In our last whistleblower article, we showed that the vast majority of Penetration Testing vendors don’t actually sell Penetration Tests. We did this by deconstructing pricing methodologies and combining the results with common sense. We’re about to do the same thing to the industry average Penetration Testing proposal. Only this time we’re not just going to be critical of the vendors, we’re also going to be critical of the buyers.
A proposal is a written offer from seller to buyer that defines what services or products are being sold. When you take your car to the dealer, the dealer gives you a quote for work (the proposal). That proposal always contains an itemized list for parts and labor as well as details on what work needs to be done. That is the right way to build a service-based proposal.

The industry average Network Penetration Testing proposal fails to define the services being offered. Remember, the word ‘define’ means the exact meaning of something. When we read a network penetration testing proposal and we have to ask ourselves “so what is this vendor going to do for us?” then the proposal has clearly failed to define services.

For example, just recently we reviewed a proposal that talked about “Ethos” and offered optional services called “External Validation” and “External Quarterlies” but completely failed to explain what “External Validation” and “External Quarterlies” were. We also don’t really care about “Ethos” because it has nothing to do with the business offering. Moreover, this same proposal absolutely failed to define methodology and did not provide any insight into how testing would be done. The pricing section was simply a single line item with a dollar value, it wasn’t itemized. Sure the document promised to provide Penetration Testing services, but that’s all it really said (sort of).

This is problematic because Penetration Testing is a massively dynamic service that contains a potentially infinite amount of techniques (attacks and tests) for penetration attempts. Some of those techniques are higher threat than others; some are even higher risk than others. If a proposal doesn’t define the tests that will be done, how they will be done, what the risks are, etc.,  then the vendor is free to do whatever they want and call it a day. Most commonly this means doing the absolute minimum amount of work while making it look like a lot.

Here’s some food for thought…

Imagine that we are a bulletproof vest Penetration Testing Company. It’s our job to test the effectiveness of bulletproof vests for our customers so that they can guarantee the safety of their buyers. We deliver a proposal to a customer that is the same quality as the average Network Penetration Testing proposal and our customer signs the proposal.

A week later, we receive a shipment of vests for testing. We hang those vests on dummies made up of ballistics gel in our firing range. We then take our powerful squirt guns, stand ten feet down range and squirt away. After the test is complete, we evaluate the vests and determine that they were not penetrated and so passed the Penetration Test. Our customer hears the great news and begins selling the vest on the open market.

In the scenario above, both parties are to blame. The customer did not do their job because they failed to validate the proposal, to demand clear definitions, to assess the testing methodology, etc. Instead they naively trusted the vendor. The vendor failed to meet their ethical responsibilities because they offered a misleading and dishonest service that would do nothing more than promote a false sense of security. In the end, the cost in damages (loss of life) will be significantly higher than the cost of receiving genuine services. In the end, the customer will suffer as will their own customers.

Unfortunately, this is what is happening with the vast majority of Network Penetration Tests. Vendors are perceived as experts by their customers and are delivering proposals like the ones described above. Customers then naively evaluate proposals assuming that all vendors are created equal and make buying decisions based largely on cost. They receive services (usually not a genuine penetration test), put a check in the box and move onto the next task. In reality, the only thing they’ve bought is a false sense of security.

How do we avoid this?

While we can’t force Network Penetration Testing firms to hold themselves to a higher standard, their customers can. If customers took the time to truly evaluate Network Penetration Testing proposals (or any proposal for that matter) then this problem would be eradicated. The question is do customers really want high quality testing or do they just want a check in the box? In our experience, both types of customers exist but most seem to want a genuine and high-quality service.

Here are a few things that customers can do to hold their Network Penetration Testing vendor to a higher standard.

  • Make sure the engagement is properly scoped (we discussed this in our previous article)
  • Make sure the proposal uses terms that are clearly defined and make sense. For example, we saw a proposal just one week before writing this article that was for “Non-intrusive Network Penetration Testing.” Is it possible to penetrate into something without being intrusive? No.
  • Make sure that the proposal defines terms that are unique to the vendor. For example, the proposal that we mentioned previously talks about “External Quarterlies” but fails to explain what that means. Why are people signing proposals that make them pay for an undefined service? Would you sign it if it had a service called “Goofy Insurance”?
  • Make sure the vendor can explain how they came to the price points that are reflected in the proposal. Ask them to break it down for you and remember to read our first article so that you understand the differences between count based pricing (wrong) and attack surface based pricing (right).
  • (We’ll provide more points in the next article).

As the customer, it is up to you to hold a vendor’s feet to the fire (we expect it). When you purchase poor quality services that are mislabeled as “Penetration Tests” then you are enabling the snake-oil vendors to continue. This is a problem because it confuses those who want to purchase genuine and high-quality services. It makes their job exceedingly difficult and in some cases causes people to lose faith in the Network Penetration Testing industry as a whole.

If you feel that what we’ve posted here is inaccurate and can provide facts to prove the inaccuracy then please let us know. We don’t want to mislead anyone and will happily modify these entries to better reflect the truth.