What is offensive security, and why does it matter?

Offensive security takes a proactive and adversarial approach to information security to help organizations prepare for the most sophisticated cyber threats.

Summary: With the cyber threat landscape constantly evolving, businesses are now more proactive in securing their data and operations. From penetration testing to white hat hacking, security experts are now highly sought after for tackling real-world challenges in fast-moving business environments.

Offensive security refers to the proactive and adversarial approach to countering cyberthreats, using a method such as offensive penetration testing. The ultimate goal of offensive security is to seek out threat actors and attempt to take down their operations.

By contrast, conventional cybersecurity measures are defensive and largely reactive. These measures include patching software to fix vulnerabilities and removing malicious and potentially unwanted software from a system using antimalware solutions.

The issue with conventional cybersecurity measures is that they are inadequate for protecting against more advanced threats, such as state-sponsored attacks and attacks perpetrated by organized crime. On the other hand, taking security on the offensive by hacking back against cybercriminals is also problematic for various ethical and legal reasons, not least because of the risks of a mistaken cyber-offensive. After all, in the era of cyberwarfare, a mistake could easily lead to a major diplomatic incident.

Penetration testing, however, can also be used in a defensive context. Penetration testers use the same or similar tools and methods as cybercriminals use to understand how attacks might exploit a particular network. The belief is that one needs to think like a criminal to stop a criminal.

Offensive penetration testing takes things a step further by deploying offensive methods in a defensive manner. The methods consist of three main components – annoyance, attribution, and attack. The annoyance component involves deliberately frustrating an attacker’s attempt to break into a system by luring them into false directories, services, and ports. The attribution component accurately identifies the attacker, typically by placing a web beacon in sensitive documents. Finally, the attack component refers to conventional penetration testing measures used to identify system vulnerabilities before attackers do.

What is the OSCP accreditation?

Penetration testers are in high demand, especially in industries (e.g., healthcare, defense, or critical infrastructure) that routinely handle highly sensitive information. These specialists work under contract with clients on a freelance basis or in the capacity of full-time employees to hack systems and identify vulnerabilities. They will then compile reports detailing any vulnerabilities found and provide remediation advice.

Given that organizations have to place enormous trust in penetration testers, it should be no surprise that certification is practically mandatory for the job. Two of the most sought-after certifications are the Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) from Offensive Security and the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) from the EC-Council. Although the CEH is the more established of the two, OSCP is arguably the better choice for those wanting to move into penetration testing specifically.

The OSCP is one of three penetration testing learning paths and certifications provided by its namesake, Offensive Security. Candidates become an OSCP after passing the PEN-200 PWK exam, the organization’s foundational accreditation. After that, candidates can choose to pursue the PEN-210 or PEN-300 certifications, which tackle wireless attacks and evasion techniques and breaching defenses, respectively. Offensive Security also offers certifications to validate expertise in web application security (WEB-300) and exploit development (EXP-301, EXP-312, and EXP-401).

What are the key traits and skills required?

It is impossible for a single individual to be an expert across all domains of penetration testing because there are so many different tools and methods. The willingness to learn continuously is one of the most important traits in becoming a penetration tester. Certification is simply the first step.

That being said, penetration testers must demonstrate a high degree of technical competence. Fortunately, penetration testing processes have been standardized to a degree in recent years to make matters easier. Most testers, for example, use the Kali Linux distro, which is geared specifically for penetration testing across a wide variety of computing environments.

Penetration testers also need to acquire a broad understanding of network protocols, common exploit tools, buffer overflows, and privilege escalation. These are usually not the things that one can learn from reading alone, hence the importance of simulated operating environments during the training and testing processes.

While penetration testers do not need production-grade coding skills, they should have, at minimum, basic proficiency in common scripting languages like Bash, Perl, PowerShell, and Python and database languages like SQL. After all, real-world threat actors routinely exploit systems by injecting malicious code, so it only makes sense that offensive security professionals are familiar with these methods too.

Certain soft skills, such as report writing and good teamwork, are essential for penetration testers. Many testers work in teams to divide objectives. For example, one team might be dedicated to host scanning, while another works on exploit detection. Good interpersonal skills are essential for building trust and authority, not least because testers must work closely with business leaders to better understand their risk environment and priorities.

Those with a passion for technology and who have developed a special talent for penetration testing can enjoy the prospect of highly lucrative and rewarding job opportunities. Specialists in ethical hacking and penetration testing have become highly sought-after to the point there has never been a better time to start a career in the field. Furthermore, business leaders should consider investing in their employees with comprehensive cybersecurity training and development due to the continuing skills shortage in the space.

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