How Can Penetration Testing Help In SOC 2 Compliance?

February 22, 2023

A pene-what now? When it comes to your SOC-2 compliance, something new seems to pop out of nowhere just when you think you’ve got it all figured out. This time, it’s called a penetration test (or a ‘pen test’ for the tech-savvy), and in the battle against cyber threats and data security, this is something you want on your side. 


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What is a pen test, and how does it fit into the bigger picture? 

Protecting your company against cyber threats often feels like you’re constantly playing the defense. Pen tests, however, put the ball back in your court and allow you to take back control over your security posture. 

For consistent SOC 2 compliance, the main priority is to ensure that you’ve successfully implemented the required controls to meet AICPA’s Trust Service Principles. These five principles of SOC 2 compliance are security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, and privacy. Although SOC 2 allows organizations to choose which TSPs best apply to their business, the security principle is non-optional. 

So, regardless of your specific SOC 2 framework, when it’s time for them to take action, you need to know that they’ll get the job done and protect you from cyber threats. But how could you possibly know whether or not your line of defense is battleworthy if they’ve never had experience in the field? Penetration tests do just that – they provide the ultimate security drill to gauge whether your controls have got what it takes. 

To get more technical, pen testing is a cybersecurity practice often referred to as ‘ethical hacking.’ It is your organization’s way of highlighting your own weaknesses before a cybercriminal can use them against you. In other words, a penetration test will help you understand which vulnerabilities a cybercriminal can exploit and how they would do so. It does this by executing a simulated attack using the same tools, tactics, and procedures that a cybercriminal would use. 

The result will highlight vulnerabilities and their impact on your systems, network, or even your entire organization if (or rather, when) compromised.

Internal vs. external penetration testing

Although penetration testing is one of the more complex methods for cyber defense, a few high-level concepts are relatively easy and essential to understand. The first is that there are two primary pen testing methods that you can leverage for SOC 2 purposes. 

Internal penetration testing:

Internal pen testing, a.k.a “white hat” or “white box” testing, assumes that the attacker already has privileged insider knowledge about your company. This could include employees intentionally or unintentionally releasing sensitive information to unauthorized individuals. This pen test aims to understand how a cybercriminal will move around with internal access to a network and how it could potentially compromise that system. This can be especially useful for monitoring availability during and after an attack.

External network penetration testing:

External pen testing, also known as “black hat” or “black box” testing, begins with the attacker having zero previous knowledge of an organization’s systems and is ideal for testing end-to-end security controls. This type of testing also works well for processing integrity and security. In addition, it tests the effectiveness of your perimeter security controls. It is specifically designed to discover and exploit vulnerabilities in hosts accessible via internet-facing assets such as web, mail, and FTP servers. 

Most companies use a blend of the two to optimize their pen testing to their SOC 2 compliance needs. For example, depending on your specific structure and controls for your chosen TSPs, an external pen test that continues internally could test your security, privacy, confidentiality, and availability in one fell swoop. 

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What are the main goals of penetration testing?

Depending on your organization’s security posture, there are many potential objectives and goals of a penetration test. However, the most common goals include the following; 

  • To confirm a robust organizational security posture
  • To validate the strength of an organization’s security controls
  • To identify any vulnerabilities that could lead to unauthorized access to gain access to or compromise sensitive company or client data. 
  • To identify any areas where intruders can gain control of company operations.
  • To determine an organization’s ability to detect and respond to security breaches and external threats. 

Performing regular pen tests and meeting the above objectives enables companies to monitor and adjust their security controls and posture to mitigate risks and maintain consistent SOC 2 compliance. 

The role of pen tests in SOC 2 audit preparation

One of the most common challenges with SOC 2 compliance is that due to its flexibility, it’s not always entirely clear whether or not a particular practice is required or not. For instance, is penetration testing required to achieve SOC 2 compliance?

Strictly speaking, you’re off the hook regarding pen testing and SOC 2, as it’s not mandatory for SOC 2 compliance. However, 90% of the time, auditors won’t accept not having a pen test completed and so, with that being said, it is mandatory. Although it’s not a required security control, it’s one of the most potent ways your company can analyze and optimize your cyber defenses, hence why it’s almost a given that pen tests are always part of your SOC 2 audit. By utilizing penetration tests, you can identify the real-world impact of vulnerabilities within your infosec systems and software. Depending on your SOC 2 scope, you can further tailor your pen tests to help you overcome common issues without going through a trial-and-error audit. 

Ultimately, a thorough pen test is critical in assessing your systems and products to determine adherence to your SOC 2 requirements. In addition, penetration testing can uncover parts of your security program that aren’t being implemented effectively. 

Streamline (consistent) compliance with Scytale

Although pen tests are needed to ensure the strength of your security and compliance, they can be quite the task. Rather, automate your compliance and streamline your pen test with Scytale and not only rest assured that you’re 100% protected and audit-ready 24/7, but also reap the benefits of simplified pen testing.