Penetration testing isn't, as the name might suggest, an Anne Summers rep hurling a dildo at a giant rubber vagina as a quality control procedure. Nope. It's when a group of experienced parkour runners are hired to break out of a prison to see whether there are any faults in the building's security. In most cases, it turns out, there are.
Security companies that build maximum security prisons, mental facilities and the homes of the paranoid super-wealthy will hire these parkour professionals from Parkour Generations, the only company in the UK to offer this service. Their guys will then be dumped in the middle of the prison and asked to escape by scaling walls and climbing fences. Likewise, they'll be asked to look for weak spots and test whether they can break in.
When the team manage to break out in a matter of minutes, the security company face-palms and goes to work making the place less, well, penetrable.
Parkour Generations also train the military in these techniques, showing soldiers and military police how to get into a "secure" building, how to escape pursuit and how to quickly withdraw from life threatening situations.
I spoke to Dan Edwardes, Managing Director at Parkour Generations. He's not only responsible for figuring out how to break out of these prisons in the first place, but helping to make sure nobody can do it again.
VICE: How many prison tests have you done? And how many have you managed to break in or out of?
Dan Edwardes: Quite a few, though it's still a relatively new practice. It's growing fast, though, as more and more facilities realise that they just haven't been "real-world" tested in this way. We have about an 85 percent success rate in terms of actually entering or exiting a facility despite existing safeguards.
What countries have you done this in?
So far, mainly the UK and USA.
What kind of companies hire you? Is it mainly prisons?
All kinds: penitentiaries, maximum security mental health facilities, commercial buildings, police bodies, military bodies, private sites.
Do companies usually assume you won't be able to overcome their safeguards?
They're usually very surprised at how quickly we can get in or out. Most assume their buildings are impenetrable, and that's because they aren't thinking laterally enough or seeing the architecture in the way that we do.
What's the strangest way you've managed to find out of somewhere?
Most of the ways in or out that we find are fairly strange, which comes out of necessity – the obvious routes are the ones usually protected or made inaccessible. Often it's not the actually facility itself but other architecture or urban furniture nearby that enables access, which is something a lot of facility designers don't have any remit over when they create their designs. Every facility has to be thought about in the context of its location, situation and surrounding terrain.
So a lot of companies hire you, but if you're the only company with the guys trained to do these tests, there must be a lot of places that aren't doing tests. Do you ever see a prison or mental hospital that you think should be made more secure?
Yes! All the time. We're constantly seeing possible routes in and out of supposedly secure facilities. Of course, it's up to every facility to be happy with its own security measures, but we bring an extra element that's very commonly overlooked – the raw physical capacity and ingenuity of a dedicated and motivated human being intent on getting past obstacles in his or her way.
How many people on your team are qualified to carry out these tests?
In the UK we have about six consultants on the team who provide our pen-testing services.
How do you qualify to carry out pen tests?
We have internal training programmes for our tactical department, but most of the consultants have a background in either security, operational work or something similar, along with their parkour expertise.
Your company also provides training on exfiltration and infiltration, right? What does this involve?
This training is a combination of teaching the necessary movement skills and aptitude, including the functional strengths and fitness, along with developing the vision for seeing and knowing routes in or out of a structure or a site. Having one without the other – either physical ability or technical vision – is useless.
So how do you guys get past obstacles? How can somebody see a tall brick wall, for example, as just an obstacle and not a dead end?
Once you know the right technique, combined with suitable momentum, and you can propel yourself very high up a wall, you begin to see it as a "vertical floor" of sorts. Obstacles built as barriers then become stepping stones to get somewhere else. It's about adaptive movement creating a new perspective to see possibilities.
Can it be dangerous?
To others it may appear dangerous, but that's simply perception – we train for years to be able to move in this way, so any risk is hugely reduced. We're all extremely well trained for this type of work. Plus, our assessment procedures involve surface and material checks, weather conditions, heights, access, etc. Effectively, we're looking to make sure our team can perform their task in as safe an environment as possible. Somebody who's breaking out of prison for real probably won't be doing checks like that.
And they probably won't care as much about their safety, either. How do you make sure the tests are realistic?
The physical movement abilities of our team are far beyond the average person under incarceration. To do what we do requires a combination of elite parkour practice and tactical and operational skills. If we can't find a way, it's highly unlikely a prisoner will be able to.
What was the fastest you've ever broken out of somewhere?
One mental health facility, I remember, we escaped from in under 15 seconds, getting from their secure yard to the external car-park in that time. That was a real eye-opener to the clients.