As with any type of review, whether internal or for hire, communication between the testing team and the stakeholders is of paramount importance. All facets of communication need to be evaluated and decided upon prior to the pen testing engagement, such as:

  • The communication path, or chain of command. In a pen testing situation, it's equally as important to ensure that the right people are informed as to what information should be shared. For instance, the organization might not want all staff to know when a pen test is occurring, particularly if they want to check on the effectiveness of using social engineering tactics to penetrate a network. The client IT manager and CIO/CISO should be aware of the engagement. Additionally, some key department managers should also be aware in case unforeseen incidents might affect their departments.
  • Communication with client counterparts. The designated lead of the pen testing team should have close communication with their client counterpart (typically the IT manager). To reduce possible confusion, all communication between the pen testing team and the client should go through this point of contact. The two lead roles must both be hands-on. This allows for immediate response in case of incidents, unexpected discoveries, additional client requests, or anything else that might lead to extended time or scope creep.
  • Communication within the pen testing team. The pen testing team should have internal communication protocols as well. For example, sub-teams working on specific tasks should apprise the lead of their progress. They should inform the lead immediately of unexpected findings, such as evidence of prior security breaches or if they discover current hacking activity. The lead will then contact their client counterpart to discuss what should be done.
  • What information to communicate, and when. What should trigger official communications? Describe any standard process stages, such as the planning and reporting stages, that require meetings to be held. Also describe the actual deliverables, such as status and interim reports, as well as the final report to be provided. What about "show stoppers" or other critical findings? The pen test team must be able to prioritize findings as they occur and identify findings that are urgent enough to trigger special communications. When a pen tester encounters evidence of a compromised system, should the Incident Response Team be notified to ensure that the organization is aware of the attack? If the evidence appears to be "fresh," the pen test might need to be suspended until the security breach is handled. If it is historical, the pen test team should log the discovery and continue with the task at hand.
  • Regular progress briefings within the team. If different members of the pen test team are conducting simultaneous attacks, there should be internal coordination to ensure team members are not accidentally interfering with each other. The lead might opt to have daily "scrum" type meetings, in which each member describes what they did yesterday, what they will do today, and identify anything blocking their efforts. The lead or project manager can then allocate resources or request conflicting activities to be temporarily suspended.
  • Regular progress briefings with the client. If the pen test will take more than a few days, the client might want regular progress updates. This can be done weekly or as deemed necessary. Keep in mind that "the client" is probably not just one person but could be several managers who need to remain in the communications loop. The client may request that these managers each directly receive a copy of status updates, or they may request that reports are given to only one representative, who will internally distribute copies. Typically, the final report is given to a single party as part of a formal handoff. In some cases, certain findings may be too sensitive to share with all on the approved recipients list. However, this is more likely to be the exception rather than the rule. Having a clear communication path will ensure that all relevant parties receive reports in a timely manner. Emergencies would be handled separately, though ongoing issues such as client interference, delays, or other problems should be raised at status meetings.
  • Clear identification of the reasoning behind communication activities. Consider how a situation might need to be addressed if the pen test attempt is detected. It is possible that several testers might focus their efforts on a key system at the same time, thus making the breach debilitating or quite obvious. In such a case, the testing team might need to work together to scale back on their efforts to de-escalate the effects of the test. Providing situational awareness to key client personnel can also help deconflict the breach, enabling the pen test to continue so that additional issues can be found, exploited, and analyzed.
  • Possible adjustments to the engagement. The nature of a pen test is that it is a fluid process. Information that is discovered during the reconnaissance phase drives the decisions on what exploits to try and, ultimately, what solutions to propose. Awareness of the need for contingency planning for the pen test engagement itself enables you to incorporate it into your plans and to re-prioritize the goals of one activity or large sections of the pen test.
  • Disclosure of findings. It is incumbent upon a company to fully disclose vulnerabilities and breaches to their customers, suppliers, regulators, or members of the public who may be harmed by the breach. If you, the pen tester, were paid to help discover those vulnerabilities and breaches, any findings should be strictly confidential for both legal and ethical reasons. An exception to this could be if you uncovered criminal conduct, in which case you might be obligated to notify law enforcement. If a question arises regarding disclosure of findings, even if disclosure would be for the general public good, it is not the pen tester's job to make that decision. You should consult with your team's legal counsel in such cases.