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Enhancing Cyber Resilience in Banks: The Power of Penetration Testing

Lorna Jones

Lorna Jones, Senior Cyber Security Consultant
Jan 20, 2024

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The Bank Job: How Pen Testing Can Stop Heists Before They Happen

The year was 2022. After months of preparation, an elite team of criminal hackers, the Cyber Syndicate, executed their most ambitious bank heist. Armed with stolen employee credentials, advanced social engineering tactics, and zero-day exploits purchased on the dark web, they infiltrated and compromised the networks of MegaBank, one of the world's largest financial institutions. 

Like a ghost, the Syndicate moved undetected through MegaBank's systems, escalating privileges and gaining access to their most sensitive servers. After weeks of surveillance, they identified and exfiltrated thousands of customer records containing account numbers, passwords, social security numbers, and other personally identifiable information.
The haul was massive - the most significant bank data breach in history at over 15 terabytes. The Syndicate stood to make millions selling the data on black market forums. MegaBank's reputation would be tarnished. Account fraud would plague customers for years. And regulators would come down hard with crushing fines and sanctions.

It may read like a plot summary for the next big Hollywood heist movie. But data breaches with uncanny parallels occur with disturbing frequency in the real world. In 2022 alone, over 1,800 publicly disclosed cybersecurity incidents hit the banking and financial sector globally.
For cybercriminals, banks remain an irresistible target. They operate vast digital ecosystems processing trillions of transactions and storing compassionate customer data. A successful attack can bring big paydays for hackers through extortion, theft, and fraud.

But what if this story had played out differently? What if MegaBank had detected and thwarted the Syndicate's infiltration before they got close to the data? What if impenetrable virtual steel doors had slammed shut in the criminals' faces, their hacking tools rendered useless?
Banks can flip the script and beat the bad guys through the power of penetration testing. Proactively finding and closing security gaps before they get exploited is critical for cyber resilience. Read on to learn how pen testing helps banks lock up their digital assets and stop heists before they happen.

Penetration Testing and Why it Matters

Penetration testing, or pen testing for short, is the practice of authorised white hat hackers attacking a computer system or network to evaluate its security. The goal is to identify vulnerabilities that someone could maliciously exploit before real-world attackers can find them.
Skilled pen testers use the same tools and techniques as criminal hackers - fuzzing, scanning, sniffing traffic, reverse engineering, social engineering, and more. But unlike black hats, they document all findings and provide actionable recommendations for improving defences.
For the banking industry, regular penetration testing provides immense value:

Finds unknown security gaps: Pen testing helps locate vulnerabilities like unpatched systems, misconfigurations, risky employee practices, and more than static analysis alone could miss.
Validates existing controls: Putting prevention measures to the test ensures they stand up to sophisticated breach attempts.
Demonstrates due diligence: Proactive pen testing shows regulators that the bank is serious about risk management and compliance.
Builds staff awareness: Seeing mock attacks in action makes security top of mind for employees.
Informs cyber strategy: Testing provides data to improve architecture, tools, and processes based on real-world adversarial behaviour.
With ongoing pen testing, banks can avoid avoidable breaches.

Planning an Effective Penetration Test

Banks should take a strategic approach to planning and executing penetration tests to maximise value. Important considerations include:

Defining clear scope and goals: Simultaneously, pen-testing the entire infrastructure could be more practical. Prioritise the most critical systems and data to focus on. Ask questions like:
- What high-value systems need testing the most?
- Are we concerned about external threats, insider threats, or both?
- What technical assets and security controls do we want validating?
- What potential worst-case scenarios worry us?
Choosing qualified pen testers: Opt for seasoned professionals with banking industry experience, not just a general security background. They should be ethical, transparent and hold respected certifications like CEH, OSCP, or GPEN.
Using stealthy attack methods: The most valuable tests emulate how real hackers operate, using techniques to avoid detection. Though overt tests have benefits, stealth puts existing monitoring and response capabilities to a more authentic test.
Executing comprehensive post-test analysis:
● Don't just get a list of vulnerabilities.
● Dig into exploitability, risk levels, and remediation best practices.
● Have pen testers observe how attacks would play out if not detected.

Regular pen testing cycles keep security protections battle-tested and ready to thwart threats.

Pen Testing in Action: Case Studies from Banks
To see penetration testing pay dividends, one needs to look no further than real-world case studies from banks:

Regional Bank Prevents Major Fraud
A mid-sized regional bank worried about vulnerabilities in its online banking platform. They hired penetration testers to perform external tests mimicking remote hackers and internal tests assuming a compromised employee account.
The external test uncovered a subdomain takeover in an abandoned bank property. If exploited, this could have let attackers steal login credentials and launch social engineering attacks against customers.
The internal test revealed three critical ActiveDirectory vulnerabilities that could allow broad lateral movement throughout the network. Testers were able to demonstrate a path to compromise thousands of accounts.
By fixing these issues proactively, the bank prevented what could have been a massively damaging attack.

Large Bank Avert Regulatory Action

A large national bank failed an audit when it found significant security gaps in its online mortgage application system. Hackers could have accessed sensitive customer financial data, altered loan details, or stolen closing funds.
To address regulatory concerns, the bank hired a penetration testing firm for an in-depth re-test after remediating the problems. This time, testing confirmed that protections were hardened to withstand attack.
Satisfied with the bank's response, regulators decided no enforcement action was necessary beyond a follow-up audit. Proactive pen testing prevented hefty fines and reputational damage.

Global Bank Catches Insider Threat
A big multinational bank suspected a disgruntled employee may attempt malicious internal activity. They hired penetration testers to simulate an insider attack targeting human resources systems and bank executives' email accounts.
The pen testers successfully accessed HR databases by compromising the portal's web server. They also compromised C-level accounts through phishing, credential harvesting, and password-spraying attacks.
Based on these results, the bank re-architected access controls and implemented Privileged Access Management. Repeated testing confirmed that the improvements prevented insider access, giving the bank confidence that it neutralised the threat.

Limitations to Remember

While extremely useful, banks should be aware that penetration tests alone are not a cybersecurity silver bullet. Some fundamental limitations to consider include:


Pen testing provides only a snapshot of vulnerabilities simultaneously. Regular recurring tests are essential to keep pace with threat evolution.

Perimeter limitations:

Tests can only target systems agreed upon in the scoping phase. Critical assets could be left untested if not adequately identified beforehand.

Advanced adversaries:

Highly skilled, well-funded attackers may have capabilities beyond typical pen testers. Your business should enhance tests over time to simulate more sophisticated intrusion attempts. ests over time to simulate more sophisticated intrusion attempts.


Pen testing is no substitute for a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. It should complement - not replace - strong policies, architecture, tools, and processes.

By understanding these limitations, banks can develop realistic expectations and maximise effectiveness.

Turning Pen Testing Data Into Better Security

The penetration testing process does not stop once the test concludes. An essential activity comes next: Taking the findings and using them to improve defences systematically.
Post-test, banks should focus on the following:

Remediating vulnerabilities: Apply patches, address configuration issues, close detection gaps, and eliminate data exposures. Start with the highest-risk items first.
Improving processes: Review security policies and cyber incident response plans based on pen test observations. Enhance controls for third-party vendors if needed.
Raising awareness: Use test findings in security training to alert employees to the latest social engineering and malware tactics. Promote more vigilance.
Strategic planning: Let tests guide IT architecture changes, security tooling investments, staffing models, and budget allocations. Build defense-in-depth.

Ongoing penetration testing paired with prompt remediation helps banks stay resilient in an ever-evolving threat landscape.

Outsmarting the Hackers

The potential losses from bank cyber heists grow more prominent by the day. The need for robust security measures becomes acute as banks digitise more operations and hackers develop more advanced tradecraft.
Regular penetration testing provides the blueprint banks need to identify and close security gaps before they get exploited. Banks can beat criminals at their own game by proactively pen-testing systems using approaches modelled on real-world attacks.
The benefits of customer trust, regulatory compliance, fraud prevention, and cyber resilience make penetration testing an essential component of any bank's cybersecurity program. When implemented strategically, pen testing allows banks to reinforce their digital vaults and stop heists before they happen.
The choice is clear - outsmart the black hat hackers with rigorous penetration testing, or leave vulnerabilities open for exploitation. The more banks choose the former, the safer the financial system becomes. Cybercriminals may plan their heists, but the banks hold the keys.

The Path Forward: The Next Step for Banking Cybersecurity Leadership

Penetration testing offers immense value for securing banks against continuously evolving threats. But testing is just one piece of the cyber resilience puzzle. To lead the industry forward, banks must take the next step and adopt integrated strategies that embed security in their DNA.
- Invest in specialised talent with offensive/defensive skill sets to find chinks in the armour.
- Maintain a relentless focus on cyber risk governance and executive accountability.
- Architect systems with security fundamentals like encryption and multifactor authentication baked in by design.
- Promote "hacker culture" to encourage probing for vulnerabilities and rapid remediation.
- Foster partnerships with regulators and law enforcement to neutralise threats collaboratively.
- Stay vigilant - advanced persistent threats require advanced uncompromising security.
At MicroMinder CyberSecurity, we provide precisely this integrated cyber strategy tailored to the banking industry. Join over 2,500 institutions that trust our expertise to protect their business and customer assets.
Don't wait for the breach. Contact our team today to schedule your free consult with our cybersecurity experts. The time for proactive leadership is now.

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