Some time ago we discussed a handful of areas that clients should evaluate when choosing an independent penetration testing firm. However it is worth exploring the other side of this coin as well: how can security firms prove their prospect clients that they are the best security partner they will find?
The problem with internal processes
There are a number of things you can work on internally like using testing methodologies to ensure consistent project delivery and making sure that it’s easy for your testers to collaborate. As we saw in those articles, it is not always easy to prove the value of internal processes to prospect clients. In addition, every Tom, Dick and Harry will claim they follow some sort of methodology. Which is the problem with claims, anyone can make them. How do you prove your claims to your future clients?
Security testing of a hardened environment
A very interesting way to explore this topic is the hardened environment problem. Say you are chosen to perform a pentest in an environment that has been heavily hardened. After 3 or 4 days of testing your team comes back almost empty handed. A few minor issues here and there.
From your client’s perspective a report that only lists a handful of vulnerabilities can mean a few things:
- The environment was hardened and secure. Celebrations ensue.
- The testing team didn’t know what to do.
- The testing team did very little.
There is a subtle difference between 2 and 3. You can have an otherwise competent tester looking at an environment using technologies that he’s not familiar with. Time will be spent learning about the technologies and common attack vectors. In the end there will only be time to scratch the surface and identify any low hanging fruit. In addition, an inexperienced tester may not be able to recognise the subtle clues that indicate that a vulnerability exists.
In that situation, how can you put your client’s concerns to rest and assure them that sufficient coverage was attained?
If you really want to become your client’s trusted security partner, what better way to do so than revealing what’s hiding behind the curtain?
Your clients will be better able to appreciate your service if they get to understand everything that is going on in the background. What actions and processes kick off after they give you the go ahead on a new engagement? This of course is scary, but this is not an all-or-nothing decision, there are degrees of transparency.
You need to provide them with proof that you’ve followed a testing methodology
Most of the times, clients are interested both in what was found (i.e. issues, findings) and what was covered. Was there enough time? What level of assurance can they draw from the results of this engagement? Reports written by less experienced testers make this problem more evident. They tend to focus on the findings, on the elegant hacks and the smart tricks. But they leave out the overall coverage. If an area was assessed and nothing interesting was found, it is unlikely that the area will get a mention in the report.
To be fair, I’ve seen a fair amount of reports as part of our report customisation service for Dradis Pro, very few have a section that provides a breakdown of the methodology that was used. A list of areas covered along with evidence and proof of why each of them was ticked off during the engagement. Saying that you follow a testing methodology as part of your sales pitch is one thing, providing auditable proof that you do is a very different story.
You need to show them what it means to them that your team can collaborate efficiently
I’ve worked in teams where if a client requested daily or even weekly status updates, it was a big deal. The unstructured approach to testing meant that in order to produce an interim deliverable a significant amount of time had to be invested on it. For the client this meant that by trying to be on top of things to make sure they were getting a good return on their investment they were being penalised with a waste of time and focus. The team was more worried about the interim reports than about providing sufficient coverage.
Daily reports shouldn’t have to be a burden. If everyone in the team is on the same page, sharing and writing up their findings as they go along, producing a daily report should be one click away.
We talked about how using a collaboration tool becomes handy when unexpected team changes occur in the being on the same page article. However I want to give you a concrete, real-world example. When my baby girl was born, I was in the middle of a test (second day out of five). Of course the company I was working for knew that we were due around those weeks and they graciously kept me on remote engagements. However we didn’t know exactly when it was going to happen, and when it did, I had to drop everything I was doing and focus on what was important. I was on the test on my own, but I was still using Dradis Pro to manage the project. What this meant is that when the time came, I was able to generate an interim report with one click and one of my colleagues was able to take over the project. All my notes, findings, tool output and progress was recorded. Handover happened over night and didn’t impact our testing window at all. When we explained to our client what was going on, they were sympathetic with me having to leave half way through but impressed that we were able to hand over the project with virtually no wasted time.
If you can show your clients that your internal processes allow you to react this swiftly, that they can have an interim report whenever they need one without impacting the coverage and that as a result the quality of the service they will receive from you will always be excellent (even on the face of unforeseeable circumstances) you would be a long way towards earning their trust.
That last area in which you can add value to your clients is the quality of your deliverables.
Traditionally the outcome of a successful security assessment would be a penetration testing report. A great pentest report will contain both a high-level overview of the results, mitigation advice, technical details and a breakdown of activities performed and results obtained during the engagement. The report will typically take the form of a Word or PDF document.
There will always be a need to provide results in a report form. Something that the business can read, understand and incorporate to their internal risk assessment framework. However, the more mature organisations that have accumulated years of experience dealing with IT security matters (e.g. financial institutions, big software vendors, etc.) are demanding more and more from their security partners. It is no longer enough to “read” about your issues and “learn” what mitigation techniques should be implemented. After the engagement is over, someone in their team (which could be a single person or multiple people across different departments) will have to:
- Go through all the reported findings.
- For each one, evaluate whether to accept all, part or none of the risks involved.
- Incorporate the ones that require action into the internal issue tracking system.
- Assign issue ratings in line with the company’s internal policy (e.g. “Urgent”, “Low priority”, etc.).
- Follow up on the progress of each item.
- Request a re-test or manually verify each issue (using the information provided in the original report).
It seems fair to say that *most* of the work around the project happens after the security vendor is long gone. These clients would benefit from a vendor that can go the extra mile, that can take the time to understand their internal process, their ratings and the issue tracking workflow and provide them with additional support.
Some of the bigger clients in the industry are already requiring their providers to use the client’s own reporting template and providing findings both as a long-form report and in an spreadsheet that can be programmatically processed. They can get away with it, because they are so big, the security vendor can’t afford to lose the account. However, I suspect this is the path the industry is following. More and more clients will need their vendors to provide more support and to work more closely with them through the assessment / remediation / re-test cycle.
Learning about the client’s internal processes or accommodating requests to use their particular template or provide the output in multiple formats involves some additional overhead for the pentesting firm. This is even more true if the security vendor is doing everything manually. The account manager has to keep track of the latest version of the template the client wants you to use. He needs to remind the test team every time that this test is different and that they need to use the client’s template (and the latest version of it) and that they need to provide their findings both in a document format and a spreadsheet. If there is a QA process (!) it will have to cover two separate documents with virtually the same content, etc. Multiply this by a few clients with specific needs and it can quickly become a nightmare.
On the other side of the spectrum, a firm that is already streamlining their delivery process with an extensible collaboration and reporting tool can accommodate this type of client requirements with virtually no effort. If your team is adding their findings as they go along and automatically generating most of the report, creating two separate documents (one report and one spreadsheet) is quite literally two clicks away. You will need to invest some time when on-boarding the client to understand their reporting requirements and the formats they need to extend your tool to support them. But once that initial investment is done, there is no significant overhead involved in each additional engagement delivered. When a change in the deliverable format is required, you adjust the tool’s export plugin and the team doesn’t even notice.
If the only thing you are providing to your clients is a pentest report listing all the findings, your are doing yourself a disservice. Let your clients know that you can provide them with your results in whatever format they need. However, make sure your backend processes and workflow are laid in such a way that accommodating requests for new deliverable formats doesn’t create additional overhead on a per-project basis or you will be burdening your team unnecessarily.
Clients shopping around for security vendors sometimes need help to make the best decision for their business. The more transparent about your processes you become the easier they will find it to trust you.
Providing consistent and auditable results is the first step towards building up that trust. Show them how they will benefit from your robust internal processes.
And help them to manage the fallout of the engagement by providing your results in the format that is more valuable to them and their internal processes. Don’t limit your output to a single long-form report deliverable.