Security Audit

Automated Penetration Testing: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated on: May 22, 2024

Automated Penetration Testing: A Comprehensive Guide

Automated penetration testing includes going one step ahead of the vulnerability scan to actually try to exploit the vulnerability using automation. It is more comprehensive than a vulnerability scan but still not a replacement for a penetration test by security experts.

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Compared to traditional penetration tests, which can take weeks, automated tools leverage intelligent algorithms and threat intelligence to assess vulnerability severity, impact, and prioritization within minutes or hours.

As such, before we dive into the significance and benefits of automated pentesting, let’s understand how it differs from the traditional manual pentest.

Automated Pentesting vs. Manual Pentesting

FeatureAutomated Penetration TestingManual Penetration Testing
ExecutionPerformed by software tools using intelligent automationPerformed by skilled security experts
SpeedFaster execution times can scan large systems in 24-48 hoursTime-consuming, the in-depth analysis can take 15-20 business days, depending on the scope
CostGenerally more affordableMore expensive due to skilled labor
Skill Level RequiredCan be run by IT staff as less work is requiredRequires highly skilled penetration testers
Depth of TestingIdentifies common to mid-complex vulnerabilitiesIdentifies complex vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and logical flaws
AccuracyIt may have false positivesMinimal false positives, if any
ScalabilityHighly scalable, can test large and complex systems efficientlyBetter suited for targeted testing than scaling
CustomizationLimited customization optionsHighly customizable based on specific needs and threats
ReportingGenerates automated reportsProvides detailed reports with exploitation steps and recommendations

While automated and manual penetration tests offer distinct advantages and disadvantages, by combining automation’s speed and efficiency with the human expertise of manual testing, you can achieve a holistic security assessment and a robust security posture.

Why Astra is the best in pentesting?

  • We’re the only company that combines automated & manual pentest to create a one-of-a-kind pentest platform
  • Vetted scans ensure zero false positives
  • Our intelligent vulnerability scanner emulates hacker behavior & evolves with every pentest
  • Astra’s scanner helps you shift left by integrating with your CI/CD
  • Our platform helps you uncover, manage & fix vulnerabilities in one place
  • Trusted by the brands you trust like Agora, Spicejet, Muthoot, Dream11, etc.

What are the Key Traits of Automated Pentesting?

Intelligent Orchestration of Vulnerability Scanners: 

Automated pentesting tools go beyond simply running various individual vulnerability scanners. They logically orchestrate multiple tools in a specific order to ensure enhanced coverage, avoid redundancy, and reduce the chance of missing crucial CVEs.

Vulnerability Correlation Across Tools: 

Such automated tools don’t simply present a laundry list of vulnerabilities. They correlate the identified vulnerabilities from different tools to help pinpoint connections and potential attack vectors that individual scanners might miss. 

Thus, by presenting a consolidated view of vulnerabilities, it streamlines the analysis process and refines prioritization.

Mimicking Hacker Behavior Through Automation:  

While not a perfect replacement for human ingenuity, automated tools for pentesting attempt to mimic hacker behavior through pre-programmed exploit scripts and exploit databases. 

As such, they help assess vulnerabilities’ exploitability and better understand their potential impact. Moreover, automating repetitive tasks enables faster identification and, as such, remediation.

Automated Pentest Demo

Automated Pentesting vs Vulnerability Scanning 

Vulnerability scans are a crucial first line of defense in cybersecurity but have limitations. Automated pentesting builds upon the foundation of vulnerability scanning by adding layers of intelligence, analysis, and automation, as explained below. 

FeatureAutomated PentestingVulnerability Scanning
ApproachOrchestrates multiple specialized scansSingle-tool or broad scan
FocusIdentifying known vulnerabilities and potential exploitation chainsIdentifying known vulnerabilities
Analysis of ResultsCorrelates vulnerabilities to understand the potential combined impactLimited context, list of vulnerabilities
Mimicking Attacker BehaviorAttempts to mimic standard attack techniques through automation (scripts, exploits)Limited, focuses on pre-defined checks
StrengthsMore in-depth assessments, prioritize risks, simulate attacker behavior (partially)Fast, cost-effective, identifies a wide range of vulnerabilities
WeaknessesMay not be as thorough as manual pentesting, relies on known exploitsMay miss complex vulnerabilities, limited context for prioritization doesn't consider zero-day attacks
Ideal Use CaseMore comprehensive security assessment, identifying potential attack pathsRegular security checks, initial security assessment

In essence, automated penetration testing provides a more holistic and attacker-centric perspective on the system’s security posture, offering valuable insights beyond a simple list of vulnerabilities.

Why Do You Need Automated Penetration Testing?

Automated penetesting needs

1. Maximize Efficiency and Speed:

Unlike manual testing, automated pentest tools can scan systems and applications in a matter of hours or minutes (depending on the depth of analysis). This allows companies to identify and address vulnerabilities much faster, minimizing the window of opportunity for attackers.

With such tools, repetitive tasks like vulnerability scanning and basic exploit testing can be automated, empowering analysts to focus on complex assessments, exploit chaining, and post-exploitation analysis.

2. Leverage Scalability:

Automated security testing scanners can be configured to run scans regularly, giving scaling companies a more continuous view of their security posture in staging and production, prompting early detection of new CVEs.

It can be integrated into CI/CD pipelines, enabling security analysts to run regular scans after every code change or deployment. Such a proactive approach helps identify and fix vulnerabilities early in the development lifecycle.

3. Maintain Consistency:

Automated tools follow pre-defined procedures, ensuring consistent testing across different systems and environments. Thus, removing human error and bias from the testing process leads to more reliable results for companies.

As such, automated pentests can be scheduled at regular intervals, allowing security analysts to establish baselines and compare results over time. Not only does this help track the security posture of various assets historically, but also measures the effectiveness of security controls.

4. Achieve Compliance Throughout the Year:

Several compliance standards, such as SOC 2 and HIPAA, necessitate regular testing throughout the year to protect sensitive data. Automated testing ensures consistent and frequent security scans, reducing the risk of non-compliance fees and reputational damage for organizations.

On the other hand, regular monitoring through automated testing software also helps security analysts identify emerging patterns and strengthen the asset’s security posture regularly to minimize workload during compliance audits.

5. Enjoy In-Depth Reporting:

Automated penetration testing helps generate detailed reports for companies that categorize vulnerabilities, prioritize risks, and recommend remediation steps. This saves security teams valuable time spent compiling data and helps management make better decisions.

Similarly, such exhaustive reports serve as a baseline for manual penetration testing, granting security analysts to verify findings and unique attack vectors without compromising timelines or efficiency.

Astra Pentest is built by the team of experts that has helped secure Microsoft, Adobe, Facebook, and Buffer

What Are Some Essential Features to Look For in an Automated Penetration Testing Tool?

1. Pentesting Capacity

Choose an automated pentesting tool that offers both penetration depth and a high number of vulnerability tests to ensure broader coverage of existing and emerging CVEs. 

Look for a tool that simulates real-world attacks and scans behind logins and protected screens to ensure complete security.

2. Zero False Positives

Simply put, false positives refer to the number of times the tool incorrectly identifies a harmless issue as a critical vulnerability. Look for automated software for pentesting that minimizes, if not eliminates, false positives to avoid the wastage of precious time and resources.

3. Customization and Scheduling

Focus on automated pentest tools that allow you to tailor fit scans by defining scope, excluding non-critical systems, focusing on high-risk areas, and running scans of various depths. 

It enables you to configure the tool’s sensitivity to delve deeper into specific vulnerabilities based on your risk tolerance.

4. Integration

Look for automated tools that integrate seamlessly with your CI/CD pipeline. This helps automate regression testing after every staging or production environment update.

As such, you can now identify and remediate problems before they make it to production, making the shift from DevOps to DevSecOps.

5. Continuous Monitoring

Prioritize automated reporting and pentesting tools that offer continuous monitoring capabilities. This feature allows you to schedule regular scans of your systems and applications, providing a more comprehensive understanding of your security posture over time.  

Pro Tip: Look for tools that enable you to run regular automated tests as well as ad hoc scans when needed.

6. Compliance Specific Pentests

Focus on automated scanners that help you identify vulnerabilities that specifically violate compliance standards and industry regulations, such as SOC2, HIPAA, GDPR, PCI DSS, and ISO

This equips you to prioritize remediation efforts based on compliance needs and avoid potential fines or audit failures. 

7. Exhaustive Reports

Choose an automated pentest tool that generates exhaustive reports tailored to different audiences. It should provide in-depth reports for developers, including vulnerability details, rankings, remediation steps, and executive summaries for management to facilitate decision-making.

What are the Best Automated Penetration Testing Software Tools?

For Companies:

1. Astra Pentest

Astra Automated Penetration Testing Dashboard

Key Features:

  • Pentest Capacity: Automated pentester that can run 9300+ tests 
  • Scan Behind Login: Yes
  • Accuracy: Zero false positives
  • Continuous Monitoring: Yes
  • Compliance: GDPR, ISO 27001, SOC2, PCI-DSS, and HIPAA
  • Integration: GitHub, GitLab, Jenkins, JIRA, and Slack
  • Price: Starts at $1999 per annum
  • Best Suited For: Holistic automated and manual pentesting services

Astra’s automated penetration testing tool runs 9300+ tests to check for emerging and existing vulnerabilities. Built to identify OWASP, NIST, and SANS25 vulnerabilities, it scans your web applications as well as the API integrations it consumes.

While expert-vetted scans ensure zero false positives, the in-depth hacker-style automated penetration tests include port scanning and subdomain takeover to reveal critical vulnerabilities across various types of assets and industries.

Moreover, the intelligent vulnerability scanner offers a handy Chrome extension for capturing logins. This lets you run authenticated scans behind login pages, eliminating the need to re-enter credentials every time.

Pros:

  • Seamlessly integrates with your CI/CD pipeline. 
  • Run compliance-specific scans.
  • Scan behind logins for comprehensive security. 
  • Offers manual penetration testing and contextual expert consultation.

Limitations:

  • Only 1-week free trial, available at $7.

2. Pentera

Pentera Automated Pentest Dashboard

Key Features:

  • Pentest Capacity: Subscription-based automated pentester
  • Scan Behind Login: No
  • Accuracy: False positives possible
  • Continuous Monitoring: Yes
  • Compliance: SOC
  • Integration: Exabeam, ServiceNow, and Vectra
  • Price: Available on quote
  • Best Suited For: Automated security validation for networks and cloud infrastructure

Pantera’s automated network penetration testing tool takes a data-driven approach to security by adhering to the MITRE Attack framework. This AI-powered tool tackles your cloud and network security from multiple angles, offering automated black-box and grey-box pentests. 

Moreover, their ransomware attack simulations and extensive port scanning services help ensure a thorough assessment of your security posture.

Pros:

  • Enhances attack vector visibility.
  • Helps automate various attack scenarios.

Limitations:

  • Black box systems may face frequent crashes.
  • Reporting can be more detailed.

3. NodeZero by Horizon3

NodeZero Horizon3 automated pentest dashboard

Key Features:

  • Pentest Capacity: Subscription-based automated pentester with 100+ offensive tools
  • Scan Behind Login: 
  • Accuracy: False positives possible
  • Continuous Monitoring: Yes
  • Compliance: PCI DSS, GDPR, CIS, and NIST
  • Integration: Splunk, CrowdStrike, KnowBe4, FlexTrac, ServiceNow, and JIRA
  • Price: Available on quote
  • Best Suited For: Cloud and Network autonomous penetration testing

NodeZero by Horizon3 takes a comprehensive approach to an automated pentest by leveraging your organization’s existing infrastructure access. It seamlessly integrates with your cloud, IAM, and network infrastructure to run grey box pentests probing for vulnerabilities.

Additionally, it employs advanced techniques, including AIML, to offer Attached Server Discovery as well as manual pentesting services to pinpoint hidden systems that might harbor security risks.

Pros:

  • Easy to set up.
  • Provides detailed steps for remediation.

Limitations:

  • Overall, risk-based categorization can be better explained.
  • It can be a little expensive for SMEs.

For Security Analysts:

4. Burp Suite Professional Edition

Burp Suite autoamted pentest software

Key Features:

  • Pentest Capacity: Subscription-based automated pentest tool with 170+ tests
  • Scan Behind Login: Yes
  • Accuracy: False positives possible
  • Continuous Monitoring: No
  • Compliance: PCI-DSS, OWASP Top 10, HIPAA, and GDPR
  • Integration: Slack, Jira, Jenkins, GitLab, and more 
  • Price:  $449/yr/user
  • Best Suited For: Automated Web app and API penetration testing

Burp Suite Professional’s automated tool for penetration testing takes a targeted approach to vulnerability identification, prioritizing efficiency and accuracy. It leverages a powerful crawler to map your web application and APIs, ensuring comprehensive coverage meticulously.

While a free Community Edition is available for basic exploration, the Professional focuses on pinpointing high and critical vulnerabilities to help you address the most pressing threats first. 

Pros:

  • Offers a variety of extensions to enhance performance.
  • Offers a free community edition.

Limitations:

  • Limited coverage of limited and informational findings.
  • Crashes and socket connection errors have been reported.

5. ZAP

ZAP automated pentesting tool

Key Features:

  • Pentest Capacity: Open-source automated pentest tool with 260+ tests
  • Scan Behind Login: Yes
  • Accuracy: False positives possible
  • Continuous Monitoring: Yes
  • Compliance: OWASP Top 10
  • Integration: No (can be coded)
  • Price: Open source
  • Best Suited For: Open-source automated penetration testing from OWASP10

Zed Attack Proxy, or ZAP, is a powerful automated tool for web applications that empowers you with a comprehensive pentesting toolkit. Functioning as a MitM proxy, ZAP grants meticulous control over web traffic flowing between a browser and a web application.

Built on OWASP10 and Web Security Testing Guide (WSTG), it offers built-in portscanning capabilities and a vibrant development community that adds new test cases to its arsenal as applicable. 

Pros:

  • User-friendly interface.
  • Offers session manipulation and fuzzing capabilities.

Limitations:

  • It can generate false positives. 
  • Port scanning sessions can be time-consuming.

Some Common Challenges of Automated Penetration Testing

1. False Positives

Automated tools often generate alerts for vulnerabilities that aren’t actually exploitable in your specific environment. This wastes time and resources for security analysts who must investigate and verify each finding.

Pro Tip: To reduce false positives, configure tools to mimic attack scenarios specific to your system configuration and security posture. This can involve excluding known-safe assets or adjusting vulnerability scanning parameters based on risk tolerance.

2. Depth of Scope: 

Automated tools typically focus on identifying broad categories of vulnerabilities. They might miss complex issues, such as business logic vulnerabilities, or those requiring specific user interactions, such as privilege escalation.

Pro Tip: Combine automated testing with manual penetration testing by skilled professionals who can tailor their approach to your specific environment and uncover such advanced threats.

3.  Limited Customization/Multi-Step Attacks: 

Many automated tools struggle with multi-step attacks or those requiring specific user actions. They often lack the customization needed to adapt to unique system architectures or bespoke applications.

Pro Tip: Look for tools that offer scripting capabilities. This allows security analysts to write custom scripts that mimic specific attack vectors or scenarios relevant to their environment, enabling the identification of such vulnerabilities.

4. Integration Bottlenecks: 

Integrating pentesting tools with existing security infrastructure can be challenging. This can lead to delays, compatibility issues, and difficulty managing data flow between systems. 

Pro Tip: Focus on tools that offer open APIs or standardized integrations with your existing SIEM systems. This streamlines data exchange simplifies reporting and gives a more holistic view of your security posture.

What is the Future of Automated Penetration Testing?

Fueled by the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), the future of automated pentests holds immense promise. Here’s how AI will revolutionize key aspects of the above:

Enhance Correlation:  

While current pentesting tools correlate vulnerabilities, AIML can analyze vast amounts of security data and historical attack patterns, predicting how attackers might chain vulnerabilities more accurately and enabling accurate risk prioritization.

Facilitate Real-Time Threat Modeling:  

Security landscapes are constantly in flux. By analyzing real-time threat intelligence feeds, security reports, and exploit databases, AI can identify emerging threats and update automated pentesting tools to include the latest attack vectors to help you stay ahead of the curve.

Boost Intelligent Fuzzing:  

By learning from successful fuzzing attempts and past exploits, AI-powered tools can create more intelligent and adaptive fuzzing strategies, potentially uncovering even more complex and previously unknown vulnerabilities.

It is one small security loophole v/s your entire website or web application

Get your web app audited with Astra’s Continuous Pentest Solution

Final Thoughts

Automated penetration testing is a powerful ally for strengthening your security posture. Built on vulnerability scanning, it goes a step forward to mimic hacker behaviors based on historical information and analysis but still falls short of a human pentest.

While different automated tools like Pentera, Horizon3, or Kali Linux can help meet your various pentesting needs as companies and security analysts, limitations such as false positives, limited vulnerability depth, and customization for multi-step attacks can all dampen their effectiveness.

As such, to achieve a truly comprehensive security strategy, you should look for PTaaS platforms like Astra that offer a harmonious blend of automated, AI, and manual penetration testing. After all, AIML is the future of automated pentests!

FAQs

1. What are the advantages of automated penetration testing?

Automated penetration testing offers a speed boost, efficiently scanning vast systems for vulnerabilities in mere hours. This cost-effective approach frees up security professionals for deeper analysis while also reducing the risk of human error in testing.

2. Should I do manual or automated penetration testing?

You should ideally consider a blend of both. An automated pentest is fast and cost-effective, while manual penetration testing offers a deeper dive by security experts, uncovering trickier vulnerabilities. Thus, the best approach blends both for a comprehensive security picture.

3. Can AI do penetration testing?

Although AI can’t fully replace penetration testers, it is a powerful sidekick. AI-powered tools automate repetitive tasks, analyze vast data for vulnerabilities, and even prioritize threats. This frees up testers for strategic thinking and complex exploits, making pentesting efficient and more effective.

Ananda Krishna

Ananda Krishna is the co-founder & CTO of Astra Security, a SaaS suite that secures businesses from cyber threats. He has been acknowledged by the Indian Navy, Microsoft, United Airlines, etc. for finding critical security vulnerabilities in their systems. Winner of the Best Security Product at Global Conference on Cyberspace 2017 (awarded by Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India) & French Tech Ticket, Paris (awarded by François Hollande, former President of France). At Astra he's building an intelligent security ecosystem - web application firewall (WAF), malware detection & analysis, large scale SaaS applications, APIs & more. He's actively involved in the cybersecurity community and shared his knowledge at various forums & invited talks.
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