The Ins and Outs of Physical Penetration Testing - and a little adventure story.

Unveiling the power of physical penetration testing in protecting against physical security threats.
Flip Vermeersch
8 min

Introduction: The Unseen Gap in Security – The 'Phygital' Threat

In today's world, cybersecurity dominates headlines and boardroom discussions – and for good reason. As our lives and businesses become increasingly digital, the threats in cyberspace grow more sophisticated and pervasive. Companies invest heavily in firewalls, encryption, and secure software solutions to protect their digital assets. But what happens when the threat walks through the front door? Imagine someone simply strolling into a server room or gaining access to critical infrastructure. The truth is, while we shore up our digital defenses, physical security can become the overlooked backdoor for enterprising attackers.

This is where the concept of "phygital" attacks comes into play, blending the physical and digital realms into a hybrid form of security breach. These attacks don't just aim to infiltrate your digital firewalls; they start by penetrating your physical space. Picture a USB drive left in the mailroom or a seemingly benign package arriving at reception. These devices, once brought onto the premises, can become trojan horses, bridging the gap between the outside world and your internal networks. They may look harmless, but once connected, they can unleash malware that creeps silently through your systems, seeking to exfiltrate or compromise critical data. Read more about "Phygital" attacks.

The reality of these phygital attacks presents a clear message: in the modern age of security, ignoring the physical aspects can be a perilous oversight. As we bolster our cybersecurity strategies, let's not forget the doors we must keep locked, the packages we must scrutinize, and the importance of a vigilant, comprehensive approach to protecting our enterprises from all angles. 

This is why in our discussion today, we will delve into one of the most useful tools in your security arsenal: physical penetration testing.

I. Understanding Physical Penetration Testing

Physical penetration testing is when experts check how well a company's physical security—like locks, fences, and cameras—can keep out intruders. It's a big part of keeping a place safe because it tests what could happen if someone tried to break in. This kind of testing helps find weak spots so they can be fixed before they cause real problems.

In this type of test, a professional called a physical pen tester tries to get past security without actually breaking anything. They check if they can get into places they shouldn’t, like offices with important papers or computer rooms with sensitive data. They’re looking to see if a real intruder could get in, what they could steal or mess up, and if workers would notice someone they don’t know.

A physical pen test asks questions like: How easy is it for someone to sneak into my company? Do I need better locks or cameras? What private information could a thief get to? What if they got into where we keep all our computers? Would someone walking around without a badge get stopped?

Pen testing is a safe way to see if a building or area is easy to break into. It's like a practice run to find problems with how a place is kept safe. The results are really helpful. They remind everyone to stay alert and tell you if you need to make your security better.

II. Tools of the Trade: Physical Penetration Testing Tools

Physical penetration testing tools are essential for the security professional aiming to uncover vulnerabilities in a company's defenses. These tools range from lock pick sets that test the resilience of physical locks to RFID cloners that challenge electronic access controls. Bypass tools are also crucial, as they can help reveal gaps in security that might not be obvious at first glance.

Advancements in these tools are continual, with newer models and methods being developed to stay ahead of the sophisticated tactics used by real-world intruders. As security technology evolves, so do the tools designed to test and ensure their effectiveness.

An example of a physical penetration test is tailgating, where the tester follows an authorized person into a secure area without being noticed. This type of test checks how attentive security staff are and if employees will challenge or report the presence of an unfamiliar face.

Another common test involves the use of an RFID cloner, which can copy the signals from access badges and cards, allowing testers to see if they can gain entry to restricted areas using cloned credentials. Just buy a RFID cloner on Amazon and you are good to go. Read our article on the flaws of RFID badges.

How useful is your cyber security if an intruder can just break in?

Lock bypassing is also a critical test. It evaluates not just the strength of the locks themselves but also the awareness of security personnel and other employees. Can someone tamper with a lock without being challenged or caught?

Each of these tests plays a vital role in a comprehensive physical security program, ensuring that all physical barriers perform as expected and that the organization is prepared for various intrusion scenarios. The goal of using these tools is not just to find weaknesses but also to educate and improve security measures, making it harder for actual attackers to compromise the physical integrity of a facility.

III The Little Adventure: How easy we’ve got into the server room

In the realm of security, there's a saying that sometimes you have to see it to believe it. That's where companies specializing in physical penetration tests come in, employing a range of advanced techniques to challenge and ultimately strengthen an organization's defenses. While these services are crucial, the harsh reality is that many organizations have vulnerabilities that don't always require a professional to exploit.

Enter a bunch of amateur pen testers: the NineID squad, a team primarily known for their expertise in software and hardware. They took on the challenge of penetrating the server room of a partner who asked us to prove they had vulnerabilities. NineID accepted the challenge.

Using a blend of RFID cloning and social engineering, the NineID team managed to navigate through the security protocols that were in place. The demonstration was eye-opening and was documented for the client to see firsthand. The video they provided wasn't just a proof of concept; it was a stark revelation of the ease with which their server room—and all the critical information it contained—could be accessed… by a goofy bunch of amateurs.

IV  The bigger Picture: Physical Security 

This raises an important question: if a team like NineID, whose primary focus isn't security testing, can access such sensitive areas, what about trained professionals whose sole purpose is to find and exploit these weaknesses? This incident serves as a stark reminder that investing in solid physical security measures and frequently testing these measures are essential practices for any organization.

According to a recent Gartner forecast, global spending on security and risk management is set to rise significantly, reaching $215 billion in 2024. This substantial financial commitment indicates a growing recognition of the importance of security in today's business landscape.

However, throwing money at the problem isn't enough. A fundamental shift in mentality is required. Physical penetration testing is just one piece of the puzzle. It's a critical audit step that helps identify current vulnerabilities. Based on these assessments, organizations should implement a variety of solutions such as training, software upgrades, hardware reinforcement, and awareness campaigns, all tailored to the specific risks uncovered during the testing phase.

It's clear that to safeguard against threats, organizations need more than just technological solutions; they need to cultivate a culture of security. This includes recognizing the value of penetration testing and understanding that it's an investment in the company's continued safety, not an expendable cost. With the right mindset and the appropriate tools, businesses can not only protect themselves against current threats but also prepare for the challenges of tomorrow.

V. Conclusion: The Vital Role of Physical Pen Testing

The vital role of physical penetration testing in protecting an organization's assets cannot be overstated. It is an indispensable tool that assesses the strength of our defenses in the physical realm, complementing the digital safeguards already in place. As our reliance on technology grows, so too does the necessity for a security strategy that bridges both digital and physical gaps. This holistic approach ensures that every potential point of vulnerability is accounted for and fortified.

The continuous evolution of threats requires that our security measures evolve in tandem. Regular and rigorous physical penetration testing is critical, serving not only to identify weaknesses but also as practice drills for our response teams. This cycle of testing and improvement is the heartbeat of effective security protocols, ensuring that with each test, our systems grow more robust and our teams more adept.

In recognition of the importance of staying ahead in this ever-changing security landscape, we must remain both vigilant and proactive. Let this be a call to action for all: to maintain the safety and privacy we value, we must invest in comprehensive security measures that are continuously updated, tested, and refined. This approach aligns perfectly with the concept explored in our article "Innovation and Physical Security: Partners or Antipoles?" where we delve into how innovation plays a crucial role in enhancing and evolving physical security measures, ensuring they remain effective in the face of new challenges.

Stay secure, stay vigilant, and let us all contribute to a culture of persistent security awareness.

Flip Vermeersch

Head of Marketing

About the author:

"Don't shoot the messenger!" While Flip might not claim to be an expert himself, he's the bridge between you and the industry's best minds. He dives deep, chatting with specialists to bring you the freshest insights on everything from biometrics to business continuity. He deciphers the complex, making it relatable and digestible. Beyond insights, Flip's also the voice behind NineID's updates. Always eager for a chat, he's open to collaborative content ventures. If you're keen on the latest in security or teaming up, Flip's your guy.