How Penetration Testing Helps Businesses Comply with Data Privacy Regulations

In today’s digital world, many business models involve or revolve around collecting, processing, and/or analyzing user data online. You’ve probably heard of GDPR – who hasn’t by this point? But GDPR is just one law among a slew of data privacy regulations that protect different kinds of information in various sectors and locations.
Compliance with regulations is an ongoing challenge for companies of all sizes. From understanding legislative ambiguities to implementing infrastructural changes, many pitfalls increase the risk of non-compliance. This article outlines the value of regular penetration testing in improving compliance for your business.
Regulations That Have Mandatory Pen Tests

Several data privacy regulations emphasize the importance of periodic security assessments, which can include penetration testing, to ensure organizations protect personal data properly. Some of these regulations specifically mandate penetration testing as part of the rules for maintaining compliance.
PCI DSS is a global standard that aims to secure cardholder data. Requirement 11 of PCI DSS specifically states that companies must conduct external and internal penetration testing “at least annually and after any upgrade or modification”. There are also optional standards like ISO 27001 that your business might comply with in order to land contracts, especially with organizations in the public sector. Part of ISO 27001 certification is to perform penetration tests at least annually. So, one compelling reason to perform pen tests is because some regulations mandate them annually. Failing to do so brings the risk of fines or losing valuable certifications.
Evidence of Due Diligence

When navigating lengthy legal documents about regulatory requirements, companies often encounter ambiguous wording that makes it hard to know what controls to implement. A good example is GDPR, which isn’t exactly prescriptive in some areas. The legal text says that “organizations must implement appropriate technical and organizational measures to ensure a level of security appropriate to the risk”.

When there is uncertainty, it’s best to take a proactive approach and go out of your way to show due diligence. Regular penetration testing provides concrete evidence that your company actively identifies and manages security risks. You can provide detailed reports from penetration tests to auditors or regulatory bodies to demonstrate due diligence in your data security and compliance efforts.
Identifying More Security Weak Points

Unlike automated vulnerability scans that check for known issues against a predefined list, penetration testing mimics real-world attack scenarios. This outside-in approach mimics the various tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) that actual adversaries carrying out cyber attacks on your company might employ.

Pen testers, also known as ethical hackers, have a demonstrated ability to think creatively, adapt to your specific IT environment, and find unconventional ways to exploit systems in a similar vein to how real attackers operate. The human element here works in your favor as you identify more security weak points. Penetration testers dig deeper and chain together seemingly low-risk vulnerabilities to exploit a system. Pen testing teams also consider the specific nuances of your company’s environment, such as configurations, business processes, and integration points, which automated tools might overlook. The link to compliance here is that hidden or unknown security weak points in your network, systems, or apps could be precisely the ones exploited by hackers to cause a dreaded data breach. The cost of breaches runs to an average of $4.45 million per breach worldwide in 2023. A significant contributor to these costs is regulatory penalties for failing to protect user data privacy.
Validating Security Controls

While many companies implement security controls based on value judgments and ambiguous legal wording, it’s crucial to validate the efficacy of whatever controls you implement to manage data security risks. Penetration testing goes beyond theoretical assessments to actively challenge these controls under real-world conditions.

This validation helps to confirm that your most important security controls operate as expected and that they effectively mitigate the risks they were designed to address. Each organization’s IT environment is a unique combination of different technologies, configurations, and business processes. Penetration tests provide insights tailored to the specific context of your company, which accounts for the actual operational environment and controls you implement rather than generic best practices.
Continuous Learning and Adaptation

Regulations are rarely static, unchanging documents. Every few years, and sometimes more often, regulatory bodies publish amendments based on important technological advancements or changes in the cyber threat landscape that need to be addressed in the form of new rules. A recent example is the publication of PCI DSS 4.0, which alters and adds several important requirements for companies that need to protect cardholder data.

Keeping tabs with and staying compliant in an evolving threat landscape calls for a continuous and adaptive approach to learning. Pen testing teams continuously update their skills and techniques based on what threat actors are doing “in the wild”. This approach to learning is what helps them spot vulnerabilities or compliance gaps that you may not even be aware of.

Conducting a penetration test after significant system changes or upgrades ensures that your security measures remain effective. This helps ensure long-term compliance with evolving standards when the changes in those standards call for large-scale changes to your environment (for example, having to implement multi-factor authentication or move towards zero trust network architecture).
Get Pen Testing as a Service

In essence, penetration testing provides a multifaceted approach to cybersecurity with compliance benefits that range from technical validations to strategic insights to finding hidden gaps that could lead to data breaches. It’s not just about checking a compliance box but creating a resilient, secure environment that can stand up to today’s advanced threat actors who primarily target data in their attacks.

The harsh reality though is that many businesses, especially small to medium-sized enterprises, often lack the specialized resources, tools, and expertise to conduct comprehensive penetration tests in-house. This is where external penetration testing services come into play. DIESEC’s pen testing service provides you with cost-effective black box, grey box, or white box testing. As an outsourced service.
Get a free initial call here.