Importance of report writing for pen testers

Apr 01, 2024
OffSec

OffSec

Content Team

Pentesters are well known for their technical skill sets, they simulate cyber attacks on computer systems, networks, or applications in a controlled environment. And, their primary goal is to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses to assess the security posture of a target system. Much of the work they do is technical in nature, but in order to help organizations understand and rectify their vulnerabilities before malicious hackers can exploit them, communicating that risk through report writing is nearly as important as finding the risk. 

This is where soft skills like report writing become just as important as their technical skills. 

In this blog post, we’ll address the value of report writing for penetration testers, show examples of reports, highlight some mistakes that are often made, and share the value of a great report to an organization.

Value of report writing for pen testers

Report writing is a medium used by pen testers and cybersecurity professionals to effectively communicate findings, vulnerabilities, and recommendations. Reports are key to ensuring that the organization can take action to improve its security posture. There are five primary reasons report writing is a critical skill for pen testers:

  1. Documentation of findings: A penetration tester must document all identified vulnerabilities, the methods used to exploit them, and the potential impact on the organization. This documentation helps in understanding the risk level and in planning the mitigation strategies.

  2. Communication with different stakeholders: Penetration testers must communicate their findings to a diverse audience, including technical teams, management, and sometimes external stakeholders. Reports need to be clear and concise, providing both technical details and a high-level overview suitable for non-technical readers.

  3. Actionable recommendations: Along with identifying vulnerabilities, penetration testers must provide actionable recommendations for remediation. A well-written report includes prioritized recommendations that guide the organization in addressing the most critical vulnerabilities first.

  4. Compliance and legal requirements: Many organizations are required to conduct regular penetration tests to comply with industry regulations and standards. Detailed reports are necessary to demonstrate compliance and may be scrutinized during audits.

  5. Continuous improvement: Reports also serve as a record for tracking the organization’s security improvements over time. By documenting the findings and remediation efforts, an organization can monitor its progress in strengthening its security posture.

Common report mistakes

Penetration testing reports are critical documents that convey the vulnerabilities and threats an organization faces. However, testers often fall into the trap of overly technical language, which can alienate non-technical stakeholders. It’s vital to strike a balance, providing enough detail to guide the technical team while summarizing the risks and impacts in layman’s terms for broader understanding. This approach ensures that all stakeholders, regardless of their technical background, can grasp the severity of the findings and the necessity for action.

Another common pitfall is the lack of sufficient context or detail about the vulnerabilities. A mere listing of issues without elaborating on their potential business impact leaves stakeholders unable to prioritize and address the most critical threats effectively. It’s essential to elucidate how each vulnerability can realistically affect the organization, thereby enabling a more informed decision-making process for risk management and resource allocation.

Organizational clarity is also paramount. A disorganized report can obscure critical information, making it challenging to navigate and understand. Consistency in presenting the findings, supported by ample evidence like screenshots and logs, lends credibility and aids in the comprehension of the report. Without such evidence, stakeholders might find it difficult to appreciate the severity or veracity of the reported vulnerabilities.

Moreover, a report’s utility is significantly diminished if it lacks prioritization of findings and actionable recommendations. Stakeholders need clear guidance on which vulnerabilities pose the greatest risk and how to remediate them effectively. Failure to provide this direction can lead to suboptimal security measures, with resources possibly squandered on less significant threats.

Finally, inaccuracies or a lack of proofreading can severely undermine a report’s credibility. Misleading information or typographical errors not only detract from the professional quality of the document but can also lead to incorrect assessments of the organization’s security posture. It’s crucial, therefore, to review the report meticulously, ensuring accuracy and consistency to uphold the trust and facilitate the necessary actions to fortify the organization’s cybersecurity defenses.

Tips for report writing

Penetration testers can create reports that not only detail the technical findings but also provide clear, actionable insights that enable businesses to make informed decisions about improving their cybersecurity posture, here are some tips for pen testers who want to get better at report writing: 

Executive summary: Start with a concise executive summary that outlines the key findings, risks, and recommended actions. This allows decision-makers to understand the critical points without needing to delve into the technical details.

Prioritize findings: Rank the vulnerabilities discovered in order of importance based on their potential impact and the likelihood of exploitation. This helps the business prioritize which issues to address first.

Use clear and concise language: Write in plain language and avoid overly technical jargon unless necessary. When technical terms are used, provide clear explanations or definitions to make the report accessible to non-technical readers.

Provide detailed technical information: For the technical team, include detailed descriptions of the vulnerabilities, how they were discovered, proof of concept, and the potential impact on the business. This technical detail is necessary for understanding and remediating the vulnerabilities.

Offer actionable remediation steps: For each vulnerability, provide specific, actionable steps for remediation. This guidance is crucial for the technical team to effectively address the identified issues.

Use visuals where appropriate: Incorporate charts, graphs, and screenshots to illustrate points and make the data more digestible. Visual aids can help to convey complex information more effectively.

Include a risk assessment: Utilize a risk assessment matrix to illustrate the severity and likelihood of each vulnerability. This visual representation helps prioritize the response efforts.

Review and proofread: Ensure the report is free of errors and ambiguities. A well-written, error-free report enhances credibility and understanding.

Follow a standardized format: Use a consistent format for all your reports. This standardization helps the readers to quickly find the information they need and understand the report’s structure.

Include follow-up actions and timelines: Suggest a timeline for re-evaluation or follow-up testing to ensure that the vulnerabilities have been addressed. This can be part of a larger plan for ongoing security assessment and improvement.

The best medium for penetration testing reports

Penetration testers employ various mediums to craft and deliver their reports, each offering distinct advantages and catering to different organizational needs. The choice of medium can significantly affect the report’s accessibility, usability, and impact.

Traditionally, written reports in PDF or Word document format are the most common. These mediums are widely accepted and valued for their structured, static nature, allowing for detailed, formal documentation that can be easily archived and shared. The portability and compatibility of PDFs make them particularly popular, as they preserve the layout and formatting across different devices and platforms, ensuring that the report’s content is consistently presented.

However, as the cybersecurity landscape evolves, there is a growing trend towards more dynamic and interactive reporting methods. Online platforms and dashboard-based reporting tools are gaining traction. These mediums offer real-time, interactive access to the findings, allowing stakeholders to drill down into the details of each vulnerability, view historical trends, and monitor the progress of remediation efforts. This dynamic nature facilitates a more immediate and actionable understanding of the penetration test results.

Some organizations may also utilize presentations or briefings, especially when communicating with executive teams or boards. These mediums are effective for summarizing key findings and recommendations, providing a high-level overview that supports strategic decision-making without delving into technical minutiae.

Determining the “best” medium depends on the specific needs and context of the organization. PDF and Word reports are often considered the best for formal documentation, legal compliance, and archival purposes due to their static and universally accessible nature. However, for ongoing security management and more interactive engagement with the findings, online platforms and dashboards are superior. They provide a dynamic, real-time interface that can enhance the organization’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to identified vulnerabilities.

In conclusion, the optimal medium for penetration testing reports balances the need for detailed, formal documentation with the demand for interactive, actionable insights. The choice should align with the organization’s security goals, compliance requirements, and the intended audience’s preferences, ensuring that the report not only conveys critical information but also facilitates a proactive cybersecurity posture.

Example report template for penetration testers

  1. Title Page
    1. Report title
    2. Company name
    3. Date of the report
  2. Table of Contents
  1. Include page numbers for easy navigation.
  1. Executive Summary
    1. High-level overview of findings
    2. Impact on the business
    3. Key recommendations
  2. Introduction
    1. Purpose of the penetration test
    2. Scope and objectives
    3. Testing period
  3. Methodology
    1. Testing phases
    2. Tools and techniques used
  4. Findings and Analysis
    1. Issue (title/description)
    2. Severity (rating)
    3. Impact analysis
    4. Evidence (screenshots, logs, etc.)
    5. Recommendations
  5. Conclusion
    1. Overall assessment
    2. Suggested next steps
  6. Appendices
    1. Detailed technical information
    2. Glossary of terms
    3. References

 

How organizations use penetration testing reports

Businesses can significantly enhance their cybersecurity posture through the astute use of reports generated by penetration testers. These documents are not merely a list of vulnerabilities; they are a roadmap for fortifying an organization’s defenses against cyber threats. When a penetration tester meticulously outlines the vulnerabilities in an organization’s systems, it offers a clear view of the current security landscape, spotlighting the areas where the business is most susceptible to cyber attacks.

The detailed analysis provided in these reports goes beyond identifying weaknesses; it often includes an assessment of the potential impact of each vulnerability. This enables businesses to prioritize their responses, focusing on the most critical issues that could lead to significant data breaches or financial losses. By addressing the high-risk vulnerabilities first, a company can effectively allocate its resources to mitigate the threats that pose the greatest danger to its operations and reputation.

Moreover, the recommendations section of a penetration testing report is a gold mine for continuous security improvement. These tailored suggestions offer specific steps that can be taken to remedy the identified weaknesses. By following these guidelines, businesses can not only patch existing vulnerabilities but also strengthen their overall security frameworks to ward off future attacks. This proactive approach to cybersecurity is crucial in an ever-evolving threat landscape, where new vulnerabilities and attack vectors constantly emerge.

Additionally, penetration testing reports can serve as a catalyst for broader organizational change. They often highlight systemic issues or the need for enhanced security policies and training. As such, they can drive the development of more robust security protocols and foster a culture of cybersecurity awareness throughout the organization. Regular penetration testing and subsequent reporting create a cycle of continuous improvement, where each round of testing builds on the last, leading to progressively stronger defenses.

In essence, businesses that effectively leverage penetration testing reports can transform their cybersecurity from a reactive stance to a proactive strategy. These reports illuminate the path from vulnerability to fortified security, guiding businesses in safeguarding their assets and ensuring the trust of their clients and partners in an increasingly digital world.

Conclusion

The comprehensive exploration of the value of report writing, common pitfalls, and strategic tips for effective communication underscores the multifaceted nature of penetration testing. It’s not merely about uncovering vulnerabilities; it’s about bridging the gap between technical findings and strategic organizational action.

As organizations continue to navigate the complex cybersecurity landscape, the insights provided by penetration testers will be invaluable. The ability to not only identify but also prioritize and communicate vulnerabilities is what will enable businesses to stay one step ahead of cyber threats. In this context, the art and science of report writing are not just ancillary skills but essential tools in the cybersecurity arsenal.

Ultimately, the effective use of penetration testing reports is what transforms them from mere documents into catalysts for change. They are the foundation upon which secure, resilient organizations are built. In embracing the principles outlined in this blog post, businesses and cybersecurity professionals alike can ensure that they are not just reacting to the digital dangers of today but preparing for the challenges of tomorrow.