How to Perform Penetration Testing on Cloud Services and Infrastructure

November 28, 20235 min read

Penetration testing, or pen testing, is the practice of attacking your IT systems in the same way a hacker would to pinpoint security weaknesses. In the context of cloud services and infrastructure, pen testing helps to ensure that the cloud deployments are secure and that customer data is protected.

Preparation and Planning

Before initiating any kind of penetration test, careful preparation and planning are essential. This step involves:

  • Understanding the Scope: Clearly define what systems, applications, and data are to be tested. This should be strictly adhered to during the test.
  • Legal and Compliance Issues: Obtain necessary permissions from the cloud service provider (CSP) to conduct tests, understanding their policies, and ensuring compliance with legal requirements.
  • Choosing a Testing Team: Decide whether to use internal staff or hire external experts. External teams often have the advantage of bringing a fresh perspective.

Setting Up the Environment

  • Test Accounts: Create separate accounts with permissions similar to those of real users to simulate realistic attack scenarios.
  • Isolation of Test Environment: Ensure that the test environment is isolated from production environments to avoid any disruption to live services.
  • Tools and Resources: Choose penetration testing tools and resources that are suitable for the cloud. These might include network scanners, vulnerability scanners, and exploitation tools.

Performing the Test

The actual penetration test can be broken down into several stages:

  1. Reconnaissance: Collecting information about the target cloud infrastructure.
    • Public information gathering
    • Network mapping
  2. Scanning: Identifying live systems, open ports, and services.
    • Vulnerability scanning
    • Automated scanning tools
  3. Gaining Access: Attempting to exploit found vulnerabilities to understand the potential impact.
    • System hacking
    • Social engineering tactics
  4. Maintaining Access: Evaluating the persistence of the connection to understand if an attacker could maintain a foothold in the system.
    • Installing backdoors
    • Mimicking advanced persistent threats (APTs)
  5. Analysis: Exploring compromised systems to identify data breaches or potential data exfiltration paths.
    • Data access and exfiltration testing
    • Lateral movement within the cloud environment

Reporting and Remediation

  • Reporting: Document all findings, including exploited vulnerabilities, accessed systems, and data that could be exfiltrated.
    • Provide a detailed report with evidence
    • Prioritize the findings based on risk level
  • Remediation Planning: Develop a plan to address each vulnerability.
    • Suggest practical remediation steps
    • Work with the IT team or service providers to patch vulnerabilities
  • Retesting: After remediation efforts are completed, retest the system to ensure that the vulnerabilities have been effectively addressed.

Continuous Monitoring and Assessment

  • Establish a Continuous Monitoring Program: Regular scans and assessments should be conducted to keep up with new vulnerabilities.
  • Automated Security Tools: Utilize automated tools for continuous security assessments.
  • Incident Response Plan: In case of detection of an actual breach, have an incident response plan ready to be enacted.

Cloud-Specific Considerations

When performing penetration testing on cloud services and infrastructure, special considerations must be taken into account to cover the unique aspects of the cloud, such as:

  • Multi-Tenancy: Understanding that other customers are sharing the same infrastructure could affect how tests are performed.
  • API Security: Testing the security of APIs exposed by the cloud services is critical as APIs can be a primary attack vector.
  • Cloud Storage: Inspect the security posture around cloud storage services, including access controls and encryption.
  • Elastic and Dynamic Nature of the Cloud: Account for the scalable and dynamic provisioning of resources within cloud environments.

Penetration testing on cloud services and infrastructure is an ongoing process that should be revisited regularly to keep up with the evolving threat landscape. It should be seen as a component of a broader cloud security strategy. It’s essential to work collaboratively with cloud service providers and within legal frameworks to ensure that pen testing is responsible, ethical, and provides real value in securing cloud environments.