaknesses in your systems.  This is an attempt to simulate an attacker against your system.  Of course there are many differences, such as scope, timing and rules, but the goal is the same.  Lets see what we can do on your system.  Unfortunately, I find that many testers don’t have the communication skills to relay the information back to the business and developers in a way that is positive.  I can’t tell you how may times I have heard people describe their job as great because they get to come in, tell you how bad you suck and then leave.  If that is your penetration tester, find a new one.  First, that attitude breaks down the communication with the client and doesn’t help promote a secure atmosphere.  We don’t get anywhere by belittling the teams that have worked hard to create their application.  Second, a penetration test should provide solid recommendations to the client on how they can work to resolve the issues identified.  Just listing a bunch of flaws is fairly useless to a company. 

These engagements should be worth everyone’s time.  There should be positive communication between the developers and the testing team.  Remember that many engagements are short lived so the more information you can provide the better the assessment you are going to get.  The engagement should be helpful.  With the right company, you will get a solid assessment and recommendations that you can do something with.  If you don’t get that, time to start looking at another company for testing.  Make sure you are ready for the test.   If the engagement requires an environment to test in, have it all set up.  That includes test data (if needed).   The testers want to hit the ground running.  If credentials are needed, make sure those are available too.  The more help you can be, the more you will benefit from the experience.   

As much as you don’t want to hear it, there is a very high chance the test will find vulnerabilities.  While it would be great if applications didn’t have vulnerabilities, it is fairly rare to find them.  Use this experience to learn and train on security issues. Take the feedback as constructive criticism, not someone attacking you.   Trust me, you want the pen testers to find these flaws before a real attacker does. 

Remember that this is for your benefit.  We as developers also need to stay positive.  The last thing you want to do is challenge the pen testers saying your app is not vulnerable.  The teams that usually do that are the most vulnerable. Say positive and it will be a great learning experience.

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