Should I Perform an in-House or Third Party Penetration Test?

Modern organizations are constantly striving to secure their networks and infrastructure. Across the world, the information security field has turned into a constant tussle between hackers and cybersecurity professionals. The threat of cyberattacks is constantly growing. And, cybercriminals are carrying out newer, more complex forms of attacks. On the other hand, information security professionals are trying to ensure that their organization remains well-protected despite the changing threat dynamics.In this landscape, selecting between an in-house penetration test and a third-party penetration test is becoming increasingly complex.

Third Party Penetration Testing Expertise:

The most crucial factor between an in-house penetration test against a third-party penetration test is the level of expertise of an organization’s internal security team.

Conducting penetration testing is a complex process. It requires specialist knowledge and skill set. Often, general IT teams are not trained or equipped to carry out penetration testing at par with specialist testers. To effectively conduct penetration testing, third-party penetration testers also utilize special tools, methodologies and software stacks. A general information security professional may not have access to these critical resources. Additionally, third-party penetration tests are conducted by specialist penetration testers with extensive experience and knowledge. An in-house penetration test also requires considerable monitoring and management oversight compared to a third-party penetration test. Thus, if your organization does not have the necessary expertise to conduct penetration testing, it is critical to utilize a third-party penetration test from a specialist cybersecurity firm.

In-House vs. Third-Party Penetration Testing: The Core Distinctions

  1. Depth of Expertise: The most stark and perhaps the most pivotal distinction between in-house penetration testing and third-party penetration testing revolves around expertise. While a firm's internal security team may possess general IT skills, penetration testing is a niche arena. It mandates a granular understanding of evolving threats, proficiency in simulating real-world cyberattacks, and insights into the adversary's psychology. Simply put, general IT skills won't suffice.
  2. Training and Skill Set: Penetration testing isn't just about knowledge; it's about the tactical execution of that knowledge. It demands a specialized skill set, often nurtured through years of training, involving vulnerability assessments, application security testing, and understanding human-centric risks like social engineering. In-house IT professionals, although competent, might not have undergone such rigorous, specialized training.
  3. Tools of the Trade: Beyond human expertise, penetration testing leans heavily on tools - be it software to conduct network penetration testing or methodologies to carry out tabletop exercises. Specialist third-party testers typically possess a toolbox, replete with the latest utilities, platforms, and software stacks. These tools, often proprietary or premium, might not be at the disposal of an in-house team.
  4. Experience: Third-party penetration testers come with a diverse experience portfolio. They've likely worked across sectors, facing myriad cybersecurity challenges, imbibing lessons from each endeavor. This wealth of experience can be invaluable, providing insights an internal team might not have.
  5. Management and Oversight: Internal penetration tests come with their set of managerial challenges. It requires oversight, internal coordination, and sometimes, re-allocation of resources. In contrast, third-party tests, managed by firms specializing in cybersecurity awareness training and incident response, can be more streamlined, reducing the overhead for the organization.

The Way Forward

Given the complexities and nuances involved in penetration testing, organizations must introspect about their internal capabilities. If there's even an iota of uncertainty about the in-house team's ability to emulate real-world cyber threats effectively, it's prudent to lean on specialists. Third-party penetration testing, offered by cybersecurity firms, ensures that the organization benefits from top-tier expertise, comprehensive methodologies, and the latest tools. Remember, in cybersecurity, it's not just about identifying vulnerabilities, but about understanding them in the broader context of organizational risks. Third-party assurance provides that holistic perspective, ensuring that your enterprise remains fortified against evolving cyber threats.

Overall cost:

For every cybersecurity program, it’s necessary to keep the expected costs of each component in mind.

Depending on the size of your organization and the scope of testing required, penetration testing costs can vary widely. For a small to medium organization, the cost of training and managing an in-house penetration test can add up to an exorbitant sum. The in-house team would also require special tools, software and additional resources to perform. Thus, choosing a third-party penetration test would be a better option. When employing a third-party penetration test, an organization only bears the service costs charged by the vendor. For larger organizations, the initial costs of establishing an in-house penetration testing team may be high. However, depending on the scope and frequency of testing, it is likely to be a more cost-effective option in the long run.

Understanding the Financial Implications

  1. Scale and Scope: Every organization is unique, not just in terms of its operational goals but also its digital footprint. The size of an organization can significantly dictate the scale and scope of penetration testing required. Naturally, the costs associated with the test would resonate with these factors.
  2. In-House Testing – The Hidden Costs: For small to medium-sized enterprises, the allure of an in-house penetration testing team can be enticing. But this decision is not devoid of hidden expenses. Training an internal team is not a one-time investment but a continuous commitment. As cyber threats evolve, so does the need for perpetual training. Add to this the costs of requisite tools, specialized software, and other infrastructural needs, and the financial burden becomes palpable. The software and tools alone can rack up significant expenses.
  3. Third-Party Testing – Pay for Expertise: Opting for a third-party penetration test is analogous to hiring a specialist. Here, an organization essentially pays for the service, the expertise, and the tools that the third-party vendor brings to the table. The financial dealings are transparent – you bear the service costs, devoid of hidden overheads.
  4. Larger Organizations – A Different Ball Game: The calculus changes slightly for more expansive organizations. While the initial costs of setting up an in-house penetration testing team can be substantial, there’s an economy of scale at play. If the organization necessitates frequent and expansive testing, the cost-per-test over time can become more economical in-house. It's a classic case of short-term investment for long-term gains.

Making the Prudent Choice

Financial considerations are paramount, but they must be weighed alongside the strategic objectives of the organization. A third-party assurance comes with the promise of expertise and precision, without the long-term commitments. On the other hand, an in-house team offers more control, potentially aligning more closely with the organization's long-term cybersecurity vision.

Integration and scalability

In the realm of penetration testing, the age-old debate between in-house versus third-party expertise persists. Both approaches come with their distinct set of advantages and challenges. Let’s unravel this intricate tapestry to understand which approach might serve an organization's needs best.

The Home Team Advantage: In-House Penetration Testing

  1. Familiarity with the Terrain: Arguably, the most significant advantage of an in-house penetration testing team lies in their intimate knowledge of the organization. These testers live and breathe the organization’s application and network architecture. Their entrenched understanding can be invaluable, especially when the test demands a nuanced approach tailored to the unique intricacies of the system.
  2. Seamless Integration: Being part of the organization means that the in-house team shares its ethos, culture, and operational modalities. This cultural alignment ensures smooth collaboration with different departments and effective communication with the management.
  3. Immediate Action: When a vulnerability is detected, in-house testers, given their embedded position, can often liaise directly with relevant teams to instigate immediate remediation actions.

The External Vanguard: Third-party Penetration Testing

  1. The Outsider’s Perspective: One of the most compelling arguments in favor of external penetration testers is their ability to think like genuine adversaries. They approach systems with fresh eyes, devoid of internal biases or preconceptions. This 'outsider' perspective can be pivotal in identifying vulnerabilities that internal teams might overlook.
  2. Scaling on Demand: Cybersecurity needs can be dynamic, with the scale and complexity of tests varying based on various factors. Specialist cybersecurity firms possess the inherent flexibility to quickly scale resources – both in terms of personnel and tools. Whether it's a large-scale network penetration test or a focused social engineering exercise, they can adjust their approach rapidly.
  3. Initial Familiarization: A potential challenge for third-party testers is the initial learning curve. Before diving into the testing, they need to acquaint themselves with the organization's systems and processes. While this demands some upfront time investment, the fresh perspective they bring often compensates for it.

The Ideal Path Forward

The decision between in-house and third-party penetration testing isn’t binary. It hinges on an organization’s specific needs, budgetary constraints, and long-term cybersecurity objectives. While an in-house team offers deep-seated knowledge and integration, an external team provides a fresh perspective and scalability. Recognizing the strengths and limitations of each approach is the first step towards crafting a robust cybersecurity strategy.

Vendor vetting and testing time:

Before employing an external penetration tester, an organization will need to conduct due diligence to ensure that its sensitive data and information will be protected by the third-party. Further vetting may also be required to ensure that the third party will be capable of meeting your testing requirements. An in-house penetration testing team will present lower hassle and security concerns in this regard.The penetration testing process is complex and multi-tiered. A third-party penetration test may take longer than in-house penetration testing due to the additional increase in complexity. An in-house team will have better integration and familiarity with the organization’s digital systems and testing needs. To ensure that your cybersecurity program is robust and effective, conducting regular penetration testing is paramount. It can help your organization proactively patch up existing weaknesses in your infrastructure chain. To gain the best possible results for your organization, choose between an in-house or a third-party penetration test after considering all the factors at play.

John Price
Chief Executive Officer
September 28, 2023
3 minutes

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