Automated penetration testing is a type of security assessment that leverages specialist tools to uncover vulnerabilities.
While it can serve as part of a security strategy, it also presents some challenges. In this blog post, we outline what automated pen testing is and compare its key benefits and risks with those of manual pen testing.
What is automated penetration testing?
Automated pen testing is a process in which vulnerabilities in a system’s security architecture are detected using integrated pen testing tools. It is the result of ongoing developments in machine learning and is more advanced and efficient than vulnerability scanning, which examines computer networks to identify security weaknesses that can leave organisations exposed to cyber threats.
Automated penetration testing quickly detects known software flaws, such as a server with missing security patches or a device with unintended exposure to the internet. It involves the use of tools that are also utilised by pen testers as part of manual pen testing. These resources are sometimes referred to as automated pen testing tools.
Automated pen testing plays an important role in cybersecurity validation—a systemic approach through which organisations continuously refine their security optimisation priorities through controlled simulation, response validation and process enhancement.
“In layperson’s terms, the classic example is this: a vulnerability assessment rattles the doorknob to see if the room is unlocked.
A penetration test uses the unlocked doors to enter the room, thus demonstrating an attacker’s ability to successfully break in.
Naturally, this is guided by the client and is done in an authorised and controlled way.”
Automated pen testing vs manual pen testing
While automated penetration testing leverages the power of tools to quickly look for flaws, manual penetration testing involves planning, execution and analysis by an expert and accredited practitioner. As a result, automated pen testing is much faster and often significantly less costly than manual pen testing. Automated pen testing is highly efficient and allows businesses to gain valuable insights at a relatively low cost. However, manual pen testing provides a more thorough assessment of a company’s security infrastructure and is undertaken by experienced security specialists. It can also identify sophisticated vulnerabilities and attacks that automated tests may not find, such as security issues that arise due to errors in business logic.
Manual pen testing also allows for greater creativity as it is human-led. This means that testers can respond to what they find and follow their instincts to test in a specific direction. This type of penetration test usually concludes with a custom report and debrief written by the testers, again providing a high level of insight into vulnerabilities, their potential impact and how to mitigate them. Human-led pen testing approaches play an important role in red teaming, a process in which ethical hackers simulate the conditions of a cyberattack by harnessing the same tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) used by threat actors. This helps to ensure that engagements are as realistic as possible to comprehensively assess the effectiveness of an organisation’s security posture against specific attack types and threat actor groups.
Organisations may undermine their security efforts by looking at automated pen testing and manual pen testing as completely separate forms of assessments. The most effective approach to pen testing involves a combination of the two, with automated pen testing tools used to enhance and support the human-driven process completed by ethical hackers. Businesses should also be cautious about their expectations of automated pen testing used on its own. While it is a valuable resource, it does not necessarily provide the depth of analysis and insight required in today’s highly complex threat landscape.
Does automated pen testing offer enough protection?
As highlighted above, despite its advantages, automated pen testing alone cannot provide the full range of insight organisations need in order to achieve a truly mature level of security. Although automated penetration testing can help to protect businesses against many types of security threats, it does not offer the same level of analysis as human-led manual penetration testing. Manual pen testing ensures a deeper level of insight and a broader view of different types of threats.
Another issue that may limit the level of protection provided by automated pen testing is compatibility. Businesses may find that some automated penetration testing tools they want to use are not compatible with their operating system or other software. This is another important reason to combine automated pen testing and human-led assessments for a more comprehensive approach.
Does automated pen testing provide effective reporting?
The reports provided at the conclusion of a pen test are a key consideration for businesses looking to choose a vendor. This isn’t surprising, considering that a report can provide vital insight into the security status of a company and guidance on the next steps it should take to mitigate any issues identified. Reporting can also be valuable for supporting faster and more streamlined regulatory compliance.
While automated outputs are generated in the course of an automated pen test, they will probably only provide limited information on the identified threats and minimal insight into ease of exploitation or genuine business risk. This means that input from an experienced security specialist is still essential. While automated pen testing can help to drive down costs, this choice can be a false economy if the right level of technical insight isn’t provided as a result of the assessment process. Again, more security gains can be achieved through pentesting undertaken by experienced ethical hackers and incorporating the use of automated pen testing tools.
Going beyond automated pen testing
While automated penetration testing enables companies to test for security flaws more quickly and frequently, it only provides limited insights. This is why it should serve as just one aspect of a comprehensive security testing program undertaken by ethical hackers. Businesses need to look at the full range of assessments available to ensure that they achieve a truly comprehensive level of security.
Better still, they should ensure that their choice of assessment is defined by not only speed, cost or convenience but also the breadth and depth of security insight provided and how this will enhance their cybersecurity status. A good provider will ensure that this is delivered by manual pen testers using the most advanced tools available, including automated pen testing.
Examples of other types of penetration testing solutions include:
This type of manual penetration test helps businesses identify exposures across on-premises and cloud environments.
Custom cloud security assessments help to protect companies’ cloud services and applications by uncovering and mitigating vulnerabilities that could leave critical assets exposed.
Assessing the security of proprietary and third-party web applications in line with OWASP Top Ten risks.
Mobile application assessments based on the most up-to-date development frameworks and security testing tools can help to identify and address vulnerabilities that could lead to assets and data being compromised.
Wireless pen testing assesses wireless local area networks (WLANs) and the use of associated wireless protocols and technologies to identify and address vulnerabilities that could lead to unauthorised network access and data leakage.
While it is important to understand the different types of penetration tests available, it is also vital to assess potential pen test providers to ensure you select the most appropriate one for your organisation’s needs. A good pen test provider should be able to provide guidance on the type, methodology and scope best suited to your particular requirements.
How Kroll can help
As a CREST-certified company, Kroll performs testing to the highest technical, legal and ethical standards. All our award-winning pen test services include complete post-test care, actionable outputs, prioritised remediation guidance and strategic security advice to help you make immediate and long-term improvements to your cybersecurity posture.
To learn more about how to achieve the best results from penetration testing and how our services can support your security needs, feel free to schedule a quick, obligation-free call with our experts. We can tell you more about what’s involved and the techniques we use, as well as advise on how to achieve the best value from pen testing.