Although threat actors are constantly utilizing new tradecraft and tools to pose a real threat against organizations, cybersecurity experts — including white hat hackers — stand against these threats with innovative techniques and tools of their own. Penetration testing is one such tool used to find the weaknesses in an organization’s cybersecurity measures. These cyber-attack simulations can either be done by software (automated penetration testing) or by cybersecurity experts known as pentesters (manual penetration testing).
Below, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of manual vs automated penetration testing so you can explore what will be best for strengthening the security posture of your organization.
What Is an Automated Penetration Test?
An automated penetration test is when an automated testing platform is directed toward the targeted infrastructure, networks, or applications of an organization. While different automated pentesting platforms will vary in ability and accuracy, it’s important to note that professional pentesters have zero to limited involvement.
Automated Penetration Testing Process
Once the type of penetration test is determined, the automated process begins. Scanning and testing tools are deployed by artificial intelligence (AI) software to identify vulnerabilities such as unpatched software or security exploits. The findings are automatically organized and compiled into a report.
Pros and Cons of Automated Pentests
Although AI may not be able to react and analyze to the full extent of a skilled pentester, there are some benefits of an automated pentest including:
- It’s a low-cost way to test.
- The testing process is quick.
- It may meet pentesting regulatory requirements depending on the industry.
However, there are some significant drawbacks of automated penetration testing including:
You may not be able to tailor the test to fit your organization’s needs. For example, automated testing isn’t suitable for your organization if you are looking to test your employees against social engineering attacks. Given the recent number of major companies that have fallen victim to social engineering, this could be a serious concern.
It may not accurately represent what a real threat actor could do to your organization. Most automated pentests look for gaps or weaknesses in your security, but they won’t pursue vulnerabilities to gain a stronger foothold in your organization. An effective technique commonly used by threat actors — called pivoting — is when they jump from one compromised system to another until they reach their ultimate goal of exploitation or theft. Automated pentests do not demonstrate how pivoting could be used against your organization.
Could have limitations and report false positives. Since the tools and software have limited abilities, there could be systems, networks, or applications that simply can’t be tested with an automated penetration test. Additionally, there will be false positives — “vulnerabilities” that are not a threat, but that your IT team will still have to address. This could be especially true if your organization has a sophisticated internal structure or company-created applications or products.
What Is a Manual Penetration Test?
For a manual penetration test, an organization hires a team of experienced pentesters who perform a simulated attack to find vulnerabilities that could be exploited by threat actors.
Manual Penetration Testing Process
Since a manual penetration test is run by a team of professionals, the process is usually divided into three phases: pre-attack, attack, and the pentesting report. Each of these phases have their own steps. The overall process typically consists of:
- Identify the organization’s needs.
- Create a pentest framework.
- Introduce the team to the organization.
- Explain the process.
- Hands-on scanning.
- Gaining system access.
- Persistent access.
- Pentesting Report:
- Identified vulnerabilities.
- Projected real-attack consequences.
- Remediation recommendations.
Pros and Cons of Manual Pentesting
Since manual pentesting is the traditional method, pentesters have been honing their techniques and tools for decades. Some benefits of manual penetration testing include:
- A real engagement is possible, unlike with automated pentests.
- No false positives since the team would rule them out.
- The potential for customized testing tailored to your organization’s needs.
- A detailed pentesting report that can help you mitigate vulnerabilities.
The old saying, “You get what you pay for,” is undoubtedly true when it comes to pentesting. Because manual pentests are performed by experienced individuals who are intent on helping your organization through a thorough engagement, you can expect a higher cost than most automated tests. However, having the right cybersecurity budget in place can help you plan for the test.
The actual attack phase of the test may take up to several weeks, but since this is a simulated attack, there will be minimal to zero disruption of your daily operations.
Which Type of Pentest Is Right for Your Organization?
While both cybersecurity pentests can be viable, you just can’t beat pentesters with extensive pentesting knowledge when it comes to protecting your organization. A common practice is to use vulnerability scans paired with vulnerability assessments routinely to catch major pitfalls. Manual penetration testing can then be used quarterly or yearly to check the progress of your remediation strategies and to help prevent data breaches.
Enhanced Cybersecurity Through Pentesting Experts
Manual penetration testing with Kevin Mitnick’s Global Ghost Team is the gauntlet of cybersecurity testing for your organization. When you know how threat actors think and act, you can prevent your organization from becoming their next target. Request pentesting information to begin hardening your cybersecurity.