Advantages and Disadvantages of Manual Penetration Testing vs. Automated Penetration Testing

Penetration testing provides companies with a picture of the successes – or shortcomings – of existing security measures. This image can then be used to tune security programs and proactively scan for vulnerabilities.

While most companies are familiar with and perform manual penetration testing, automated penetration testing has become an option worth considering in recent years.

How does automated penetration testing compare to manual? Is one better than the other? Let’s explore the pros and cons of each.

Advantages and disadvantages of manual pen tests

The main advantages of manual penetration testing are that it provides flexibility and a greater likelihood of discovering and mitigating vulnerabilities within systems under test. Manual penetration testing can detect vulnerabilities and smarter attacks that automated testing can miss, such as blind SQL injection attacks, logic flaws, and access control vulnerabilities. A trained professional can examine an application’s responses to such an attack during a manual penetration test, potentially capturing responses that may seem legitimate to automated software but are, in fact, a problem.

Some penetration tests can also only be performed manually. If a company wants to look at readiness for social engineering, for example, manual pen testing is necessary, especially when vishing testing.

Manual pen tests can also allow for more creativity when finding faults. “A good penetration tester will use their instincts and, based on the results, may choose to test further in an unexpected direction,” said Jon Oltsik, analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, a division of TechTarget.

Another benefit of manual pen testing is having an expert on hand to review the reports. Although automated penetration testing tools also generate reports, security analysts still need to investigate and resolve many detected issues.

The main disadvantages of manual pen testing are cost and time. Depending on how rigorous a penetration test is, it can take weeks to get results, which isn’t always ideal, especially if major vulnerabilities exist.

Manual penetration testing can also be expensive, which is why many companies only do it to meet regulatory and compliance requirements. Where companies cannot afford an in-house red team or pen testing team, third party service providers are used for testing needs – another cost.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Automated Penetration Testing

Penetration testing is complicated and expensive, so many companies test infrequently. The benefits of cheaper and easier access to testing through automation could change that.

“There’s an appetite among organizations to do more frequent testing,” said Mitchell Schneider, analyst at Gartner. “One of the benefits we have seen with automated penetration testing tools is the increased frequency of testing. Companies want to address relevant risks and threats in a timely manner rather than having to wait for a test is scheduled.”

Frequent automated pen testing also helps companies assess their entire IT systems, which may be updated – for example, during rapid release cycles – more often than testing occurs. “You need something automated to really get a view of the environment,” said Forrester Research analyst Jeff Pollard.

Another benefit of automated penetration testing is that it frees up time for security analysts to focus their attention on other tasks that may be put on hold during testing periods. Automation can also handle repetitive tasks that are not necessarily complicated but time-consuming for humans to complete.

One of the potential drawbacks of automated penetration testing is that analysts still view it as an emerging market. “Autonomous automated tools have evolved over the past few years,” Oltsik said. “It’s an innovative and growing market as venture capital investment continues.”

Another disadvantage of automation is that test results depend on the quality of the penetration tool itself, as well as the knowledge of the person using it. “The baggage of automated testing is people,” Oltsik said. “Software is only as good as your knowledge base. You have to program certain tactics and techniques for vulnerabilities.” If the developer of the penetration testing software hasn’t done their job well, for example, the automated penetration test is flawed and could miss critical issues.

Some also worry that automated tools will replace human pen testers, but Oltsik said that’s not necessarily the case. “It’s possible that these tests will get so good that you only need supervisors and auditors to manage the automated tests,” he said. “But I don’t see that anytime in the near future.”

Moreover, automated penetration tests remain limited in their functions and cannot be deployed for all test scenarios. Penetration testing of wireless networks, web applications, and social engineering, for example, are not supported by most tools.

Combine manual and automated pen testing

When it comes to choosing a manual or automated penetration test, it’s often not a matter of choosing between one or the other. On the contrary, automated pen testing tools should augment manual pen testing efforts.

Automated pen testing tools won’t fully work for all types of pen testing, Schneider said. “And, at least for the next few years, they will never completely replace a pen tester or a red team,” he added.

Another option that automation has also enabled is Penetration Testing as a Service (PTaaS). Some services are already available from vendors such as NetSPI, Cobalt, and Pentest People. PTaaS offerings are a mix of manual and automated penetration testing that makes it easier for organizations to address specific penetration testing needs, such as compliance or regulatory requirements.

About Irene J. O'Donnell

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