Delivering Impactful Penetration Testing Reports: Enhancing Stakeholders’ Understanding of Security Vulnerabilities
- May 19, 2023
- Canary Trap
Penetration testing is a crucial step in ensuring the security of an organization’s systems and networks. The process involves simulating a cyber attack to identify vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and other weaknesses that attackers could exploit. However, the findings of a penetration test are only valuable if they are effectively communicated to the relevant stakeholders, particularly business leaders who make important decisions based on the results.
In order for stakeholders to act upon the findings of penetration tests, it is essential that these findings are presented in a way that stakeholders can understand, so today we want to explore the importance of providing clear and concise information that is actionable and relevant to the organization’s objectives.
What Is the Goal of Penetration Testing?
Penetration testing, also known as ethical hacking, is a process of assessing the security of a system or network by simulating an attack from an outsider or insider. The primary objective of a penetration test is to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a malicious actor.
A clever metaphor was used by experts at Cloudflare to describe the process: “This is like a bank hiring someone to dress as a burglar and try to break into their building and gain access to the vault. If the ‘burglar’ succeeds and gets into the bank or the vault, the bank will gain valuable information on how they need to tighten their security measures.”
What Is the Next Step?
Once the penetration testing is complete, the findings must be reported to business stakeholders. Reporting the findings effectively is crucial to ensure that the stakeholders understand the risks and take appropriate actions to address them.
According to a report from Core Security “seeing pen tests as a hoop to jump through and simply checking it off a list as ‘done’ won’t improve your security stance. It’s important to plan time for a post-mortem to disseminate, discuss, and fully understand the findings. With review and evaluation, pen test results can transform into action items for immediate remediation and takeaways that will help shape larger security policies.”
Keep It Simple
When reporting the findings of a penetration test to business stakeholders, it’s important to keep the language simple and jargon-free. According to Robert Herjavec, Founder and CEO of Herjavec Group, “Simplifying technical language is critical when communicating results to non-technical stakeholders. It’s important to frame the results in a way that is understandable and relevant to them.” By presenting the findings in an accessible way, stakeholders are more likely to take the necessary actions to address any vulnerabilities that are identified.
Using plain language is key to ensuring that business stakeholders understand the risks and take appropriate action. Technical terms and acronyms can be confusing and make it difficult for non-technical people to grasp the severity of the vulnerabilities. The report should clearly explain technical terms and use analogies and examples to help stakeholders understand the risks.
Understand the Audience
The first step in effectively reporting penetration testing findings is to understand the audience. Business stakeholders come from different backgrounds, and not all of them may have technical expertise. Therefore, it is essential to tailor the report to the audience’s level of understanding. This means avoiding technical jargon and using clear and concise language that is easy to understand.
Keeping up with penetration testing reporting best practices, experts at Brightsec say that reports should be intended “for people who are not security professionals but want to understand the significance of the vulnerabilities discovered and what the organization needs to do to solve them. […] Keep it short, preferably in simple language that security professionals, developers, and non-technical roles can understand.”
It is also important to present the findings in a way that is relevant to the audience. For example, if the audience is a financial institution, focus on the potential financial impact of the vulnerabilities.
When reporting the findings, it is crucial to provide context. This includes explaining the methodology used in the penetration testing, the scope of the test, and the severity of the vulnerabilities identified. Providing context helps stakeholders understand the significance of the findings and the potential impact on the organization.
Experts at Brightsec explain it plain and simple: “For example, when pentesting a financial application, explain for each vulnerability what it would allow attackers to do. What specific files could they view, and which operations would they be allowed to perform? Would they be able to perform financial transactions? This is critical for decision-makers to understand in order to manage remediation efforts.”
It is also important to provide recommendations for addressing the vulnerabilities identified, along with an explanation of the potential impact of not addressing the vulnerabilities.
Visual aids, such as charts and graphs, can be effective in conveying complex information. They can help stakeholders understand the severity of the vulnerabilities identified and the potential impact on the organization. Visuals can also help stakeholders see trends over time, such as the number of vulnerabilities identified in previous penetration tests versus the current one. However, it is important to ensure that the visuals are clear and easy to understand. Complex visuals can confuse stakeholders and detract from the overall message.
Not all vulnerabilities are created equal, and it is essential to prioritize the findings. Prioritization helps stakeholders understand which vulnerabilities are most critical and require immediate attention. Prioritization can be done based on several factors, including the severity of the vulnerability, the potential impact on the organization, and the likelihood of exploitation. It is also important to explain the rationale behind the prioritization to help stakeholders understand why certain vulnerabilities were deemed more critical than others.
Brightsec’s penetration testing reporting best practices suggests using “the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) to score the vulnerabilities by severity. But go beyond CVSS scores to explain what critical systems each vulnerability affects. […] Provide a clear score for ease of exploitation such as Easy/Medium/Hard. The organization can use this, in combination with the severity of the vulnerabilities, to prioritize fixes.”
Avoid Blame and Finger-Pointing
When reporting the findings, it is important to avoid blame and finger-pointing. The goal of the report is to help stakeholders understand the vulnerabilities and take appropriate actions to address them. Blame and finger-pointing can lead to a defensive response from stakeholders and can detract from the overall message. Instead, focus on the vulnerabilities and the potential impact on the organization. This helps stakeholders understand the significance of the findings and the importance of taking action.
Provide Actionable Recommendations
Reporting the findings is not enough; stakeholders need actionable recommendations to address the vulnerabilities identified. Recommendations should be specific and actionable, with clear steps that stakeholders can take to address the vulnerabilities. It is also important to provide timelines for addressing the vulnerabilities, along with an explanation of the potential impact of not addressing them. Providing actionable recommendations helps stakeholders understand the steps they need to take to address the vulnerabilities and the potential consequences of not taking action.
“It’s important to explain why the recommended actions are necessary and how they will reduce the risk to the organization,” says Chris Morales, head of security analytics at Vectra. The report should include clear and specific recommendations for mitigating the identified vulnerabilities. Each recommendation should explain why it is necessary and how it will reduce the risk to the organization. The report should also include a timeline for implementing the recommendations and the resources required.
Following up on the report is crucial to ensure that the vulnerabilities are addressed. The follow-up process should include regular updates to stakeholders on the progress of addressing the vulnerabilities.
According to a report from Core Security: “A single pen test serves as a baseline. An integral part of pen testing strategies is to retest frequently against that baseline to ensure improvements are made and security holes are closed. Pen test results often come with a hefty to do list, which means it’s unlikely that every single weakness can be fully addressed right away.”
It is important to ensure not only that existing vulnerabilities are addressed, but also that new vulnerabilities are not introduced, which highlights the importance of conducting regular penetration testing. Following up on the report helps stakeholders understand the importance of addressing the vulnerabilities and the progress made in addressing them.
Working With Third Party Vendors
If you are working with a vendor to provide security services and the goal is to provide a report it is important to ensure the report is tailored to your organization’s needs. If there are specific pieces of information you are looking for or even specific formatting the stakeholders will be more receptive to, it is important to communicate that with the vendor. When reviewing the report, ask questions and provide feedback to ensure it will be understood by everyone.
Reporting penetration testing findings to business stakeholders can be challenging, but it is a critical part of the process. Effective reporting helps stakeholders understand the vulnerabilities and the potential impact on the organization.
When reporting the findings, it is important to understand the audience, provide context, use visuals, prioritize the findings, avoid blame and finger-pointing, provide actionable recommendations, and follow up on the report. By following these guidelines, you can ensure that your penetration testing findings are communicated effectively to business stakeholders, and appropriate actions are taken to address the vulnerabilities.