Here's why manual penetration testing cannot be replaced by automated scanners  

By 2025, global cybercrime damages are predicted to cost as much as $10.5 trillion a year. Both the complexity as well as the volume of cyberattacks is increasing, and 2021 makes no exception.   

Organizations are more than ever at risk of being successfully targeted by an attack, having data stolen and their systems compromised. Testing applications and systems for vulnerabilities is, therefore, an essential preventative measure that could save them from incurring significant damages and losses.  

Due to the sheer amount of companies that require security services and the lack of enough skilled professionals, automated penetration testing (penetration testing) is one way in which such testing is conducted. Yet, while automated penetration testing has its benefits it frequently cannot provide the degree and depth of testing that a manual penetration test can offer.  

In this blog post, we will examine the differences between automated and manual penetration tests, and the unique value that manual penetration tests have to offer to companies.

What is penetration testing? 

Penetration testing involves planning and launching an authorized attack against a system in order to evaluate the resilience of the cybersecurity controls that are in place to guard it. As a result of such an evaluation, a detailed picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the system can be drawn, and improvements can be planned that would help it to withstand a real-world cyber-attack.   

Penetration tests are conducted by dedicated cybersecurity experts that are trained in launching such offensives. While a real cyber-attack may not be intended to have the maximum possible effect, but only one that is good enough, a penetration test is specifically aimed at testing the limits of a system’s defenses. Typically, the final result of such a test is an official report that documents the experts’ findings and their recommendations for improvement.  

Given the shortages in experts who can conduct such tests, automatic solutions have been developed. These are often presented as “automatic penetration tests”, yet they are more correctly called “automatic vulnerability scanners”. Such scanners are really useful for a number of things but they are not necessarily an adequate substitute of manual penetration tests. 

Automated vs. manual penetration testing  

Automated and manual penetration tests offer different kinds of approaches and results. Automated tools are useful at detecting obvious security vulnerabilities and patterns that can be exploited, both outside as well as inside a network - i.e. external as well as internal vulnerabilities. The purpose of these tools is to spot vulnerabilities but not to offer explanations for their causes. Moreover, as of yet these tools are not capable of abusing the logic of an application and issues that are specific to its functionality.   

As such, these tools cannot discover more subtle vulnerabilities that can be spotted by thinking creatively about how to penetrate a system. For example, scanners cannot plan how different attacks could be combined to exploit a vulnerability that arises only under certain conditions.   

This difference grants cybersecurity experts an advantage when planning and executing a manual attack. Such experts can assess and understand the context and environment of a system, as well as take adjacent components and details into consideration. By manually identifying vulnerabilities and testing them out, a map can be drawn that demonstrates how these can be exploited together in order to lead to a privilege escalation and a breach.  

That said, scanners and manual penetration tests can be combined to offer a more thorough picture of possible vulnerabilities. While scanners can be run on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis to provide you with insight into the status and security of your network, a manual penetration test is necessary to offer you an in-depth picture of the status of your system at that point in time.  

How manual penetration testing adds value to the process 

It is generally accepted that manual penetration testing is a necessary part of any robust security review. Its value lies in the fact that it is specifically tailored and adjusted to the individual needs of every business and their systems. Unlike with a scanner, when planning a test, a business’s specific requirements can be taken into account and a custom approach can be provided.   

To conduct a manual test, experts will delve into the purpose of each asset in your infrastructure. In this way, they can determine the role that it plays and utilize this knowledge to design attacks that will exploit its possible vulnerabilities. I.e. a manual test will be tailored to account for the idiosyncrasies of your system, so as to accurately establish its limits.  

As a result of such a test, you will be able to understand the risks that are posed by your system’s vulnerabilities. This will also highlight the possible losses that such vulnerabilities may pose to your business’s finances, reputation, data, and more.   

Finally, when a manual test is conducted to check the resilience of your systems, your IT team can actively participate and collaborate in the project. This type of test is called a “white-box” test. By providing even more information about their targets to testers, you can aid the assessment process and gain additional insight.  

How Amatas can help you make your systems fail-safe  

Are you looking for a reliable partner to conduct a thorough test of your systems and help you spot possible vulnerabilities? We at Amatas have extensive experience in conducting in-depth vulnerability tests and consulting our clients on how to overcome their system’s weak spots.   

Our cybersecurity testing service approaches the problem from several different directions - we conduct an application security test, a penetration test, and finally also social engineering penetration test. In this way, you will have a 360 degree look at where your system may be exposed and vulnerable.  

Want to know more about how we can help? Get in touch with us and let’s discuss your cybersecurity testing needs!

Ralitsa Kosturska in AMATAS