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Types of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing, also known as pen testing or ethical hacking, is a method of evaluating the security of an IT environment by safely attempting to exploit vulnerabilities. There are several types of penetration testing, each with their own approach and use cases. In this article, we’ll explore the main types of pen testing and when each is most applicable.

In today’s digital landscape, where cyber threats lurk around every corner, ensuring the security of your organization’s infrastructure and sensitive data is paramount. Penetration testing, or pen testing, is a crucial cybersecurity practice that simulates real-world cyberattacks to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in systems, networks, and applications. To delve deeper into the world of penetration testing, let’s explore the different types of pen tests and when to use each.

Overview of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing involves authorized security professionals attempting to circumvent the security controls and protections in place for a given system, application or network [1]. It is done under strict scoping agreements and is intended to proactively identify vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by cybercriminals.

There are three main types of pen testing:

  • Black box testing: Testers have no internal knowledge of the environment.
  • White box testing: Testers have full knowledge and access to internal systems.
  • Gray box testing: Testers have partial knowledge, typically at an architecture level.

The type of test chosen depends on the specific goals, resources, and risks involved.

Black Box Penetration Testing

In a black box test, the penetration testers are not provided any details about the target environment [2]. The test takes an entirely external perspective, simulating a true outside cyberattack.

Black box testing is useful when:

  • Assessing security from an external attacker’s point of view
  • Testing perimeter defenses like firewalls and web gateways
  • Validating vulnerabilities are not obvious or easily exploitable
  • Evaluating internal detection and response capabilities

This type of test can take more time and resources but provides an objective look at how exposed an organization is to outside threats.

White Box Penetration Testing

White box testing takes the opposite approach, with testers being provided detailed information on the target environment such as network diagrams, IP addresses, source code and more [3]. This simulates an attack by an insider with extensive authorized access.

White box testing is most applicable when:

  • Testing potential damage from insider threats
  • Assessing vulnerabilities in custom software applications
  • Modeling attacks using compromised credentials
  • Evaluating layered internal defenses and data security controls

White box tests can uncover more complex vulnerabilities but also carry higher risk of negative impacts if not scoped carefully.

Gray Box Penetration Testing

Gray box testing strikes a balance, with testers being provided with some information on network architecture, system designs, etc., but not full access [4]. Tests focus on exploiting logical vulnerabilities in an environment’s design.

Gray box testing offers the best of both worlds:

  • More thorough testing than black box
  • Lower risk than white box testing
  • Assessing vulnerabilities in network design and system configurations
  • Modeling threat actors with insider information but not credentials

For many organizations, gray box testing provides the right level of visibility and balance of risks.

Sec1’s Penetration Testing Services

Here at Sec1, we offer highly-skilled penetration testing services covering black, white and gray box approaches. Our integrated vulnerability management platform provides unique strengths for scoping and conducting safe, controlled pen tests across cloud, network and application environments.

To learn more about our penetration testing and cybersecurity offerings visit or request a demo today. Our experts can help select the right penetration testing approach based on your organization’s environment, risks and objectives.