18 October, 2022
Manual Pentesting Versus Automated Pentesting Explained
Penetration tests help organizations effectively assess their security posture against evolving security threats.
There are two types of pentesting approaches: manual pen testing and automated pen testing. Each approach has different attributes that can help or hinder the desired outcome of a Penetration Test for organizations, which could impact their ability to reach their security goals. When considering manual penetration tests versus automated pentest solutions, it’s important to begin by assessing the requirements and the goals of the tests. While manual pentesting may seem more expensive at the outset, manual pentests are more detailed and comprehensive, and less prone to false positive findings than automated tests.
Organizations often hire third-party security vendors to conduct penetration testing exercises. This can have multiple benefits. A third-party vendor will have a dedicated team of security experts with extensive experience. Furthermore, they are in a better position to replicate the methodologies adopted by hackers. Human-led engagements validate their findings with evidence-based artifacts and provide customized remediation guidance to help patch vulnerabilities in IT assets. This type of manual, human-led exercise helps you meet your penetration testing goals faster.
When compared to the automated testing solutions in the marketplace today, expert-run engagements have a significant advantage over automated solutions. Read on for the advantages of pentesting with human-led or automated pentesting. Each approach has different attributes that security leaders need to consider for their offensive security strategy and compliance requirements.
What is pentesting?
Even though “penetration testing” is sometimes seen written out as “pen testing,” the cybersecurity industry defines “pentesting” as one word.
Pentesting is an authorized and simulated attack on IT systems, web applications, network devices, or other IT assets that test the efficiency of security controls deployed by a company. Pentesting exercises are not only limited to hardware alone; they also cover software and applications. Why do organizations conduct pentesting? The reason for a penetration testing strategy is analogous to the age-old saying “prevention is better than cure.” Whether it’s security testing or meeting a regulatory requirement, remediation of a vulnerability discovered during a pentest reduces the likelihood that a threat actor will exploit that vulnerability to breach the network.
According to OWASP, there are six phases of a penetration test:
- Planning and Investigation
- Exploitation / Unintended Access
- Permanent State of Access
These phases allow for the pentesting hypothesis, data collection, and final analysis to be conducted with a documented pentesting methodology. Once successfully completed, organizations can use their certified pentest findings and remediation activities to address security gaps, reach compliance requirements, and streamline audit-readiness.
Possible approaches to penetration testing
There can be two possible types of approaches: manual pen testing and automated pen testing. Each approach has different attributes that are discussed subsequently. One must understand that while manual penetration tests cost more and take time, they are more detailed, extensive, and multi-faceted than automated testing.
What is manual penetration testing?
Manual penetration tests are conducted by penetration testers (or the pentesting team). A penetration testing team uses various tools and techniques to detect security flaws in the target systems. They go beyond using existing tools and techniques and apply human intelligence and experience to enhance the level of their attacks. These insights also form a crucial part of their penetration testing report, which is delivered after the testing exercise is completed.
Manual penetration tests start with an initial test plan that documents available information, like Phase 1 of the methodology suggested by OWASP. The pentesting team performs different scans to gather information, such as software, hardware details, database version, etc., along with third-party software and plugins.
In the second phase, a vulnerability assessment is conducted to identify potential vulnerabilities in the target system that can be exploited in the next phase. This exploitation requires the manual application of techniques combined with human intelligence to take advantage of existing security flaws. After the successful exploitation, the pentesting team may try to achieve a permanent state of access.
In the reporting phase, the pentesting team prepares a detailed report that lists vulnerabilities and loopholes and how they were exploited. Depending on the intended audience of the testing report, the level of technical details may vary. For example, a pentesting report meant for the top management may focus on high-level risk management and security outcomes, versus extensive step-by-step details of how the pentesting team operated.
Is manual penetration testing beneficial?
There are five primary reasons why manual pen testing yields superior outcomes when compared to automated penetration tests.
- Human expertise: Manual penetration tests are conducted by security experts with in-depth industry experience and technical know-how. They can adjust the testing methodology as per your organization’s structure. This results in optimal findings with efficient remediation measures down the line when compared to an automated report that may contain false positives.
- Human validation of findings: In a manual pentest exercise, the testing team validates their findings during the process as everything is done manually; each step can be documented and double-checked. However, in automated tests, this transparency is not available, and results can be tough to verify. The findings from pure automated pentests may contain false positives that analysts must verify before remediation can occur.
- Customized Pentest Engagements: Manual testing allows customizations based on threats your organization is more likely to face. While the efforts required by the testing team increase substantially, a thorough inspection is conducted in manual pen testing.
- Manual Detection of Logical Flaws: Automated tests fail to identify logical flaws in applications. While not every logical flaw is a vulnerability, manual tests can identify broken structures within your applications.
- Improve Mean Time to Remediate (MTTR): The remediation process becomes more effective when a test is customized for your organization’s structure, compliance requirements, and external and internal environments. Organizations can realize their return on investment by significantly reducing their overall mean time to remediate as they eliminate vulnerabilities discovered in manual pen testing.
Limitations of automated penetration testing
Automated penetration testing may look attractive from a cost point of view, but when considering the multiple limitations, the cost benefits pale in comparison.
Automated penetration tests lack the precision and accuracy of manual pen tests. For example, an automated pentest can only evaluate for instances it has been designed to test. Another concern with automated tests is the number of false positives. When the volume of false positives starts to require significant additional time for verification, eventually, the trustworthiness of the pentest decreases. Automated pentests are generic in nature; hence, they also lack detailed information about vulnerabilities and exploitation that manual tests can offer. Moreover, automated penetration tests do not have the same level of acceptance as manual pen tests in the market.
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