Pentesting is the science, know-how and art of finding security vulnerabilities (penetration vulnerabilities) in software and IT networks. When not done by professional pentesting companies, it’s better known as hacking. The last term may seem a bit harsh, but it’s the best way to describe the processes of identifying weak spots in an information system.
Of course, when not done maliciously, the activity is labeled as ethical hacking and it often happens with the consent of the target. In this guide, we’ll share with you with you the best pentest tools for ethical hacking, for various skill levels and with different applications. Of course, we trust that you’ll use these just for future ethical experiments or for testing the strength of your own security.
But first, let’s begin by clearing up some terms. Then, we’ll focus on understanding the main types of pentest tools and how they work. Finally, we should be able to move on to our top of recommended pentest tools.
Pentest Tools and Ethical Hacking Tools: Conceptual clarifications
First of all, you should know that there is also a framework for penetration testing known as Pentest Tools. This is a brand name and whenever you’re browsing online forums for cybersecurity discussions, you can tell right away if the participants are discussing pentest tools in general or that specific framework for tests.
In the latter case, they will use capital letters for naming the branded tool framework, so you can’t confuse it. The framework can be used as a quick tool for superficial tests, even by cybersecurity beginners. We will dive into a bit more detail surrounding it in the top of the best pentesting tools below.
Second of all, you should know that you’ll encounter the term ‘VAPT tools’ from time to time as well. The acronym stands for Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing, so VAPT tools are basically the same as pentesting tools.
Last, but not least, you may encounter these tools and methods for IT risk assessment under another name as well. Red team operations basically refer to pentesting, in a nutshell. It’s just that unlike ethical hackers (who test vulnerabilities with the consent of the organization which is about to be tested, or who let the targets know of the results immediately after without seeking to harm them) or professional pentesters (who do this work for a fee), red team operators are working for that organization.
The entire red team concept is actually part of a bigger security and risk assessment strategy, borrowed by organizations from military tradition. The strategy is called red team vs blue team, and it stems from a game which military strategists play in order to develop their risk assessment and strategic thinking.
The game simulations goes like this: while the blue team tries to think of ways in which their security could be breaches and how to fix it before it happens (defensive strategy), while the red team tries to think of ways in which they could penetrate the security of their organization (offensive strategy), as if they are outsiders or enemies. In many cases, this type of exercise can lead to the red team operators discovering vulnerabilities which would have been ignored by the blue team, simply because the human mind works in mysterious ways. Sometimes, putting yourself in the outsider’s shoes does the trick.
The Main Types of Pentest Tools and How They Work
Now that we’ve got the terms involved in pentesting and vulnerability testing tools clear, let’s move on to the main types of such tools, from a technical point of view. How do these tools work? What types of vulnerabilities are they attacking or exploiting and how? Here’s an overview to get you started in learning more about pentesting.
A pentesting tool can target one or more of the following areas of an organization’s IT networks:
- The wireless network (wi-fi);
- The servers for all IT operations and data;
- Its mobile devices like mobile and tablets, especially if connected to wi-fi;
- The network hardware items (like routers);
- The network software security (like firewalls, DNS filtering, anti-virus and so on – or unpatched software);
- The network endpoints (computers or other entrypoints).
There are numerous ways through which hackers can get into your organization’s systems. Some of them don’t require advanced IT security knowledge or tech skills and rely on the human factor instead. Social engineering hacks such as phishing, pretending to be someone else (like IT support scams) and so on are common examples.
In contrast to all that, pentesting techniques rely solely on assessing the technological vulnerabilities of a system. You’ll never find a legit penetration tester claiming to gain access to a system through tricking its employees.
Pentesting tools can be categorized based on what they target (see list above), or on the type of previous knowledge the pentester has. From this point of view, there are 3 main types of pentesting:
- Black box testing
- White box testing
- Grey box testing
As you might have guessed, this color coding for pentesting operations resembles the white hat vs black hat division of hacking. Only in this case it’s not about the ethics, but about the level of transparency that the targeted organization has for the pentester.
Black box testing refers to penetration tests where the tester knows close to nothing about the security layers and defenses of the organization or network they need to target. The pentester is metaphorically in the dark about potential vulnerabilities.
White box testing refers to penetration tests where the pentester knows everything about the security measures take by the target organization. This happens when the tester is hired to test the vulnerabilities or when they are part of the organization’s team (such as the red team operators described above).
Grey box testing is the middle ground between the white and black extremes, when the pentester knows a bit about the IT security systems of the target, but not everything. This can occur either in exercise situations or when the tester has gleamed a bit of info from public knowledge or previous penetration tries.
Based on all these criteria, the main types of pentesting tools you should know about are those designed for white box, black box or grey box testing; or tools designed for testing a particular type of IT security component for vulnerabilities. Needless to say, we recommend all beginners to stick to white box pentesting tools and apply them onto their own organization’s systems. There is much to learn this way about what you can improve.
The Top 15 Pentest Tools You Can Try
Now that the basics are covered, let’s move on to the best 15 pentesting tools we can recommend.
This is the ultimate pentest tool for developers (experienced coders) who are relative beginners when it comes to pentesting. As some of you may know, you can be quite an accomplished software developer but still lag behind as a cybersecurity expert. That’s why so much software issued has flaws!
Jokes aside, a focus on security is important for any developer. The Probebly pentest tool is the perfect instrument for testing your creations for vulnerabilities and for exporting the results in a portfolio-like report. That’s great for showcasing your work and proving to your clients that the products you developed are safe from known types of threats.
Nmap, short for network mapper, is the original prototype of contemporary port scanners. Although port scanning is creating somewhat of a panic whenever mentioned in cybersecurity circles, it’s a completely legal practice when used in an authorized way, of course. For this type of pentesting, Nmap is the ideal tool to use for the initial phase of gathering intel on a network.
When you’re responsible for the security of an entire organization, running a scan of the ports in it is essential for making sure you’re not missing anything. Bear in mind that potential attackers are likely to do the same. That’s why Nmap and similar pentest tools are boon to the industry, when used right.
#3. Burp Suite
Burp Suite is not a free pentest tool, like most others on this list. But since it’s very popular among pros, no top of the best pentest tools can be complete without it. In spite of its high price, it’s widely used for quickly identifying vulnerabilities in web assets. Easy to use and incredibly effective, this pentest tool only needs to be pointed into the right direction.
Metaspoloit is an open source software that helps pentesters secure their systems against exploits. It automates lots of tasks related to framework penetration testing, saving pentesters a lot of time. Everyone tends to love it – if only for the sheer time saving alone – and we agree with them.
Hydra is the worst nightmare of people with weak passwords, as well as sysadmins who don’t limit the number of login attempts. This automated, fast login cracker can help people crack passwords online based on randomly generated combinations. If you already have a list of potential passwords (like hackers nowadays do, because of leaked credentials), Hydra will go even faster.
This is a type of instrument used by hackers in credential stuffing attacks, but it’s also a valuable pentest tool for defenders. It allows security consultants and pentesters to identify vulnerabilities, but also traces of unauthorized access.
#6. Social Engineer Toolkit (SET)
The social engineer toolkit (SET) is great for testing the human side of vulnerabilities in an organization. While many hacks rely strictly on technical know-how and hijacking or brute-forcing an attack, social engineering tactics rely on tricking insiders to do the hackers’ bidding. That’s how phishing emails work, for example.
As developers know, API integrations can be quite a pain to handle, especially for custom websites, projects or apps. The Wallarm tool is popular precisely because it makes secure API integrations easier.
It combines automation techniques with AI (machine learning based) in order to integrate real-time testing into API infrastructures. The speed of the Wallarm pentesting tool is also very praised across pentesting circles.
#8. BeEF (Browser Exploitation Framework)
As the name tells you, the BeEF pentesting tool is designed to test the security of web browsers. It checks for malicious scripts, injected code and more, using client-side attack vectors. The main infrastructure of the BeEF tool is based on the GitHub methodology.
Based on the increasingly popular programming language Python, the Impacket tool is great for both beginner pentesters and for accomplished developers who are aiming to create more secure code. Impacket is technically a collection of classes for showing students step by step how to work with network protocols.
These Python-based classes contain a set of protocols and tools very valuable for any aspiring ethical hacker, programmer or pentester. The software is free and open-source, so have fun experimenting with it!
Luckystricke is a pentesting tool aimed at documents of all kinds. It helps you inject a malicious code into normal document format files in order to check if the security system of your organization is able to detect them or not.
Acunetix is a fully automated web vulnerability scanner which is great for finding web application vulnerabilities. It is even able to detect notoriously hard to spot weak spots, such as XSS and SQL Injection (including all variants). This popular pentesting tool integrates well with other tools or software used by pentesters and includes several manual secondary tools for further testing a web system for exploitable areas.
Powersploit is a package containing several Microsoft Powershell scripts ideal for pentesting systems in a post-exploitation scenario phase. It’s free to download from GitHub and it can even cover some scenarios which take place during exploitation, too.
#13. CME (CrackMapExec)
Rightly nicknamed the Swiss army knife of pentesting tools, CME is a free, open-source project containing several tools for testing a system or an app for vulnerabilities. Like many other good things in the ethical hacking community, it is hosted on Github.
It also contains some of the singular pentesting tools discussed above (like Impacket or Powersploit), so if you want a little bit of everything, the CrackMapExec should be your go-to.
We like OWASP as an open-source suite of tools for ethical hackers; it’s the kind of initiative we need more of. The acronym stands for Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), and it is offered by a non-profit international organization to which anyone can contribute.
So, if you’re on your way of becoming an ethical hacker or pentester, do check out their projects. You will find several useful tools and plenty of security documentation for your future learning and experiments. The OWASP web testing environment project and the Zed Attack Proxy are really good for both developers and beginner pentesters.
#15. Wireshark (former Ethereal)
Wireshark was previously known as Ethereal and was used by pentesters and ethical hackers for capturing pocket info and displaying it into a readable format. Today, the open-source tool has rebranded itself as Wireshark and continues to be very popular among all those dabbling in penetration testing. It analyzes network packets in no time and allows you to view the information scraped through a GUI tool or through the connected TShark Utility tool.
What makes Wireshark popular is especially its real-time capture of packet info, coupled with the ease of interpreting the results. The scraped info can be exported into almost every commonly used format (CSV, XML, Postscript or plain text), and the tool conveniently runs from almost every platform (operating system).
Wrapping it up
Of course, all of these tools are good options for beginner pentesters or developers looking to learn a bit more about the security of their systems or apps. But for average technology users (non-coders), we wouldn’t recommend these tools as a go-to, since understanding the info returned by them requires a more experienced view.
Still, for a quick check-up, some of them can be very useful, just to know that everything is relatively ok. Enjoy your experiments with the pentest tools above and don’t hesitate to drop a line in the comment section below if you want to add another penetration tool we’ve missed or have anything to share.