What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is a type of security testing where the tester or hacking expert tries to find vulnerabilities within the application and exploit it.

The goal of penetration testing is to discover any weak spots in the application, and this would enable us to understand weak spots and help us build better security for the application.

Penetration testing is usually referred to as Pen Testing, and the testers who perform penetration testing are referred to as pentester.

Just think of Penetration testing as a bank hiring a person to act as a bank robber and try to steal money from the vault. If the fake robber gets access to the vault, the bank can understand where their security fails. Then they can work on tightening their security.

What are PCI Standards?

  • The Payment Card Industry (PCI) requires compliance to protect credit and debit card transactions from data breaches.
  • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is an information security framework that acts as a standard business should comply with.
  • It is not a law or regulation, it is just an industry mandate.

What is PCI Penetration testing?

PCI Penetration testing focuses on validating the security of credit cards and debit cards. It is specifically designed to improve the security of the card and cardholder data.

The Payment Card Industry (PCI) council sets up standards on how to protect data. Usually, PCI DSS verifies the protection of the cardholder data which consists of the credit card number and other data associated with it.

What are PCI Penetration testing Components?

Cardholder Data Environment (CDE)

A cardholder data environment can be defined as a computer system or networked group of IT systems that would process, store and/or transmit cardholder data or sensitive payment authentication data and any components that are directly connected to or support this network.

External Penetration testing

In external penetration testing, the pen tester tries to simulate how an external user without proper access and permissions could exploit weak spots in the Cardholder Data Environment (CDE). Here the pentester behaves as a malicious outsider or hacker who wants to try to attack the organization.

Internal Penetration testing

In internal penetration testing, the pen tester tries to understand how much of a threat a person with internal access could exploit the network’s vulnerabilities. Here the pentester tries to determine what information could be exposed to this insider.

What is the objective of PCI Penetration testing?

  • To identify security vulnerabilities in the system.
  • To decrease the risk of getting hacked.
  • To be compliant with industry standards.
  • To build proof with regard to compliance with the industry requirements.
  • To establish trust among customers about their security concerns.

Why is Penetration Testing important for PCI DSS?

In the digital landscape of technology, financial information is one of the most sensitive data. Even a single incident can ruin the reputation of the company and it can lose its customers. PCI DSS focuses on the protection of credit card information, not the company’s brand, customer privacy or security.

Thus penetration testing is essential to guarantee the security of the payment system. It can help the organization discover weak spots, prevent attacks, and, most importantly, reduce the impact of the security attacks.

By performing penetration testing, we will be able to identify the weakness and vulnerabilities in the system. We’ll be able to understand the organisation-level risks and help them address and fix the identified flaws.

When it comes to following industry standards, PCI Penetration testing provides compliance as it checks the security standards and requirements when the system is deployed.

Who needs to do the PCI Penetration test?

Any business that deals with processing, transactions and savings of card information have to comply with PCI standards, so they have to perform PCI Penetration Testing.

PCI Penetration Testing is mandatory for Tier 1 merchants, especially e-commerce merchants. SAQ A-EP and SAQ D merchants should perform periodic penetration testing to be compliant with PCI DSS standards.

SAQ A-EP merchants are e-commerce companies that partially outsource their e-commerce payment channel to third parties

They do not electronically store, process, or transmit any cardholder data on their systems or premises.

SAQ D applies to merchants who don’t meet the eligibility criteria for any other SAQ type. SAQ D handles merchants who store card data electronically and do not use a P2PE-certified POS system.

Penetration testing is a method by which the PCI council can mandate specific requirements to evaluate the PCI standards, and check if the process is risky. Penetration testing is not mandatory for all SAQs but it is always good to be proactive and stay one step ahead in understanding the strength of the organization’s security.

When to perform a PCI Penetration test?

According to PCI DSS requires the organization to perform security assessments and segmentation tests every six months.

Additional reviews of these standards should be verified when a significant change is made in the system.

PCI Penetration testing is not just a one-time setup, it has to be tested regularly.

How to perform PCI Penetration Testing?

We have to follow the below steps to perform penetration testing:

Step #1: Scoping

In the first step of penetration testing, we define the scope for the testing. Before starting the testing process we must define the scope as it helps us with the limitations and rules of the testing.

Here are some samples scopes which would provide us with an overview

  • To identify how and where the business receives cardholder data
  • To document where account data is stored, processed, and transmitted
  • To identify all other system components, processes, and personnel which are in scope.
  • To implement controls to reduce the scope of necessary components, processes, and personnel.
  • To maintain and monitor processes to have a continuous compliance

Step #2: Survey & Discovery

Here we collect information regarding the target network. This step can help us to determine the attack vectors due to the information we collect.

We will identify the network asset within the scope of  CDE. We also try to identify the target network and its respective services.

Step #3: Exploitation

In this step, the pentester tries to exploit various vulnerabilities in the system by manipulating available services to unauthorized access to the system i.e hacking.

Once the pentester hacks into the system they try various tactics such as DoS attacks, SQL injections, or a buffer overflow.

Step #4: Reporting

Here the pentester would report all their findings to the organization. These reports contain detailed information about all the vulnerabilities in the network and potential impacts along with recommendations on how to fix them.

The report should explain the methodologies which were used along with the test results. The pentester should ensure that the report provides a clear flow through various stages of penetration testing to provide evidence to the stakeholders on the security evaluation.

Step #5: Re-scanning

After that reporting, the development team starts to fix all the security issues in the system. Once the system is set up, we have to perform penetration testing again in the system.

This retesting process gives us a clear idea of whether those issues are fixed and also helps to find new issues that might have surfaced due to the changes. These rescanning activities ensure that security vulnerabilities are fixed.

Step #6: Continuous Scanning

PCI Penetration testing is not a one-time set-up, we have to do it again at various intervals of time to be compliant.

So setting up continuous testing through CI/CD integration can help us to check new features of the system along with the system vulnerabilities as well.

Types of PCI DSS Penetration Tests

Typically the vulnerabilities in the system are caused due to incorrect design, inadequate planning, unknown hardware or software defect or even organisational deficiency in the process. In PCI DSS Penetration testing is involved in detecting these vulnerabilities with ethical hacking methods.

Let’s look into different types of PCI DSS Penetration testing :

  • Network Penetration Test
  • Segmentation control
  • Application Penetration Test
  • Wireless Network Penetration Test

Network Penetration Test

The process of identifying security issues related to the server, workstation, network service design, implementation, and maintenance is taken care of by the PCI DSS network penetration test.

Some of the common issues found in the Network Penetration Test :

  • Software, firewalls, and operating systems are configured incorrectly.
  • Outdated software and operating system.
  • Unsecured protocol.

The solution to troubleshoot shoot these network-related security issues

  • We should reconfigure software, firewalls, and operating systems.
  • Installation of updated software and operating systems
  • We should implement more secure protocols to enable encryption in those protocols.

Segmentation Control

In the segmentation test, the pentester checks whether a misconfigured firewall allows access to the secure network or system.

Some of the common issues found in the segmentation test:

  • The system allows unauthorized TCP connections.
  • The system allows unauthorized pinging.

The solution to troubleshoot shoot these segmentation-related security issues :

  • We should reconfigure the firewall rules to restrict access properly.

Application Penetration Test

In the application penetration test, the pentester tries to identify the security issues that were caused due to unsafe development practices during software designing, coding, and deployment.

Even when we have highly skilled developers with up-to-date information on fixing and protecting apps, malicious hackers find new ways to attack the system. They continually improve their strategies to attack the system.

Application penetration testing makes sure that potential threats don’t leave our application vulnerable and help you mitigate the risks. The role of the developers is to design the application with the features.

Bad coding practices, short deadlines, timeline issues, and carelessness can create security vulnerabilities in the software. Developers do not create perfect code, it gets better as we do more testing and report the issue continuously.

Some commonly identified security issues related to application penetration testing include:

  • Issues related to injection vulnerabilities include SQL injection, Cross-site scripting, remote code execution, etc.
  • Error in broken authentication, think of a scenario where the authentication step can be skipped to access the application or accounts with fewer privileges (customer) can access higher level functionality (admin privileges)
  • Bad error handling.

Some of the solutions to troubleshoot these applications related to security issues

  • We can redesign authentication and authorization modules.
  • We recode the software with better software development practices.
  • We can disable remote viewing of software errors.

Wireless Network Penetration Test

Here in the wireless network penetration test, the pentester focuses on identifying misconfiguration in authorized wireless networks and checking the presence of unauthorized access points.

Commonly identified security issues in the wireless network include:

  • Issue related to insecure wireless network encryption standards
  • Weak encryption password
  • Wireless network technology that doesn’t support.
  • Unauthorized access points

Some of the solutions to troubleshoot these wireless network-related security issues:

  • We can update the wireless network protocol to an industry-accepted (more secure) protocol such as WPA2.
  • We can replace the insecure password with a longer, more complex, and better secure password.
  • We can set and disable rogue access points.

Social Engineering Tests

In social engineering assessments, we target the employees to check whether they follow the right protocol to ensure security. Here we check employees who do not correctly validate individuals, do not follow procedures, or validate potentially unsafe technologies.

We’ll be implementing a few strategies to manipulate them to do something they shouldn’t do. Essentially allowing an intruder to access the CDE and perform some malicious activity to happen due to the carelessness of the employees.

Some of the  Commonly identified problems seen when performing social engineering tests include:

  • Employees might open malicious emails
  • They might allow unauthorized persons to enter the facility
  • They connect a random USB to a workstation.
  • They might not lock their screen when they leave their place.

To avoid such situations, we can troubleshoot these social engineering-related security issues through training. We should educate the employees on what should be done to maintain security. They should also understand the consequences of the simple actions, and the repetition of their carelessness.

The purpose of the social engineering test is to check the employee’s proactiveness in situations where another malicious person might take advantage of them. We must make sure that employees get properly trained with a security awareness training course for defending against social engineering attacks

Best Practices for performing PCI Penetration testing

When an organization decides to perform PCI penetration testing, they usually outsource these activities to the company that provides these services. So they’ll be hiring pentester from a different company, this can be a good thing because it provides us with plenty of options.

So when performing the penetration testing make sure that you follow the below pointers to get the best results.

#1. Remediation Assistance

When hiring pen testers ensure that they are experts in their field, they should also have good knowledge of fixing those vulnerabilities as well, which makes our job much easier.

Several service providers offer penetration testing, so before selecting ensure that they are highly skilled and well versed in their area of expertise.

#2. Check the Service Level Agreement

Usually, the service level agreement has details regarding testing methodology, deliverables, and most importantly exclusions.

We have to check whether all our requirements are covered in these SLAs and whether we need any services that are in exclusions.


These documents will help the company to understand the service quality, coverage, and the period for which the company would get the service.

#3. Reputation

We should conduct proper research about the service provider, and check their reviews and accolades.

We need to check the quality of work in their past projects and talk with their previous or existing clients.

#4. Continuous Scanning

We should ensure that the service provider continuously checks the system to ensure that any vulnerabilities arising from new features or patches are found quickly.

These continuous scans are also important to maintain compliance with various regulatory standards such as PCI-DSS and HIPAA.


Penetration Testing can help the organization in validating the security within the Cardholder Data Environment (CDE). The sole focus of performing PCI Pentest is to protect credit card information. Also, note that the security of every business depends well beyond credit card data.

Thus it is crucial to balance both the meeting of the PCI requirements and assuring the customer’s privacy, brand, and business are secure. A pentest must be performed by highly skilled pen testers and it must be done on at least an annual basis, and consider both internal and external threats to maximize the value of the investment.

An organization’s reputation might be affected if there are any hacking attempts. But a successful penetration test can help us avoid such issues. Hope this article gives you a clear picture of PCI penetration testing.

Source: https://www.softwaretestingmaterial.com/pci-penetration-testing/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pci-penetration-testing