Re: What is being a pen tester really like?

I know you are not trying to attack anyone but I do disagree with you
on several points. Nessus is a vulnerability scanner and using it to
conduct a test is called a vulnerability assessment. A vulnerability
assessment is or can be a step in a penetration test to find
weaknesses in the system. Here is one definition of penetration
testing form a online dictionary:

"A test of a network's vulnerabilities by having an authorized
individual actually attempt to break into the network. The tester may
undertake several methods, workarounds and "hacks" to gain entry,
often initially getting through to one seemingly harmless section, and
from there, attacking more sensitive areas of the network.

Security experts recommend that an annual penetration test be
undertaken as a supplement to a more frequent automated security
scan." -

This is NOT something Nessus does, think metasploit (or insert your
favorite exploit application). I do agree in that a web or application
test is outside the scope of a NETWORK test but I am not sure why you
differentiated that when it was not addressed prior to your most
recent post. A pen test can be scoped to anything and it does come
down to what the client wants.

Hands down I believe that a pen tester is a highly technical position
and I do agree that one does need "good verbal and written
communication skills, the ability to work well with clients, and the
ability to explain security (even inaccurately) in terms of business
value." (I think that falls in the "Duh" book) Though here I disagree
in that explaining security inaccurately is a very bad thing and can
lead to bigger remediation mistakes (i.e. you better know what you are
talking about).

You are right in that many companies out there conduct a Nessus scan
and call it a penetration test but that shows little skill and does
not provide the client with something they could do themselves (any 12
year-old can run a scanner). There are MANY vulnerabilities out there
that OTS scanners cannot find such as XSS or SQL injection problems.
Most of the automated scanners might notice that something is wrong
with an application but will not be able to go through a detailed
analysis of the problem (and therefor providing an accurate assessment
to the client).

In my opinion, if someone is running a Nessus scan and calling it a
pen test they are lying. There is a big difference between a
vulnerability assessment and penetration test and many people do not
understand that.

On 8/8/06, Paul Melson <pmelson@xxxxxxxxx> wrote:
-----Original Message-----
Subject: Re: What is being a pen tester really like?

> Also to add my 2c.
> The people that Paul described are the ones we don't want around and they
are not "pen-testers".

I don't want this to get turned into a flamewar, and I realize that many of
the people on this list feel as though my "candid dialogue" on the subject
is attacking them because they work as pen testers. I'm not. But I do
think it would be disingenuous to talk about being a pen tester without
talking about the nature of the market.

Based on my experience, it's not an issue of the individual performing the
test's skill level. It's an issue of where their employer has positioned
their services. If you want to be mad at somebody, be mad at the customers
that don't want to (or can't) shell out the dollars necessary to pay for a
very thorough assessment.

> In more aggressive organizations, they don't make it thought the
technical interview session for the
> actual pen-test positions.

In my experience, companies that hire pen-testers for internal purposes are
the exception. From an HR perspective, it doesn't make sense to hire top
dollar talent that will only be productive on a part-time basis. It makes
more sense to purchase a scanning tool or outsource the work entirely, which
is what most companies do.

Or did you mean that the companies that perform pen-test work for multiple
customers have tough hiring processes? I'd like to think you're right about
that one, but there is certainly a dearth of evidence to suggest that it is
not happening everywhere nor is it necessary.

> A 12 year -old can run a scanner, it takes a little more to discover an
unknown problem for a company
> that has not released a product or a financial organization that is
developing applications that are not
> public. Probably not going to get an out of the box scanner that will
find these.

I agree with your statement 100%. However, web (or any) application
assessment work is typically out of scope for most network pen-test services
and comes with a higher price tag for the customer because of the time and
skill necessary to perform those tests.

I hate to be cynical about it, but even the big name security consulting
companies out there use Nessus or Retina and charge thousands of dollars for
each scan and pretty report. It's a matter of profitability. Trying to
distinguish between genuinely skilled pen-testers and the script-kiddy
scanners is like the old discussion about the meanings of the terms "hacker"
and "cracker." Sorry folks, that horse has left the barn. They're all
"hackers" and we're all just pen-testers to the rest of the IT industry at


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