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The Importance of Penetration Testing in Cloud Security

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In the ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity, cloud security has emerged as a critical concern for organizations worldwide for a few years now. Yet cloud security is sometimes misunderstood or underestimated. The widespread adoption of cloud computing made it so that businesses store a lot of sensitive information and data online in the cloud and face the challenge of protecting their data from a variety of threats. One effective method of safeguarding an organization’s cloud infrastructure is through penetration testing.

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Understanding cloud security

Cloud computing involves the storage, processing and management of data and applications on remote servers, often provided by third-party service providers. However, this remote nature introduces unique vulnerabilities, such as unauthorized access, data breaches and misconfigurations. Penetration testing serves as a proactive approach to identify and address these weaknesses.

How does cloud penetration testing work?

Penetration testing simulates real-world attacks. The goal for the penetration tester is to find and exploit vulnerabilities in the cloud infrastructure and report it to the requesting entity, generally the chief information security officer. It’s performed under guidelines from the cloud service providers. The found vulnerabilities or weaknesses should be fixed or patched as soon as possible, before an attacker finds them and decides to exploit them.

During the process, data breaches and other potential threats might also be found and reported to take active measures to increase the organization’s cloud security.

All cloud components are tested: the network infrastructure, the authentication and access controls, the data storage, potential virtual machines, the application programming interfaces and the application security.

Penetration testing can be done in “black box” mode, meaning testers have no prior knowledge of the cloud infrastructure and must discover everything by themselves, as any external attacker would do.

“White box” penetration testing also exists, in which the testers have knowledge of the cloud environment.

What are the most common cloud threats to companies?

Insecure APIs

Application Programming Interfaces allow interaction between different software components and services and are sometimes insecure. Those APIs might have been developed without security concerns and consequently, represent a threat. Some others might also have been improperly designed. Insecure APIs lead to the possibility of being exploited by attackers to gain unauthorized access or manipulate data.

Insufficient access controls

Poorly implemented access controls can result when unauthorized users gain access to sensitive information or resources. This includes inadequate user permission management, weak password policies and improper handling of user roles.

Outdated software

Software running on the cloud that isn’t regularly updated is a threat to the organization, as it might contain severe vulnerabilities that can be exploited to gain unauthorized access or be able to manipulate corporate data.

Account hijacking

Techniques such as phishing, social engineering or password brute forcing/guessing might enable an attacker to steal users’ credentials and compromise their accounts. Once a user account is hijacked, a hacker can control cloud resources and manipulate or exfiltrate data.

Shared technologies vulnerabilities

Cloud environments often rely on shared infrastructure and platforms. If a vulnerability is discovered in the underlying technology, it can potentially impact multiple customers, leading to security breaches.


Malicious software such as trojans or backdoors can be introduced into cloud environments via the exploitation of vulnerabilities or social engineering. The security of data and applications might be compromised, and attackers might use malware to gain access to other parts of the corporate infrastructure or infect more users, including website visitors.

Data breaches and data loss

Unauthorized access to sensitive data stored in the cloud is a significant concern for companies. It can occur due to weak authentication mechanisms, compromised credentials, vulnerabilities or even misconfiguration in the cloud infrastructure.

What are the most common tools used in cloud penetration testing?

A variety of tools might be used by penetration testers, depending on goal specifications, cloud platforms and technologies involved. It also depends on the tester’s experience.

Full penetration testing frameworks

Complete frameworks such as Metasploit or Cobalt Strike are often used in cloud penetration testing. They include many options, exploits, payloads and auxiliary modules to assess security on a cloud infrastructure. Experienced testers using those tools can save a significant amount of time in testing, as opposed to using multiple different tools.


Vulnerability scanners such as Nessus or its open-source version, OpenVAS , are used to identify security flaws in cloud environments, offering extensive vulnerability detection and reporting capabilities.

Scanning tools such as Nmap are also popular to scan and discover hosts on an infrastructure and look for weaknesses or vulnerabilities.

More specific scanners might also be used, such as sqlmap, a powerful tool often used to detect and exploit SQL injection vulnerabilities in cloud-hosted applications.

Network tools

Network sniffers and analyzer tools such as Wireshark or Burp Suite are used to find vulnerabilities or weaknesses in the network communications between a tester and the cloud infrastructure. They also help detect unencrypted communications or suspicious network behavior in cloud environments.

Password crackers

Password crackers are used by penetration testers once they have their hands on an encrypted user password. If the password is weak enough, the tester might get it quickly. As a striking example, a seven-character password with letters, numbers and symbols, might be cracked in less than a minute. Tools such as Hydra or Hashcat can be used for that purpose.

Moving forward

As cloud adoption keeps increasing, the importance of penetration testing in cloud security cannot be overstated. By conducting comprehensive assessments of various cloud components, organizations can proactively identify vulnerabilities, address weaknesses and fortify their cloud infrastructure against potential attacks. Regular penetration testing serves as a vital tool in ensuring the security and resilience of cloud environments. By prioritizing penetration testing, organizations can effectively protect their data, applications and reputation in the fast-moving landscape of cloud computing.

Disclosure: The author works for Trend Micro, but the views expressed in this article are his.

Read next: Vulnerability scanning vs penetration testing: What’s the difference?

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