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Anton Bodnar, Automation and Manual Quality Assurance Engineer

Feb 28, 2024 16 min read

Cloud Penetration Testing: Strategies for Success in 2024

Enhance cloud security with cloud penetration testing. Identify vulnerabilities, ensure data protection, and fortify against cyber threats. Safeguard your cloud infrastructure effectively. 

Enhance cloud security with cloud penetration testing. Identify vulnerabilities, ensure data protection, and fortify against cyber threats. Safeguard your cloud infrastructure effectively. 

Modern businesses increasingly turn to cloud services for their data management and storage because of their accessibility, scalability, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness. Cloud services benefit businesses with remote or hybrid work environments where employees need to access company data from multiple locations. 

Additionally, cloud services enable businesses to utilize data to derive actionable insights that can significantly improve their performance.  

Although cloud security incidents are common, quick retrieval of cloud data ensures business continuity and disaster recovery. However, it's essential to consider the business implications of a cloud services breach. While you may continue to operate seamlessly, you may still face the financial and reputational consequences of having your sensitive data fall into the wrong hands. 

Fortunately, there is a solution – cloud penetration testing. It is a meticulous and effective strategy to secure your cloud services and optimally protect your business data. 

What is Cloud Penetration Testing 

Cloud penetration testing is a method used to identify security risks and vulnerabilities in a cloud infrastructure that hackers could exploit. The primary purpose of performing cloud penetration testing is to protect an organization's confidential information. 

Cloud penetration testing differs from traditional application security testing in several ways. Unlike traditional application security testing, which requires on-premises tools to scan an application's code or binaries for vulnerabilities, cloud pen testing involves testing the security of cloud infrastructure to identify potential security threats.

On the other hand, cloud penetration testing requires tools that can access and test the cloud environment remotely. Moreover, cloud penetration testing has to consider various aspects of cloud architecture, such as multi-tenancy, scalability, elasticity, shared responsibility model, etc. You can also learn how to do penetration testing by reading our article. 

Why is Cloud Penetration Testing Important 

Cloud penetration testing is essential for several reasons: 

  • Regulatory Adherence: comply with regulatory standards and industry best practices for data protection and privacy.
  • Risk Minimization: void data breaches, financial losses, reputational damage, legal liabilities, etc., that may result from a successful cyber-attack on your cloud infrastructure.
  • Customer Сonfidence: improve customer trust and satisfaction by demonstrating your commitment to secure their data and applications.

The Purpose of Cloud Penetration Testing 

The purpose of cloud penetration testing is to assess the security of a cloud-based system or service by attempting to identify and exploit vulnerabilities. This type of testing is conducted to ensure that the cloud infrastructure is secure and to identify any system weaknesses that attackers could exploit. 

Cloud penetration test involves simulating real-world attacks on a cloud-based system or service to identify potential security vulnerabilities. The testing typically involves several steps, including surveillance, scanning, and exploitation. It may also include social engineering techniques to trick users or gain access to sensitive information. 

Сloud penetration testing aims to ensure the cloud-based system or service is secure and provides insights into how it can be further secured to protect against potential attacks. Cloud penetration testing helps to: 

  • Identify default configuration, misconfiguration, etc. 
  • Provide best practices in maintaining visibility. 
  • Identify security risks, vulnerabilities, and other gaps. 
  • Deliver clear and actionable remediation information. 
  • Determine how to leverage any access obtained via exploitation. 

Types And Methods of Cloud Penetration Testing 

There are primary types and methods to run security testing on the cloud – from familiar box testing or by permissions. 

Different types of cloud penetration testing include: 

  • Black Box Penetration Testing – attack simulation in which the testers have no prior knowledge of or access to your cloud resources. 
  • Grey Box Penetration Testing – testers have limited knowledge of users and resources and may be granted limited administration privileges. 
  • White Box Penetration Testing – testers are granted admin or root-level access to cloud resources. 

There are additional types of cloud pen testing. All three involve testers poking the resources as an attacker would identify natural and exploitable weaknesses. They determine which testing type depends on the specific events of the systems under security testing. Explore our article on mobile application penetration testing to gain more insights and ideas!

  • Transparent Box Testing – testers with admin-level access to cloud environment have complete knowledge of resources they're testing. 
  • Semitransparent Box Testing – testers possess relevant knowledge about the resources they are trying to hack. 
  • Opaque Box Testing – testers must learn about or access cloud resources before beginning their testing activities. 

Cloud Penetration Testing vs. Penetration Testing 

This table provides a comparison between penetration testing and cloud penetration testing. Both types of testing are crucial for system security, but they require different skills, tools, and techniques. Cloud penetration test requires more knowledge about the service provider’s features, settings, and best practices. Penetration testing requires more knowledge about the application’s code, design, and architecture. 

Feature 

Penetration Testing 

Cloud Penetration Testing 

Scope 

Broad, covers various security domains 

Focused on cloud-specific aspects 

Environment 

General IT systems and applications 

Cloud environments (AWS, Azure, GCP) 

Objectives 

Identify points of exploitation 

Evaluate cloud-specific vulnerabilities 

Focus Areas 

Application logic, authentication, authorization, input validation, session management, error handling, logging 

Cloud resource configuration, access control policies, data protection mechanisms, network security, compliance with cloud standards 

Tools and Techniques 

Application security tools, code review, penetration testing frameworks 

Cloud-specific tools, service provider APIs, compliance checkers 

Benefits 

Improves security processes, provides unbiased third-party feedback 

Enhances cloud security, identifies and mitigates cloud-specific risks 

Recommendation 

Essential for overall system security 

Essential for cloud-based system security 

How to Perform Cloud Penetration Testing 

There are different types of cloud penetration testing methods that you can use depending on your goals and needs. Some of the common ones are: 

  • Cloud pen test is performed under strict guidelines from cloud service providers like AWS, GCP, Azure, etc., who may have specific rules and limitations for conducting such tests on their platforms. Need to obtain their permission before launching any pen test on their resources. Cloud pen test can help you uncover hidden flaws in your configuration settings, access controls, encryption mechanisms, network protocols, etc., that may allow an attacker to compromise your data or applications. 
  • Cloud vulnerability scanning is scanning your cloud environment for known vulnerabilities using automated tools or scanners hosted in the cloud. Cloud vulnerability scanning can help you identify common issues, such as outdated software versions, misconfigured firewalls, exposed ports, weak passwords, etc., that may pose a risk to your security posture. Regularly update your scanners with the latest vulnerability signatures and patch any detected issues immediately. 
  • Cloud compliance auditing is the process of verifying whether your cloud infrastructure meets the required standards and regulations for data protection and privacy.   

Common Cloud Pen Testing Tools

There are plenty of cloud-pen testing tools for IT security professionals. While some agencies are intended for use with a specific cloud provider (e.g., Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure), others are "cloud-agnostic," meaning they're fit for use with any provider. Some of the most popular cloud penetration testing tools include: 

  • Nmap: It is a free and open-source network scanning tool widely used by penetration testers. Using Nmap, cloud pen testers can create a map of the cloud environment and look for open ports and other vulnerabilities. 
  • Metasploit: Metasploit calls itself "the world's most used penetration testing framework." Created by the security company Rapid7, the Metasploit Framework helps pen testers develop, test, and launch exploits against remote target machines. 
  • Burp Suite: It is a collection of security testing software for web applications, including cloud-based applications. Burp Suite can perform penetration testing, scanning, and vulnerability analysis functions. 

Many third-party tools are created for cloud pen testing in the Amazon Web Services cloud. For example, the Amazon Inspector tool automatically scans running AWS workloads for potential software vulnerabilities. Once these issues are detected, the device also determines the severity of the vulnerability and suggests methods of resolving it. Other AWS cloud pen testing options include Pacu, an automated tool for offensive security testing, and AWS pwn, a collection of testing scripts for evaluating the security of various AWS services. 

The Shared Responsibility Model 

Cloud pen testing is a part of the shared responsibility model in cloud computing. The shared responsibility model defines the responsibilities of the cloud service provider (CSP) and the customer for securing the cloud environment. 

In this model, the CSP is responsible for securing the underlying infrastructure, including physical data centers, networking, and storage. However, the customer is responsible for securing their data and applications hosted on the cloud infrastructure. 

Cloud penetration testing falls under the customer’s responsibility for securing their data and applications. The customer is responsible for testing their applications and data for vulnerabilities and ensuring they are secure. Therefore, the customer must conduct cloud penetration testing to ensure their data and applications are secure from attacks in the cloud environment.

The results of cloud penetration testing can help the customer make informed decisions about further securing their cloud environment. It can help CSPs identify areas where they need to improve security measures. You can also read our article on cloud automation testing to gain more insights. 

Each cloud service provider has its policy regarding conducting cloud based penetration testing. It defines the types of tests that can be performed. Also, some require you to submit an advance notice before conducting the tests. This policy disparity poses a significant challenge and limits the scope of conducting cloud based penetration testing. 

Microsoft’s Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are two standard cloud-based services organizations use to support business activities in the cloud. Azure and AWS allow penetration testing for infrastructure hosted on their platforms if it falls within the list of permitted services. The Rules of Engagement for penetration testing on Azure and AWS can be found at these links: 

Policy restrictions may limit the scope of cloud penetration testing. For example, some cloud service providers may have policies prohibiting customers from performing specific tests, such as denial-of-service attacks, that could disrupt other customers on the same shared infrastructure. 

Additionally, the Shared Responsibility Model may limit the scope of cloud penetration testing, as the cloud service provider is responsible for specific security aspects, such as physical security and network infrastructure. Therefore, any testing conducted by the customer must not interfere with the provider’s security controls or compromise the security of other customers on the shared infrastructure. 

Cloud Penetration Testing Best Practices 

There are a few tips that can help ensure your cloud penetration testing activities provide the best possible security outcomes: 

  • Understand the Shared Responsibility Model – cloud systems are governed by the Shared Responsibility Model, which defines the areas of responsibility owned by the customer and the CSP. 
  • Rules of Engagement – your cloud service provider’s SLA will provide details on the “rules of engagement” related to any penetration testing involving their cloud services. 
  • Define the Scope – understand what components are included in your cloud assets to determine the full scope of the cloud penetration testing that will be needed. 
  • Determine the Method – know what cloud penetration testing your business would like to be conducted. 
  • Establish a Protocol – have a plan if the cloud penetration testing company determines that your company has already been breached or if they happen upon an ongoing attack. 

Common Cloud Penetration Threats 

Some of the most common cloud penetration threats businesses face today are: 

Unauthorized Access 

One of the leading cloud penetration threats is unauthorized access to cloud resources by malicious actors or unauthorized users. It can happen due to weak or compromised credentials, phishing attacks, brute force attacks, or insufficient identity and access management policies. 

Unauthorized access can result in data breaches, data loss, data corruption, ransomware attacks, denial of service attacks, or other malicious activities that can harm the business and its reputation. 

It includes using multi-factor authentication (MFA), encryption keys, role-based access control (RBAC), identity federation, etc. 

Additionally, businesses should regularly monitor their cloud activity logs to detect suspicious or anomalous behavior and respond quickly to incidents. 

Misconfiguration  

Another common cloud penetration threat is the misconfiguration of cloud resources or settings. Misconfiguration can occur due to human error, insufficient knowledge, lack of visibility, or the absence of automation. Misconfiguration can expose cloud resources to public access or unwanted traffic, create security gaps or vulnerabilities, violate compliance requirements, or cause performance issues. 

To avoid misconfiguration, businesses should follow best practices for configuring their cloud resources and settings. It includes using secure defaults, applying security patches regularly, enforcing policies through automation tools, conducting regular audits and reviews, etc. 

Furthermore, businesses should use tools that can help them identify and remediate any misconfigurations in their cloud environment automatically or with minimal intervention. 

Insecure Interfaces

Another common cloud penetration threat is insecure interfaces between cloud services or applications. Insecure interfaces can occur due to poorly designed APIs, SDKs (software development kits), UIs (user interfaces), and CLI (command-line interface) tools. 

Insecure interfaces can allow attackers to exploit vulnerabilities in the communication channels between cloud services or applications. It can lead to data interception, modification, injection, spoofing, replay attacks, etc. 

To secure their interfaces, businesses should use digital signatures or certificates to verify the identity and integrity of the parties involved in the communication. 

Moreover, businesses should use reputable vendors that provide secure APIs, SDKs, UIs, and CLI tools for interacting with their cloud services or applications. You can also familiarize yourself with our test automation services

External Data Sharing

Another common cloud penetration threat is external data sharing with third parties such as partners, customers, suppliers, contractors, etc. 

External data sharing can pose a risk if the third parties need to have adequate security measures in place or if they misuse or mishandle the shared data. External data sharing can lead to data leakage or exposure to unauthorized parties or malicious actors. 

They should also use encryption techniques such as homomorphic or differential privacy to protect sensitive data while allowing computation. Furthermore, they should regularly monitor and audit external data-sharing activities and revoke access when necessary. 

Insecure APIs  

Enable companies to share their application's data and functions with third-party companies. API keys are used to identify and authenticate between companies and third parties. Someone can gain access if we don't protect our API keys. API services are commonly used, and insecure APIs can lead to severe data leaks. Dive into our article API penetration testing to gain more insights!

Conclusion 

Cloud penetration testing is one of many security tests we need to run against the cloud environment and must be part of the offensive maturity model. It is assessing the security of a cloud-based system or service by attempting to identify and exploit vulnerabilities. The testing involves simulating real-world attacks on the system to identify potential security risks and provide recommendations for remediation. The goal is to secure the cloud infrastructure and identify any weaknesses attackers could exploit. Organizations can strengthen their security posture by conducting cloud-based penetration testing and protecting their data from unauthorized access or theft. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why is cloud penetration testing important?

While cloud adoption offers many benefits, like operational efficiency, flexibility, and scalability, it also exposes businesses to risks and vulnerabilities. To leverage the full potential of the cloud, enterprises resort to cloud penetration testing as an effective technique to spot, respond, and mitigate cloud vulnerabilities proactively. Cloud penetration testing goes beyond vulnerability scanning and deep dives into analyzing and remediating them by prioritizing issues. Therefore, organizations must implement penetration testing as a part of their regular cloud security examination scope to safeguard themselves against damaging cloud cyberattacks. 

How does cloud pen testing differ from traditional pen testing?

The difference between traditional and cloud penetration testing lies in the environment in which they are conducted. While traditional penetration testing is performed on on-premises infrastructure, cloud penetration testing is carried out on cloud services. In cloud environments, the cloud service providers like AWS and GCP play a key role in security. They have put in place strict guidelines for conducting pen testing in their cloud environments. This combined with your own pen testing activities can significantly strengthen your overall security posture. In contrast, in traditional on-premises environments, the responsibility for conducting security activities falls solely on you.  

Why is сloud penetration testing important for businesses utilizing cloud services, and what specific risks does it help mitigate?

Cloud penetration testing is crucial for ensuring regulatory compliance and avoiding data breaches, financial losses, and reputational damage from cyber-attacks on cloud infrastructure. It helps businesses identify and mitigate cloud-specific risks, enhancing customer trust and satisfaction.

What are the key objectives and focus areas of cloud penetration testing?

The objectives include identifying default configurations and misconfigurations and delivering actionable remediation information. Focus areas encompass cloud resource configuration, access control policies, data protection mechanisms, and compliance with cloud standards. It contributes by securing the system and providing insights for further protection.  

Can you explain the types of cloud penetration testing methods and some standard tools used in the process?

There are various methods like cloud pen test, vulnerability scanning, and compliance auditing. Standard tools include Nmap for network scanning, Metasploit for penetration testing frameworks, and Burp Suite for security testing software in cloud-based applications. 

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