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Did you know that by 2027, the global pen testing market is expected to reach $2.7 billion? This explosive growth is no surprise, given the increasing frequency and sophistication of cyberattacks.

Pen testing[1] , also known as penetration testing, is a simulated cyberattack that helps organizations identify and fix security vulnerabilities in their systems and networks.

There are three main types of pen testing: black box, white box, and gray box. Each type provides a different level of visibility and access to the system being tested, which can impact the scope and effectiveness of the test.

Wondering which type of pen testing is right for your organization? We’ve got you covered.

In this guide, we’ll go over everything you need to know about black, white, and gray box testing, including what they are, when to use them, and the pros and cons of each method.

Let’s jump right in!

What is black box testing?

Imagine that you’re a cybersecurity researcher trying to identify vulnerabilities in a company’s website. You don’t have any knowledge of the website’s internal code or infrastructure. How can you test for security issues?

That’s where black box testing comes in. Black box testing (or functional testing) is a pen test method that allows you to test the security of a system without any knowledge of its internal workings.

Black box pen testers are given no knowledge of the internal structure or implementation of the system being tested. They must use their skills and knowledge to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in the system just like an attacker would.

Examples of black box testing

Here are some specific examples of black box testing:

  • Scanning and enumeration: Identifying the system’s attack surfaces, such as open ports, services, and applications.
  • Fuzzing: Sending unexpected or invalid input to the system to see if it crashes or reveals any vulnerabilities.
  • Injection attacks: Attempting to inject malicious code into the system, such as SQL injection or cross-site scripting (XSS).
  • Social engineering attacks: Tricking users into revealing sensitive information or performing actions that could compromise the system.

Advantages of black box testing

– Mimics the actions of an external threat, offering a realistic assessment of how a system might fare against unauthorized access or attacks from unknown sources.

– Gives unbiased evaluation: Testers approach Black Box Testing without preconceived notions about the system’s architecture or code, ensuring an unbiased evaluation of security measures.

– Comprehensive Coverage: Since Black Box Testing focuses on the external interfaces and functionality, it provides a holistic assessment as it focuses on the external interfaces and functionality, thus, uncovering vulnerabilities that may not be apparent through other testing methods

Disadvantages of black box testing

As black box testing focuses on the external functionality of a system, it may miss vulnerabilities in the system’s internal structure or implementation. And without the ability to access the code, it can be difficult to find the root cause of a security issue in some cases. This means that it can take longer to resolve certain cases.

What is white box testing?

If black box testing is like a burglar trying to break into a house from the outside, white box testing is like having the house’s blueprint, allowing testers to see all the weak spots from the inside.

White box testing, also known as glass box testing or clear box testing, is where the penetration tester has full access to the internal structure of the system or application being tested. This includes access to the source code, design documents, and configuration files.

White box testing is a more in-depth and comprehensive type of testing than black box testing. That’s because the white box tester can identify and exploit vulnerabilities that would be difficult or impossible to find using black box testing techniques.

Examples of white box testing

Some of the White box testing techniques include:

  • Source code review: Reviewing the source code of the system or application to identify potential vulnerabilities.
  • Static analysis: Using automated tools to scan the source code for vulnerabilities.
  • Dynamic analysis: Executing the system or application and monitoring its behavior for vulnerabilities
  • Configuration review: Reviewing the system’s configuration files to identify any insecure settings.

Advantages of white box testing

White box testing is an essential tool for improving the security of systems and applications, particularly ones that handle sensitive data or that are critical to the operation of an organization.

White box testing brings several advantages, such as:

  • Offering more comprehensive testing, allowing testers to identify a wider range of vulnerabilities such as design flaws and implementation errors.
  • More accurate results as the penetration tester has a better understanding of the system or application being tested.
  • Identifying and fixing vulnerabilities more quickly than black box testing because the tester can provide more specific information to the development team.

Disadvantages of white box testing

White box testing can be time-consuming, especially for large and complex systems, and is limited to the scope of the application being tested

What is gray box testing?

As you can probably guess from its name, gray box testing is a combination of white box and black box testing. In this method, the tester has some knowledge of the internal structure of the system or application being tested, but not as much as they would in a white box test.

Gray box testing is often used when the penetration tester does not have access to the full source code or design documents, but they do have some knowledge of the system or application’s architecture and functionality. This can be done through things like reviewing public documentation, analyzing the system’s binary code, or talking to the development team.

Imagine that you’re buying a used car. Gray box testing is like taking a used car to a mechanic for inspection. The mechanic can’t see everything inside the car, but they can still identify potential problems by looking at the engine, transmission, and other critical components.

Examples of gray box testing

While white box testing involves a deep dive into the internal workings of a system, gray box testing strikes a balance between transparency and opaqueness. Here are some examples of a gray box testing technique that bridge the gap:

Partial Source Code Review: Testers review a subset of the source code, gaining insights into specific modules or components without full access.

Example: Assessing the security of a web application by reviewing the source code of critical functions or modules, such as authentication or payment processing, without access to the entire codebase.

Limited API Documentation Review: Examining a portion of the API documentation to understand the expected behavior of certain endpoints.

Example: Testing the security of an API by reviewing documentation for specific endpoints that handle sensitive data or critical functionalities. This allows testers to identify potential security gaps without full knowledge of the entire API.

Advantages of gray box testing

Compared to black box testing, gray box testing offers a more comprehensive and in-depth approach as it can identify a wider range of vulnerabilities, because the penetration tester has some knowledge of the system or application’s internal structure.

This knowledge of the system allows testers to prioritize their testing efforts and focus on the most critical areas of the system. As a result, testers can simulate real-world attacks and exploit vulnerabilities in the same way that a malicious attacker would. For example, they could simulate what would happen if a hacker got admin user rights.

Disadvantages of gray box testing

The main disadvantage of gray box testing is that it is not as comprehensive as white box testing as the tester does not have full access to the system or application’s internal structure.

Black box vs. white box vs. gray box testing: which method is right for you?

Choosing the right pen testing method will depend on your specific needs and requirements. If you want to simulate how a real-world attacker would target your system, then black box testing is the best option. If you need to identify a wide range of vulnerabilities, including those that are deep within the system’s code, then you should choose white box testing.

Gray box texting, on the other hand, is a good compromise between the comprehensiveness of white box testing and the efficiency of black box testing.

Looking to improve your cybersecurity with a penetration test? Or want to learn more about the different types of pen tests? Get in touch with a member of the Strypes team here:

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Read an in-depth article on Penetration Testing with Strypes here.

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