Understanding physical pentesting

In the interest of red team investigation, we need to take a look at something that is commonly misunderstood: physical pentesting. Although it is not a service that all pentesting companies and freelancers will offer, it is a valuable skillset to add to your toolkit. We asked our readers who either are physical pentesters or who have worked with them to give us a breakdown on what it takes to enter the field.

Note: Physical pentesting, just like all types of pentesting, requires expressed permission from the target. If you don’t have expressed permission, you’re not red teaming – you’re breaking into someone’s building. In most of the world, this is considered a crime.

What is physical pentesting?

Physical penetration testing, often referred to as “physical pentesting,” is a cybersecurity assessment technique that involves assessing the security of physical facilities, such as buildings, data centers, or other on-site assets. Unlike traditional penetration testing, which focuses on identifying vulnerabilities in computer systems and networks, physical penetration testing aims to identify and exploit security weaknesses in the physical infrastructure and human aspects of an organization’s security.

Here are some key aspects of physical penetration testing:

  1. Objective: The primary objective of physical penetration testing is to assess an organization’s physical security measures, which may include access controls, surveillance systems, alarm systems, and employee awareness. The goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited to gain unauthorized access to a facility or sensitive areas within it.
  2. Testing Methods: Physical penetration testers use various techniques to gain unauthorized access, including lock picking, bypassing access control systems, tailgating (following an authorized person through a secure entry), and social engineering to manipulate employees into granting access.
  3. Scope: The scope of physical penetration testing can vary, depending on the organization’s requirements. It may encompass an entire facility or specific areas within it. Testers may also evaluate the effectiveness of security policies and procedures.
  4. Legality and Permissions: Physical penetration testing must be conducted within the bounds of the law and with proper permissions. Unauthorized physical intrusion can have serious legal and ethical implications. Organizations typically engage the services of professional penetration testers or security consultants who follow legal and ethical guidelines.
  5. Reporting and Remediation: After the assessment, the testing team provides a detailed report that outlines the vulnerabilities, the methods used to exploit them, and recommendations for remediation. This allows the organization to improve its physical security measures.
  6. Education and Awareness: Physical penetration testing can also be used as an educational tool to raise awareness among employees about the importance of following security procedures and being vigilant against social engineering attempts.

Physical penetration testing is a valuable component of an organization’s overall security strategy. It helps identify weaknesses that might not be evident through traditional cybersecurity assessments, and it can lead to improvements in physical security measures, policies, and employee training to better protect assets and sensitive information.

How do people start physical pentesting?

Starting a career in physical penetration testing (physical pentesting) requires a combination of knowledge, skills, and experience. Here are the steps a pentester can take to start a career in this field:

  1. Gain a Strong Cybersecurity Foundation: Before delving into physical penetration testing, it’s essential to have a solid foundation in cybersecurity. Understand network security, operating systems, and information security principles. Many physical security vulnerabilities are interconnected with digital security.
  2. Learn about Physical Security: Physical security involves knowledge of access control systems, alarm systems, surveillance systems, and security policies. Study physical security concepts, technologies, and best practices. This knowledge will help you understand the vulnerabilities you may encounter during physical pentests.
  3. Familiarize Yourself with Locksmithing: Locks and keys are a fundamental aspect of physical security. Learn about lock types, picking techniques, and bypass methods. This knowledge will be critical for gaining unauthorized access during physical pentests.
  4. Training and Certification: Consider enrolling in training programs or courses that focus on physical penetration testing. Organizations like the Physical Security Professional (PSP) certification from ASIS International or various locksmithing courses can provide valuable knowledge and credentials.
  5. Ethical Hacking and Social Engineering Skills: Building skills in ethical hacking, social engineering, and physical intrusion techniques is essential. Ethical hacking skills can help you exploit digital vulnerabilities that may be connected to physical security systems. Social engineering skills are crucial for manipulating individuals to gain access.
  6. Networking and Building a Portfolio: Attend cybersecurity conferences, join online forums, and network with professionals in the field. Building a portfolio that showcases your knowledge and practical experience in physical pentesting can help you secure job opportunities or freelance projects.
  7. Work with a Mentor or Join a Team: Consider working with an experienced physical penetration tester or joining a team of professionals. Learning from others and gaining hands-on experience can accelerate your learning and skill development.
  8. Legal and Ethical Considerations: Understand the legal and ethical aspects of physical penetration testing. Ensure you have proper permissions and follow all relevant laws and regulations. Unauthorized physical intrusion can have serious legal consequences.
  9. Keep Up-to-Date: The field of physical penetration testing is constantly evolving, so stay updated with the latest tools, techniques, and vulnerabilities. Attend training sessions, read books, and follow industry news.
  10. Seek Employment or Freelance Opportunities: Once you feel confident in your skills and knowledge, start looking for job opportunities with security consulting firms, cybersecurity companies, or organizations that require physical penetration testing services. You can also offer your services as a freelance physical pentester.

What benefits does the customer get from physical pentesting?

Physical penetration testing provides several benefits to customers, organizations, and individuals concerned about their physical security. These benefits include:

  1. Identification of Vulnerabilities: Physical penetration testing helps identify vulnerabilities in an organization’s physical security measures. This includes weaknesses in access control systems, surveillance, alarm systems, and employee awareness. By uncovering these vulnerabilities, customers can take steps to address and mitigate them.
  2. Realistic Assessment: Unlike theoretical or paper-based security assessments, physical pentesting provides a real-world evaluation of security measures. It simulates how attackers might exploit physical security weaknesses, giving customers a more accurate assessment of their security posture.
  3. Prioritization of Security Improvements: Physical pentesters provide a detailed report that ranks vulnerabilities by severity and potential impact. This information enables customers to prioritize security improvements based on the most critical threats.
  4. Enhanced Security Awareness: Physical penetration testing can raise security awareness among an organization’s employees. Through social engineering and other techniques, it helps employees understand the importance of adhering to security policies and procedures, which can prevent unauthorized access.
  5. Compliance and Regulatory Alignment: Many industries and organizations are subject to regulatory requirements related to physical security. Physical penetration testing can help customers ensure compliance with these regulations and avoid potential legal issues.
  6. Risk Mitigation: By addressing vulnerabilities discovered during physical pentesting, organizations can reduce the risk of physical security breaches, theft, unauthorized access, and other security incidents. This risk reduction can lead to cost savings and protection of sensitive assets.
  7. Security Policy Validation: Physical penetration testing helps validate the effectiveness of an organization’s security policies and procedures. Customers can verify whether their established security guidelines are followed and whether they are effective in practice.
  8. Training and Awareness Opportunities: Customers can use the results of physical penetration tests to improve employee training and awareness programs. This can include teaching staff to recognize social engineering attempts, reinforcing access control policies, and increasing overall vigilance.
  9. Enhanced Incident Response Planning: Physical penetration testing can highlight weaknesses in an organization’s incident response plans. By identifying areas where responses are lacking or ineffective, customers can improve their ability to react to security incidents promptly and efficiently.
  10. Competitive Advantage: Demonstrating a commitment to robust physical security can be a competitive advantage. Customers who invest in physical penetration testing can use the results to assure clients, partners, and stakeholders of their commitment to security and data protection.
  11. Prevention of Reputation Damage: A successful physical security breach can lead to reputational damage and loss of trust among customers and the public. Physical penetration testing helps prevent such incidents by addressing security vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.

What do physical pentesters have to think about before starting to work?

Physical penetration testers (physical pentesters) face unique challenges and considerations when starting their work. Here are some key things they should be wary of:

  1. Legal and Ethical Boundaries: Understanding the legal and ethical boundaries of physical pentesting is crucial. Unauthorized access to physical facilities, trespassing, or any actions that could be considered breaking the law can lead to serious legal consequences. Always obtain proper permissions and ensure compliance with local, state, and federal laws.
  2. Permission and Documentation: Before initiating any physical pentesting activities, ensure you have written permission and clear documentation from the organization or individual authorizing the test. This documentation should outline the scope, objectives, and limitations of the test.
  3. Safety Precautions: Physical pentesting can sometimes involve risks, especially when dealing with security personnel or unknown reactions from people on-site. Take precautions to ensure your safety and the safety of others. Avoid confrontations, and be prepared to identify yourself if challenged.
  4. Disclosure and Communication: Clearly communicate your intentions to the organization you are testing and their employees. Provide a point of contact for reporting any concerns or incidents that may arise during the test. Misunderstandings can lead to unnecessary panic or security breaches.
  5. Minimizing Disruption: Be conscious of not causing unnecessary disruption to the organization’s operations. Your goal is to assess security, not to interfere with their normal business activities. If you must access sensitive areas, do so discreetly and minimize any impact.
  6. Confidentiality and Data Protection: Respect the confidentiality and privacy of the organization’s data and information. Avoid accessing or disclosing sensitive information that is not part of the test. Maintain a high level of professionalism and discretion.
  7. Physical and Digital Traces: Be mindful of leaving physical or digital traces of your presence. Physical traces can include unlocked doors, tampered locks, or other visible signs of intrusion. Digital traces may include logs from access control systems, surveillance cameras, or network activity. Minimize such traces to avoid detection.
  8. Consent from Personnel: In cases where social engineering or manipulation of employees is involved, obtain informed consent from individuals who may be targeted. This ensures that they are aware of the test and are not unduly stressed or deceived.
  9. Conflict Resolution: Have a plan in place for addressing potential conflicts or misunderstandings with security personnel, employees, or law enforcement. Clear communication and a diplomatic approach can help resolve issues without escalation.
  10. Training and Expertise: Continuously improve your skills and knowledge. Stay updated on the latest physical security technologies and techniques. Training in ethical hacking, lock picking, and other relevant areas is essential to your success.
  11. Professionalism and Reporting: Approach physical pentesting with a high degree of professionalism. Accurately document your findings, provide detailed reports to the organization, and offer recommendations for improving security. Your reports should be clear, well-organized, and actionable.

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