Revolutionizing Cybersecurity: F12.net’s Journey with Autonomous Penetration Testing

by | Jan 3, 2024 | Customer Stories

How an MSSP Turned NodeZero into a High-Demand Service Offering

Canada’s leading managed security service provider, F12.net delivers reliable and efficient technology solutions to a range of small and medium sized enterprises across Canada. F12’s approach is based on referenceable architectures, elite certifications, and best-inclass cybersecurity. One of the many services that F12 offers is penetration testing. This ethical hacking service helps organizations verify their security approaches, gain valuable cyber risk insight, and demonstrate their security due diligence.

F12.net: Today’s Digital Economy

About F12.net

Year Founded: 1992
Number of Acquisitions: 14
Number of Locations: 11
Geography Served: BC, AB, ONT
Number of Companies Who Have Joined the F12 Family: 14
Number of Employees: 280
Certifications: SOC 2 Type 2 Certified
Ratings: 97% Customer Satisfaction Rating and Award-Winning Support

Underwhelmed with red team exercises

As a large MSSP, F12 regularly undertakes red team exercises to assess its own defenses, and in the past, appointed third-party penetration testers to do the work. Calvin Engen, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at F12 shares: “Every couple of years we would change who we used for our own penetration tests to experience a different skillset. And so, as those years went on, I just felt that we were not getting a very good work product at the end of the day.”

Calvin observed that there were frequent gaps in the reporting, which was often too technical for a business audience, and the cost of the red team exercise was proportionate to the amount of time the pentester spent focusing on a particular device or devices in the network. As their network is quite large, if they were to evaluate everything in their environment, it simply wouldn’t be economically viable.

Wanted visibility across the entire environment

F12.net: Traditional Pentest Limitations

This manual way of validating the environment did uncover issues for F12 to address, but assessment results weren’t always being delivered in a timely fashion and therefore, it was difficult for Calvin and his team to quickly identify issues such as configuration drift in their environment. The team needed to know when a device hadn’t been set up to the correct standards they have, and they wanted to know if their managed detection and response software was working correctly.

These challenges made F12 realize that there must be a better way. Calvin wanted to regularly assess the entire environment rather than pick and choose the ‘golden endpoint’. He wanted to have complete visibility to understand where the risks were so he could measure and determine any gaps.

At the same time, F12 was referring professional services organizations to undertake pentests for its clients. Calvin was now questioning the efficacy of these projects himself and realized he couldn’t continue to recommend this somewhat ineffective approach.

Discovered a critical vulnerability others missed

Through a survey Calvin participated in, he came across Horizon3.ai for the first time. So, he looked them up and immediately thought, “autonomous penetration testing seems like an interesting concept,” and wanted to learn more about NodeZero. He reached out to Horizon3.ai and requested a demo and proof of value.

Calvin continues: “We had just completed our own penetration test and I was super underwhelmed. Our scoring was low and there was nothing critical to report. Then we kicked off NodeZero, did a scan of our environment, and within a few hours we found a system that was not fully configured. As a result, NodeZero was able to compromise it, then move laterally through the environment, and ended up compromising our whole domain.”

Calvin shared that he was quite surprised that NodeZero was able gain domain admin, but sure enough, when they went through and reviewed the results with their internal team, the results were confirmed.

Zero wait time – immediate rescans

F12 quickly fixed the issue, since it was clear what the vulnerability was and how it had happened. NodeZero helped to make short work of knowing where to go to fix the problem. Immediately afterward, F12 was able to rescan and validate that the fix had worked without having to wait for a penetration tester to confirm the issue was resolved. Calvin adds:

“We then rescanned the entire network and we found more issues; a new machine on the network that wasn’t quite ready to go into production and had a vulnerability. We immediately picked this up. Our environment is changing all the time, as we bring new systems online, so to get this level of visibility is fantastic.”

As a result of the experience, F12 recognized that NodeZero was a red team force multiplier, delivering a better way to execute pentests, not only for their own infrastructure, but for their clients as well. Using NodeZero, F12 could upskill its talent, build out their pentesting team, and using data from NodeZero scans, they could surely make their own customers more secure.

Developed a new service offering

F12 made the decision to use NodeZero and offer penetration testing-as-a-service (PTaaS) to their customers. Calvin adds: “When you have a finite amount of time, you focus on the obvious areas that could be compromised, but malicious actors don’t have time limits; they can move slowly and methodically through your environment. This is what we wanted to be able to do for ourselves and our clients, rather than restrict this exercise based upon time and available budget. You simply cannot outpace what NodeZero does.”

With the help of NodeZero, F12 launched a new service to their customers late last year and is now seeing a wave of requests for pentesting. Their clients often need penetration tests to meet a compliance requirement, for cybersecurity liability insurance purposes, or because clients desire to have an assessment performed. The benefit of using NodeZero is that it is not ‘one and done’ effort that just focuses on a part of the network. Instead, NodeZero can be used to evaluate every single asset across a network at a moment’s notice. F12 now has far more visibility than it ever had before, enabling their team to quickly remediate the most exploitable vulnerabilities for both them and their customers.

F12.net: Weekly Pentests

Now, Calvin is a strong advocate for continuous penetration testing delivered as a service rather than undertaking it as a point-in-time exercise. As a result, F12 has made red team exercises part of its own regular routine with weekly pentests, and they can now respond at a much faster pace if issues are discovered. Calvin adds: “I would rather have NodeZero breaching us than some nefarious actor. We are doing more than most to make sure we are keeping our ourselves and clients secure, helping bolster everyone’s defenses as a result.”

Democratizing red team exercises

Calvin acknowledges the market is beginning to realize that continuous assessments using an autonomous penetration testing platform makes a great deal of sense. He says that most clients know they have security issues, but they don’t have the time, prioritization, and/or budget to regularly undertake red team exercises adding: “Even if the market moves to penetration testing-as-a-service, companies must have a solid foundation in place, because if you don’t have basic cyber hygiene, a penetration test won’t help. Organizations must have a well-disciplined methodology to manage vulnerabilities.”

He recognizes that many businesses are on a journey and his advice is to undertake a gap analysis first to determine where best to spend money. That said, he believes penetration testing will become a pre-requisite in the future. Even today, cyber assurance underwriters require certain capabilities to measure risk, as do many third-party vendor contracts. Likewise, legislation such as DORA, NIST 2, and Bill C 26 in Canada, advocate that organizations have the appropriate critical cyber systems in place and regularly assess their cyber and operational resiliency.

“There is a 95% improvement in the cost to value when using NodeZero to assess each device vs. having a human perform something similar. Of course, that would compound exponentially with more IPs in the environment.”

– Calvin Engen, CTO at F12.net

The outcome: Far more visibility than ever before

Calvin goes on to describe what he thinks about the benefits that NodeZero brings, and he agrees that pentesting is not a one-and-done exercise. “Compared to traditional pentesting, organizations do a vulnerability scan of their network, they have a report, and maybe one or two assets in that environment were thoroughly assessed. In comparison, NodeZero can do all of that in a matter of days, or even hours, across every single asset in an organization. The value that you get by doing this activity, and by leveraging NodeZero, is achieving far more visibility into your environment than you ever had before. And through that visibility, you can really break down the items that are most exploitable and solve for those. I also would say that it’s far more economical to do it with NodeZero than it is to use only people.”

What the future holds

Calvin concludes: “Some organizations are complacent and don’t believe they have anything worth stealing, but attacks are about disrupting the business, so you are in enough pain that you pay up. If you rely on your IT systems to conduct business, then the reality is that you must protect your infrastructure. Organizations must layer in defense-in-depth and understand where they are the weakest. In the future, pentesting will become democratized and more economical as autonomous pentesting becomes ubiquitous within every organization. I am not sure how long that will take, but what I can say is this is the way to do it.”

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