Today, we're excited to release Rapid7's latest research paper, Under the Hoodie: Actionable Research from Penetration Testing Engagements, by Bob Rudis, Andrew Whitaker, Tod Beardsley, with loads of input and help from the entire Rapid7 pentesting team.

This paper covers the often occult art of penetration testing, and seeks to demystify the process, techniques, and tools that pentesters use to break into enterprise networks. By drawing on the experiences of dozens of pentesters in the field, based on real, qualified data drawn from the real-life experiences of those pentesters, we're able to suss out the most common vulnerabilities that are exploited, the most common network misconfigurations that are leveraged, and the most effective methods we've found to compromise high-value credentials.

Finding: Detection is Everything

Probably the most actionable finding we discovered is that most organizations that conduct penetration testing exercises have a severe lack of usable, reliable intrusion detection capabilities. Over two-thirds of our pentesters completely avoided detection during the engagement. This is especially concerning given that most assessments don't put a premium on stealth; due to constraints in time and scope, pentesters generate an enormous amount of malicious traffic. In an ideal network, these would be setting off alarm bells everywhere. Most engagements end with recommendations to implement some kind of incident detection and response, regardless of the specific techniques for compromise were used.

Finding: Enterprise Size and Industry Doesn't Matter

When we started this study, we expected to find quantitative differences between small networks and large networks, and between different industries. After all, you might expect a large, financial industry enterprise of over 1,000 employees would be better equipped to detect and defend against unwelcome attackers due to the security resources available and required by various compliance regimes and regulatory requirements. Or, you might believe that a small, online-only retail startup would be more nimble and more familiar with the threats facing their business.

Alas, this isn't the case. As it turns out, the detection and prevention rates are nearly identical between large and small enterprises, and no industry seemed to fare any better or worse when it came to successful compromises.

This is almost certainly due to the fact that IT infrastructure pretty much everywhere is built using the same software and hardware components. Thus, all networks tend to be vulnerable to the same common misconfigurations that have the same vulnerability profiles when patch management isn't firing at 100%. There are certainly differences in the details -- especially when it comes to custom-designed web applications -- but even those tend to have the same sorts of frameworks and components that power them.

The Human Touch

Finally, if you're not really into reading a bunch of stats and graphs, we have a number of "Under the Hoodie" sidebar stories, pulled from real-life engagements. For example, while discussing common web application vulnerabilities, we're able to share a story of how a number of otherwise lowish-severity, external web application issues lead to the eventual compromise of the entire internal back-end network. Not only are these stories fun to read, they do a pretty great job of illustrating how unrelated issues can conspire on an attacker's behalf to lead to surprising levels of unauthorized access.

I hope you take a moment to download the paper and take a look at our findings; I don't know of any other research out there that explores the nuts and bolts of penetration testing in quite the depth or breadth that this report provides. In addition, we'll be covering the material at our booth at the RSA security conference next week in San Francisco, as well as hosting a number of "Ask a Pentester" sessions. Andrew and I will both be there, and we love nothing more than connecting with people who are interested in Rapid7's research efforts, so definitely stop by.