The Exploitation Phase in Penetration Testing: What Should It Include?

The exploitation phase is the most important step in a penetration test. In this stage, testers take advantage of the security weakness found and try to access sensitive data, high-value accounts, etc. There are many ways to exploit systems, and the tester is tasked with using as many methods as possible. In this blog post, we will discuss what should be included in the exploitation phase and some of the most common techniques used by testers. 

5 Phases of penetration testing

5 Phases of penetration testing
  1. Information gathering - This is the stage when testers gather information about the target organization from various sources. They collect data on the systems and networks that are in scope, as well as the people who work there.
  2. Scanning and Discovery - During this stage, testers use automated tools to search for flaws. They also perform manual scans to look for hidden or exposed systems.
  3. Exploitation - In this stage, testers take advantage of the vulnerabilities they discovered in the previous phase. They use techniques to exploit them and obtain unauthorized access in the test environment.
  4. Post-Exploitation - This is the last stage of a penetration test. Testers continue to exploit systems until they achieve their goals. They also collect data on the target organization and prepare reports for their clients.
  5. Reporting and Remediation - After the pen test is finished, testers report their findings to the client. They also work with the client to fix any vulnerabilities that were exploited during the test.

What is the exploitation phase in penetration testing?

The exploitation phase is the stage where testers take advantage of vulnerabilities to gain access to systems and data. This can be done by exploiting weak passwords, unpatched operating systems, or taking advantage of misconfigurations. Injection vulnerabilities are also commonly exploited during this stage.

What to exploit during this phase?

Exploitation Phase in Penetration Testing: What to exploit?

Exploiting weak passwords

Some systems have weak passwords that can be easily cracked by brute force attacks. Other systems don't require any credentials at all and are wide open to anyone who wants access. You can use tools like hashcat to crack passwords.

Exploiting unpatched operating systems

Operating system patches fix vulnerabilities, but they can also introduce new ones if not properly tested before deployment. Vulnerabilities in operating systems are often found and exploited by attackers. You can use exploits like EternalBlue to take advantage of these vulnerabilities.

Exploiting misconfigurations

Misconfigured systems are easy to exploit because they don't have the correct security settings enabled. Testers can use tools like Nmap to find these systems and then exploit them using techniques like directory traversal attacks.

Injection vulnerabilities

Vulnerabilities that result from injection attacks lets an attacker execute malicious code on the server. These vulnerabilities are often found in web applications, and they can be exploited with techniques like SQL injection or Cross-Site Scripting (XSS).

Post exploitation activities

Once a system has been compromised, the next step is to collect data on it and leave ways to directly access these systems again. You can use tools like Mimikatz or PowerSploit to obtain credentials from the target machine, Powershell Empire to run shell commands remotely, Metasploit Framework to gain access through open ports, etc.

To maintain access to these systems leave backdoors or change passwords to easily access these systems later without having to go through the exploitation phase again.

Testers should be aware of all possible ways they could maintain control over such systems.

What to remember while exploiting?

There are a few things to keep in mind before and during the exploitation phase:

  • Not all exploits work on all systems: Not every exploit will work on every system. Testers need to be familiar with the different types of exploits and how they can be used to gain access to systems.
  • Some exploits are more effective than others: Some exploits are more effective than others, so testers should use the most appropriate one for the situation. For example, if you're exploiting a web application, then it's better to use an XSS exploit instead of an SQL injection one.
  • Some exploits require more setup than others: Some exploits may require additional setup to work properly (e.g., changing firewall rules). Testers should be aware of these requirements before attempting any exploit.
  • Not all vulnerabilities can be exploited: Not every vulnerability can be exploited, so testers need to be familiar with the different types of vulnerabilities and what they can do. For example, some vulnerabilities may only allow an attacker to read data, while others may allow an attacker to execute code on a system.


The exploitation phase is an important part of software penetration testing and should be performed with care. Testers need to be aware of the different ways they can exploit systems and the potential consequences of doing so. By following these guidelines, testers can maximize their chances of successfully exploiting a system.