The Ever-Changing Threat Landscape: Why Financial Firms Need Continuous Penetration Testing
Beware the Ides of March. The infamous warning given to Julius Caesar reveals that danger often comes from where it's least expected. In the digital age, financial firms face a modern "idea of March" in the form of constant cyber threats emerging from every direction.
Gone are the days when penetration testing was a periodic check-the-box activity. Hacking tools get more advanced daily while data breaches increase in frequency and impact. IBM's 2022 Cost of a Data Breach Report found that the average cost of a breach has risen to $4.35 million. With hackers developing ever-stealthier techniques, the most devastating attacks are ones that go undetected for months or years.
Financial institutions must stay vigorously ahead of the dynamically changing threat landscape to avoid becoming the following front-page breach headline. It requires viewing penetration testing not as an occasional audit but as an ongoing practice integrated into processes. Learn how continuous testing can help financial firms protect their crown jewels.
The Maturing Danger: Why Yesterday's Defenses Don't Cut It Anymore
Gone phishing? Smishing for trouble? Ransomware got you, hostage? These are just a few of the attack formats attackers leverage today. While phishing remains a common tactic, hackers refine their social engineering to ensnare even savvy users. Smishing uses SMS texts to lower guard and often links to fake sites mimicking banks. Ransomware held up critical infrastructure like the Colonial Pipeline in 2021.
Supply chain attacks increase as hackers exploit vendor vulnerabilities to infiltrate target networks. Living off the land techniques use approved admin tools like PowerShell to hide malicious activity. Then there are exploits of unpatched vulnerabilities, rampant reuse of stolen credentials, and API attacks. The list goes on.
While financial firms have robust cybersecurity stacks, these tools are optimised to block known threats. Artificial intelligence and behavioural analysis offer some promise in detecting unknown variants, but skilled hackers design techniques that evade sensors. Periodic penetration testing also misses vulnerabilities that arise constantly in dynamic IT environments.
Staying Ahead of The Next 'Ideas': Why Continuous Testing is Now Essential
In light of today's threat diversity and persistence, financial institutions must continuously test defences. While periodic penetration tests deliver valuable audits, the snapshot view misses vulnerabilities introduced since the last exercise.
Continuous testing combines automation with human expertise to regularly test production systems against emerging attack techniques. Repeated simulations using the latest exploits reveal sightless spots in ways periodic audits cannot.
Breach and attack simulation tools can run frequent simulated attacks designed to succeed without disrupting operations. The goal is to exploit gaps rather than show defences working. Expert testers then analyse results to eliminate false positives and translate technical findings into focused remediation priorities.
Armed with continuous testing insights, IT security and development teams can collaborate to patch vulnerabilities and improve cyber hygiene rapidly. Financial firms that continuously test will gain the advantage to see threats coming as Caesar might have with a little warning about the Ides.
Expanding the Testing Surface: New Frontiers to Hardened Perimeters
Financial firms must expand testing beyond traditional perimeters to stay ahead of threats in today's complex environments. Web and endpoint defences form essential shields but are not the only surfaces exposed to attackers.
API vulnerabilities are increasingly exploited as financial firms adopt open banking platforms and fintech partnerships. Unsecured APIs allow bad actors to extract data or leverage connections. API penetration testing is thus critical.
Mobile banking apps are prime targets, as are interfaces used by customer service reps that integrate with core systems. IoT sensors, wireless networks, cloud platforms, and automated chatbots also warrant testing.
No boundary can be left unchecked. While the focus is often on public-facing systems, continuous testing should include internal networks, custom applications, specialised hardware like ATMs, and systems supporting critical bank functions.
As financial institutions digitally transform, their ecosystems increasingly intersect with outside vendors. These partnerships can unwittingly open networks to supply chain cyber risks if third parties have lax security. Auditing supplier defences is vital.
Real-life Cases of Breaches and Lessons Learned
While financial firms have robust cybersecurity, several major breaches in recent years highlight areas requiring continuous vigilance. By learning from past incidents, institutions can improve defences against emerging threats.
Notable Financial Sector Breaches
Some of the most impactful breaches include:
Equifax Breach (2017)
The massive Equifax breach saw hackers exploit an unpatched web framework vulnerability to access 143 million consumer records containing sensitive personal information. Prompt patching and testing could have prevented access.
Capital One Hack (2019)
A misconfigured cloud storage instance allowed an external hacker to access 100+ million Capital One customer records in this incident. Properly securing cloud resources is essential.
Accellion Hack (2021)
This breach originating through vulnerabilities in Accellion's legacy FTP software, impacted numerous financial firms, including Morgan Stanley, BNP Paribas, and Bank of New York Mellon. Reviewing third-party risks is vital.
Financial institutions should take several proactive measures to avoid becoming the following headline:
Prioritise patching and upgrades -
Unpatched systems are sitting ducks. Firms must keep software regularly updated and quickly patch known vulnerabilities.
Secure cloud configurations -
Incorrect cloud permissions and processes enabled massive breaches. Security must govern cloud environments.
Review third-party risks -
Partners' security lapses can spread via interconnected systems. Enforce supplier assessments.
Employ defence-in-depth strategies -
With multifaceted approaches, one missed control will only expose part of the ecosystem.
Perform regular penetration testing: Continuous testing identifies vulnerabilities before incidents strike.
Prepare incident response plans -
IR enables rapidly isolating, investigating, and recovering from inevitable incidents.
By continuously learning from past breaches and taking proactive improvement measures, financial firms can master emerging threats and avoid preventable incidents.
Prioritise Mission-Critical Areas and Emerging Risks
While adopting a broad continuous testing program is essential, financial firms must prioritise and focus resources based on business impact and risk levels.
If compromised, specific systems and data represent crown jewels that would severely impact operations, reputation, and customers. These mission-critical areas warrant more frequent and rigorous testing cycles to keep them locked down tight.
For retail and commercial banks, top priorities likely include:
- Customer data environments like databases holding personal information, account details, transaction histories etc. Breaches here enable fraud and destroy trust.
- Core banking systems for managing loans, accounts, payments etc. Disruption cripples operations.
- Wire transfer interfaces that hackers target to steal funds.
- Lending platforms are vital revenue streams.
- Investment banking applications that give access to manage client accounts and assets.
- Integrating newer fintech-enabled services like peer-to-peer payments that integrate with old systems.
Across financial subsectors, internet-facing perimeter systems like customer websites, login portals, VPNs, and employee email gateways warrant continuous checks as common attack vectors. The same applies to endpoints which cause 60% of breaches.
Emerging infrastructure like IoT networks, third-party partner connections, and new mobile apps should also be early focus areas before adversaries discover and exploit flaws.
Continuous testing programs will be most effective if aligned closely with threat intelligence, cyber insurance assessments, and lessons from past breaches to match tests to evolving real-world risks.
The Never-Ending Battle: How Continuous Testing Enables Rapid Response
For financial firms, safeguarding critical systems and data is a never-ending battle as threats evolve. Continuous penetration testing gives security teams an invaluable advantage in this fight by providing real-time insights into vulnerabilities across the attack surface.
Unlike periodic point-in-time audits, continuous testing generates a steady stream of findings that reveal where the latest methods can bypass defences. This intelligence arms infosec and application development teams to collaborate quickly to patch security gaps and harden systems before flaws are exploited.
Continuous testing identifies new vulnerabilities and misconfigurations early rather than waiting months for the next audit. Development and operations can remediate issues or optimise configurations while details are fresh.
Automating testing elements also frees security personnel from performing repetitive scanning tasks. It enables staff to focus on higher-value proactive threat analysis and intelligence gathering to understand emerging adversary TTPs.
When undertaken regularly, testing provides important metrics on changes in an organisation's cyber risk posture over time. Tracking improvements gives visibility into which areas need more security investment.
For financial firms handling susceptible customer data and transactions, continuous testing provides the advantage of seeing threats coming quickly and clearly. Although the battle to protect critical assets will never end, with constant testing, financial institutions can keep pace with or even stay steps ahead of constant new attacks.
Staying Ahead of the Next Ideas
As the threat landscape evolves rapidly, continuous penetration testing provides a critical advantage for financial institutions to identify and remediate vulnerabilities. However, testing is just one aspect of a proactive cybersecurity strategy.
Leaders must make security a top strategic priority to get ahead of emerging threats effectively. It means allocating sufficient budget for robust testing programs, building a safety culture across the organisation, and adopting a forward-looking approach to test new systems early and often.
Most importantly, cybersecurity must be championed from the top down, with executive commitment and central oversight. Leaders must leverage the latest capabilities, like breach simulations and risk analytics, to quantify and track security posture over time.
While the journey will be endless, organisations that invest in continuous testing and proactive security will gain the advantage needed to stay ahead of the following ideas.
Over 2500 companies partnered with MicrominderCS to protect their business with constant penetration testing and beyond. Request a demo today to experience the MicrominderCS difference firsthand. The time to get ahead of emerging threats is now.