Vulnerability Testing for Network Security in FE Electrical

This is the second part of our detailed guide series on network security in the FE Electrical exam. The topic is divided into two portions to cover this domain’s key aspects per the NCEES ® FE Electrical guidelines and exam preparation roadmap.

  1. Security Triad and Port Scanning
  2. Vulnerability Testing
  • Network Vulnerability Test
  • Web Vulnerability Test
  • PEN Test

If an organization fails to meet industry data and network security regulations, it may end up experiencing lawsuits by clients in case of any intrusion or data leak. Therefore, testing the network framework for potential and hidden vulnerabilities is mandatory to eliminate any likelihood of cyberattacks.  

Let’s explore this topic in depth to understand how different vulnerability testing methodologies work to enforce network security policies for data integrity and infrastructure security.

*The DevSecOps-based managed vulnerability testing sections in each testing approach are for additional reading to keep up with the modern and evolving industry trends.

Network Vulnerability Testing

Network vulnerability testing is a critical component of cybersecurity, aiming to identify, quantify, and prioritize (or rank) vulnerabilities in network systems.

It’s an essential part of network security in FE Electrical that also implies a range of career prospects in the real world. 

Most Common Network Vulnerabilities and Exploitation

  • Unpatched Software: Attackers often exploit known vulnerabilities in unpatched software. For example, the WannaCry ransomware attack exploited a vulnerability in older Windows systems.
  • Misconfigured Firewalls or Access Controls: Incorrect settings can open a network to unauthorized access.
  • Weak Authentication Mechanisms: Simple or default passwords can be easily guessed or cracked.
  • Outdated or Ineffective Anti-virus Software: This can lead to malware infections.

What Happens If Something Goes Wrong?

  • Data Breach: Unauthorized access to sensitive data can lead to financial loss, reputational damage, and legal consequences.
  • Service Disruption: DDoS attacks can render services unavailable, impacting business operations.
  • Financial Loss: Costs associated with responding to a breach, including legal fees, fines, and loss of business.

Vulnerability Assessment Methods – In-house and Cloud (3rd Party)

In-house Vulnerability Testing

  • Network Scanning: Tools like Nmap or Nessus are used for port scanning of the network for open ports and known vulnerabilities.
  • Penetration Testing: Simulated cyber attacks are performed to evaluate the system’s security.
  • Regular Software Updates and Patch Management: Ensuring all software is up-to-date to avoid known vulnerabilities.

Cloud-based Vulnerability Testing

  • Automated Scanning Tools: Many cloud providers offer tools for automated vulnerability scanning of cloud resources.
  • Integration with Development Pipeline: Continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines as part of DevSecOps culture in the cloud often include dedicated security testing tools.

DevSecOps – Modern Framework for Network Vulnerability Testing

Modern Framework for Network Vulnerability Testing

DevSecOps stands for Development, Security, and Operations. It’s an approach to culture, automation, and platform design that integrates security as a shared responsibility throughout the IT lifecycle.

The main goal of DevSecOps is to bridge traditional gaps between IT and security while ensuring fast, safe delivery of code. It involves integrating security practices into the DevOps process.

The Cycle of DevSecOps in Cloud-Based Vulnerability Testing

Planning and Development

Integrating Security into Early Design: Security considerations are integrated from the beginning of the software development lifecycle. This includes threat modeling and risk assessments.

Code Analysis: Static application security testing (SAST) tools analyze source code for vulnerabilities.

Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment (CI/CD)

Automated Testing: Automated security testing tools are integrated into the CI/CD pipeline. This includes dynamic application security testing (DAST) that tests the application’s running state.

Dependency Scanning: Scanning dependencies for known vulnerabilities, often using software composition analysis (SCA) tools.

Configuration Management

Infrastructure as Code (IaC) Security: The Tools offered in IaC are used to manage and provision infrastructure through code, which is scanned for misconfigurations and vulnerabilities.

*Infrastructure as Code (IaC) involves managing and provisioning the infrastructure via code rather than a manual process.

Monitoring and Response

Real-Time Monitoring: Continuous monitoring of the infrastructure and applications for security threats and anomalies.

Incident Response: Automated security incident response mechanisms are in place to deal with threats as they are detected.

Feedback and Improvement

Security Information and Event Management (SIEM): Using SIEM tools to aggregate and analyze logs and events for advanced threat detection and security insights.

Learning and Adapting: The feedback from monitoring and incident responses is used to continuously improve security measures and practices.

Cloud-Based Vulnerability Testing in DevSecOps

Automated Scanning Tools

Cloud providers offer integrated tools for automated vulnerability scanning. These tools can scan cloud configurations, applications, and data stored in the cloud. Automated scans are typically run regularly, often with every code commit or at least daily/weekly, to ensure continuous security.

Integration with Development Pipeline

Security testing tools are integrated into the CI/CD pipeline. This means that every time code is committed, it undergoes security testing, which includes vulnerability scanning. This integration helps identify and fix security issues early in the development process, reducing the cost and effort required to address them later.

Security as Code

In cloud environments, security policies and configurations can be defined as code. This allows for automated enforcement and compliance checks. This approach ensures that security configurations are consistently applied across all cloud resources.

DevSecOps is all about integrating security into every software or infrastructure development and deployment phase. In the essence of cloud-based vulnerability testing, automated tools, and practices are integrated into the development pipeline to ensure continuous security assessment and improvement.

This approach leads to more secure software, faster deployment times, and better alignment between IT security and business objectives.

Web Vulnerability Testing

Web vulnerability testing is a critical process in cybersecurity, focusing on identifying and addressing security weaknesses in web applications. It’s essential to ensure that web applications are secure from attacks that could compromise data integrity, confidentiality, or availability.

Common Web Vulnerabilities

SQL Injection

SQL injection occurs when an attacker can insert a malicious SQL query via the input data from the client to the application. This can result in unauthorized access to database information, deletion of data, and other malicious activities.

Mitigation: Use prepared statements with parameterized queries, employ stored procedures, and validate all input data.

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)

XSS attacks occur when an attacker injects malicious scripts into content from a trusted website. This script then executes in the context of the victim’s browser, potentially stealing session tokens, login credentials, or other sensitive information.

Mitigation: Implement content security policies, validate and sanitize all user input, and use secure frameworks that automatically escape XSS.

Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)

In CSRF attacks, unauthorized commands are transmitted from a user that the web application trusts. It tricks the user’s browser into executing actions they did not intend.

Mitigation: Use anti-CSRF tokens in forms and ensure that state-changing requests are only accepted over POST requests.

Broken Authentication and Session Management

This happens when application functions related to authentication and session management are implemented incorrectly, allowing attackers to compromise passwords, keys, or session tokens.

Mitigation: Implement multi-factor authentication, secure session management, and strong password policies.

Insecure Direct Object References (IDOR)

IDOR allows attackers to access data by modifying the value of a parameter used to directly point to an object, such as a file or database key.

Mitigation: Always validate that the user can access the requested object.

Web Vulnerability Tests with CI/CD

Web Vulnerability Tests with CI/CD

Integrating web vulnerability testing into Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipelines is part of the DevSecOps approach. This integration ensures that security is a central part of the development process rather than an afterthought.

Cycle of DevSecOps for Cloud-Based Vulnerability Testing

In DevSecOps, security practices are implemented following an agile model at every software development and operation phase. Doing so ensures that security is not an afterthought but a fundamental system component. The phases of this integrated approach are as follows:

  • Plan and Code Phase
  • Build Phase
  • Test Phase
  • Release Phase
  • Deploy Phase
  • Operate Phase
  • Feedback and Improve Phase

Let’s have a look at each of these steps in detail.

Plan and Code Phase

Security is integrated directly into the development process in the Plan and Code Phase. This is achieved through the concept of Security as Code, where security requirements are defined and embedded within the development workflows.

This ensures that security considerations are integral to the development process. Automated Code Review is also employed, where tools automatically analyze the code for potential security vulnerabilities.

This proactive approach helps identify and resolve security issues early in the development cycle, significantly reducing the risk of vulnerabilities in the final product.

Build Phase

During the Build Phase, two key security measures are implemented: Dependency Scanning and Static Application Security Testing (SAST). Dependency Scanning involves examining the external libraries and components the application relies on and identifying any known vulnerabilities in these dependencies.

This is crucial as vulnerabilities in dependencies can be exploited just as those in the actual code. SAST, on the other hand, involves automated tools scanning the source code for security vulnerabilities.

These tools look for patterns or coding practices that are known to lead to security issues, enabling developers to address potential problems before the application moves into the testing phase.

Test Phase

The Test Phase involves Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) and specific Security Testing. DAST tools test the running application, simulating attacks on the application in its operational state to find vulnerabilities that are typically only detectable at runtime.

This complements the static analysis done in the earlier phase. Additionally, targeted Security Testing is conducted to identify and address specific vulnerabilities or to ensure compliance with certain security standards, further fortifying the application against potential security breaches.

Release Phase

In the Release Phase, Automated Security Gates play a crucial role. These automated checks occur before deployment to ensure that all high-risk issues have been resolved.

This acts as a final checkpoint to prevent any major vulnerabilities from making it into the live environment, thereby safeguarding the integrity of the application upon release.

Deploy Phase

The Deploy Phase focuses on Infrastructure as Code Security and Compliance Monitoring. Automated tools are used to check the security of the infrastructure configuration, ensuring that the environment where the application is deployed is secure.

Compliance Monitoring involves continuous monitoring to ensure that the deployed application adheres to established security policies and standards, maintaining the security posture over time.

Operate Phase

During the operation phase, the focus shifts to Runtime Security Monitoring and Vulnerability Management. Runtime Security Monitoring involves ongoing application surveillance to detect and respond to suspicious activities, thereby preventing or mitigating security breaches in real time.

Vulnerability Management includes regular scans and updates to address new vulnerabilities as they are discovered, ensuring that the application remains secure against evolving threats.

Feedback and Improve

Finally, in the Feedback and Improve phase, a Feedback Loop is established, where information about security incidents and vulnerabilities is continuously fed back into the planning phase.

This ensures that lessons learned from security incidents are incorporated into future development cycles, improving the application’s security posture.

Following these steps, an organization can effectively integrate security throughout the web application lifecycle, leading to more secure and resilient applications. This approach aligns with modern agile development practices, ensuring that security is a continuous and integral part of the development lifecycle.

Penetration Testing

Penetration Testing

Penetration testing, often called pen testing, is a simulated cyber attack against your computer system to check for exploitable vulnerabilities. It’s a crucial component of network security that provides insights into the target system’s security posture.

Pen testing can involve the attempted breaching of various application systems (e.g., application protocol interfaces (APIs), frontend/backend servers) to uncover vulnerabilities, such as unsanitized inputs susceptible to code injection attacks.

Types of Penetration Testing

1. White Box Testing

White box testing, also known as clear box testing or glass box testing, is a penetration testing method where the tester has full knowledge and access to the internal structure, design, and implementation of the system being tested.

Access Level: Testers have access to source code, architecture documentation, and network information.

Process: It involves a thorough examination of the internal workings of the application. The tester can review code to identify security flaws, understand implemented security measures, and inspect network diagrams to plan the attack.

Tools Used: Static Application Security Testing (SAST) tools, code analyzers, and debugging tools.

Advantages: Can identify and target specific parts of the system, more comprehensive in finding hidden vulnerabilities.

Use Case: Useful in complex systems where understanding internal operations is crucial for testing.

2. Black Box Testing

Black box testing is a method where the tester has no prior knowledge of the system infrastructure and must find vulnerabilities solely through external testing.

Access Level: Testers mimic an external cyber attack without any internal system knowledge.

Process: The tester interacts with the system’s external interfaces like an attacker would, probing for vulnerabilities in exposed services, testing for injection attacks, and attempting to escalate privileges.

Tools Used: Network scanners, fuzzers, and Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) tools.

Advantages: Simulates a real-world attack scenario from an attacker’s perspective, useful for testing the effectiveness of security perimeters.

Use Case: Ideal for testing external defense mechanisms and the system’s ability to withstand external attacks.

3. Gray Box Testing

Gray box testing combines white box and black box testing methodologies. The tester has partial knowledge or access to internal structures, which can guide their testing process.

Access Level: Limited system knowledge, such as architecture diagrams or access credentials.

Process: Testers use their partial knowledge to focus their testing on potentially vulnerable areas while performing external attacks. It strikes a balance between comprehensive internal testing and realistic external attacks.

Tools Used: A mix of white and black box testing tools, such as code analyzers and network scanners.

Advantages: Provides a more balanced approach, highlighting vulnerabilities from both internal and external perspectives.

Use Case: Effective in scenarios where some system understanding is available, but a realistic attack scenario is still desired.

Each type of penetration testing serves a unique purpose and provides different insights into the security of a system. By understanding and utilizing these different approaches, organizations can comprehensively assess their cybersecurity posture, identify vulnerabilities, and strengthen their defenses against potential attacks.

PEN Testing Process by Cloud Vendors

Cloud providers often carry out penetration testing in modern times and is a comprehensive process involving several stages and liabilities.

Each stage simulates an attacker’s actions to identify and exploit vulnerabilities, thereby assessing the system’s security posture. 

Let’s discuss each stage one by one:

1. Planning and Reconnaissance

1A: Objective Setting: The first step involves defining clear objectives for the penetration test. This might include determining the scope of the test (which systems, networks, or applications will be tested), the rules of engagement, and the specific goals (like identifying data exfiltration paths or privilege escalation vulnerabilities).

1B: Intelligence Gathering: This phase collects information about the target system. For cloud-based systems, this might include:

  • Gathering information about the cloud infrastructure (AWS, Azure, Google Cloud, etc.).
  • Understanding the configuration of cloud services and applications.
  • Identifying exposed services or APIs that can be accessed over the internet.

2. Scanning

2A: Static Analysis: Reviewing the application’s source code to identify potential vulnerabilities. This can be more challenging in a cloud environment if the source code isn’t readily accessible. Still, tools like static application security testing (SAST) can be integrated into the CI/CD pipeline.

2B: Dynamic Analysis: Involves testing the application in a running state. This is crucial in a cloud environment as it can reveal misconfigurations or security flaws in live environments. Tools used here include dynamic application security testing (DAST) scanners.

3. Gaining Access

3A: Exploitation: The pen tester attempts to exploit identified vulnerabilities. In a cloud context, this could involve

  • Exploiting misconfigured cloud storage (like AWS S3 buckets) to access sensitive data.
  • Using compromised credentials to gain unauthorized access to cloud services.
  • Exploiting vulnerabilities in web applications hosted in the cloud.

4. Maintaining Access

4A: Persistence: This step tests if the attacker can maintain a foothold in the system. In cloud systems, this might involve:

  • Creating backdoor accounts in cloud services.
  • Deploying malicious instances within the cloud environment.
  • Establish command and control channels to survive a reboot or other security controls.

5. Analysis

5A: Report/Dashboard Preparation: The final report details all vulnerabilities discovered, the data accessed, and the time the pen tester remained undetected. For cloud environments, this report should also cover cloud-specific issues like misconfigurations, excessive permissions, and improper use of cloud services.

5B: Recommendations: Provides a comprehensive assessment of the target’s security posture and suggests measures to mitigate identified risks. Recommendations might include:

  • Tightening cloud service configurations.
  • Implementing better identity and access management controls.
  • Integrating more robust security monitoring and logging.

Documentation and Liabilities in Third-Party Cloud Pen Testing

When third-party vendors conduct penetration tests, documentation, and liability are crucial aspects to avoid any fraud misconduct by service providers. Therefore, the SOPs involving documentation and NDAs include

  • Contracts and Permissions: It’s essential to have explicit permission to test the target systems. This is particularly important in cloud environments where a third-party provider may share or own infrastructure.
  • Scope and Boundaries: The scope of the test must be clearly defined and agreed upon to avoid legal and operational issues. This includes specifying which systems, networks, and data can be tested.
  • Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs): NDAs protect sensitive data that might be accessed during the test.
  • Liability Clauses: These clauses typically define the responsibilities and liabilities of the pen testing vendor in the event of any unintended consequences or damages during the test.
  • Compliance and Regulations: Ensuring that the pen test complies with all relevant laws and regulations, including data protection laws like GDPR or HIPAA, especially when dealing with sensitive data stored in the cloud.

Conclusion

This is it for network security in FE Electrical. By the end of this session, you will clearly understand how different security assessment tools and methodologies work to ensure network infrastructure sustainability.

All these vulnerability testing procedures ensure Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability (CIA) of any enterprise-grade and mission-critical IT framework of an organization.

For an efficient FE electrical exam preparation, check out our wealth of resources, guides, and FE electrical courses at Study for FE – your first point of contact for all things FE.

wasim-smal

Licensed Professional Engineer in Texas (PE), Florida (PE) and Ontario (P. Eng) with consulting experience in design, commissioning and plant engineering for clients in Energy, Mining and Infrastructure.