Security Audit

What is Automated Penetration Testing? Difference between Automatic & Manual Pentesting

Updated on: September 15, 2021

What is Automated Penetration Testing? Difference between Automatic & Manual Pentesting

Around 74% of web applications contain medium to high vulnerabilities, says a 2020 report by PT Security. Further, 37% of network vulnerabilities were recorded across industries according to the same report.

Today, implementing security measures can do only so much in keeping web & network vulnerabilities in check. A proactive approach to identifying & fixing hidden vulnerabilities is what is needed.

This is where penetration testing comes in.

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing checks your organization’s web-facing assets for security vulnerabilities.

A successful pentest does not only identify the vulnerabilities but also finds different ways to exploit them and anticipates the impact on the system.

It is a complex & time-taking process. Nevertheless, extremely important.

Penetration testing has largely been a manual process with the occasional use of automated tools. This is because the key objective of a penetration test is to think like a hacker and go far into the system with little effort, i.e. by circumventing major security protocols. Automated tools are not sophisticated enough to emulate this.

However, manual pentest is a complex process that can take days of planning & execution. Automated penetration testing, on the other hand, helps keep track of the vulnerabilities with ongoing vulnerability scanning, while you wait for your next manual pentest.

What is automated penetration testing?

Automated penetration testing (also called Vulnerability Scanning) is a process of evaluating security risks in a system with the help of security tools.

Performing penetration tests and security audits using automated methods is much faster because it relies on machine learning and algorithms to detect vulnerabilities. You can expect automated penetration testing to render results within just a few seconds to a couple of minutes.

Astra Automated pentesting dashboard
Automated scan results rendered by Astra’s Pentest scanner

As opposed to manual penetration testing, automated security testing does not dig deeper to find ways to exploit a vulnerability, it rather lists the vulnerabilities as per their CVSS score (severity score). A security researcher, then, scrutinizes the results to weed out false positives. Thus, completing the last leg of automated penetration testing.

Here’s an example of automated penetration testing done by Astra Security scanner:

Step 1. Login to your Astra Pentest dashboard and navigate to the website or project you want to scan.

automated pentesting tool

Step 2. Click on ‘Start an Audit’.

Automated penetration testing by Astra Security


Step 3. Select ‘Automated Scan’. Fill in the details like the tech, URL, etc. Hit ‘Save and go back.’

Step 4. Once everything is optimized, click on ‘Start an Audit’.

This is how the results of an automated penetration with Astra looks like:

List of vulnerabilities by astra automated scanner
Results of an automated penetration test by Astra Security

Checks performed by automated penetration testing

A vulnerability scanner can test your application for the following (and more) tests:

  • SQL injection vulnerability
  • Cross-Site Scripting vulnerability
  • Cross-Site Request Forgery
  • Information Disclosure – Sensitive Information in URL, HTTP Referrer Header, Error Messages
  • Weak Authentication Method
  • Absence of Anti-CSRF Tokens
  • Checks for missing security headers
  • Insecure cookies
  • Cross-Domain JavaScript Source File Inclusion
  • Missing SSL
  • Reverse Tabnabbing
  • PII disclosure
  • Cookie poisioning
  • .htaccess information leak
  • Proxy disclosure
  • Outdated version
  • Publicly accessible files
  • Unauthorized access and so on.

Differences between automatic & manual penetration testing

Both manual & automated penetration testing have their own significance. 

Where automated tests are quick and easy to use and work wonders when coupled with manual insight. Manual penetration testing is ideal for gauging the impact of a vulnerability exploit.

Automated Penetration TestingManual Penetration Testing
Automated penetration testing or Vulnerability Scanning is an automated process of detecting vulnerabilities performed with penetration testing tools. Manual penetration testing or simply penetration testing is a meticulous assessment of your security infrastructure, performed by competent security researchers.
It is quick to execute and saves a ton of time.Manual pentests can take days on end to complete.
It is a low-effort & efficient method of scanning your networks for vulnerabilities.It requires proper planning and preparation to conduct a full-blown manual penetration test.
It does not provide deeper insights into the vulnerabilities.It provides detailed & deeper insights into the vulnerabilities.
It discovers common security misses like a lacking update, flawed permission rules, configuration flaws, with amazing efficiency.It detects acute flaws that are often missed by a scanner like business logic errors, loopholes, coding flaws, etc. It also involves exploiting these vulnerabilities to gauge the impact on the system. 
It can be done frequently without much preparation & planning.It requires effort & time, thus can't be done frequently.

Is automated penetration testing enough?

Automated penetration tests have solved the problem of spaced & sporadic vulnerability testing. Automated penetration testing, although, is quite great at detecting low-hanging fruits. However,

  • It can’t test more complex (or minute) vulnerabilities with as much efficiency as a security researcher would do.
  • Since automated penetration testing works on algorithms, it throws similar results in similar conditions.
  • In any case, an automated pentest does not show the complete picture.
  • It doesn’t suffice in compliance requirements.

A manual penetration test done by a human can detect business logic errors, coding flaws, and loopholes that automated scanners are not quite capable of detecting yet. Therefore, manual penetration testing cannot be completely ruled out.

The right approach is to get regular Automated Penetration Testing combined with Periodic Manual Pentesting for maximum security.

Check out Astra’s Pentest suite which provides both – on-demand automated vulnerability scanning and periodic pentests.

Let experts find security gaps in your web application

Pen-testing results that comes without a 100 emails, 250 google searches and painstaking PDFs.

Automated penetration testing tools

Even with the limitations, it can not be denied that automated penetration testing helps you find the easily exploitable (and sometimes silly) vulnerabilities in your system.

Here are some tools you can use to conduct automated penetration testing on your own:

and so on.

To explain the working of these tools is beyond the scope of this article.

Automated pentest software by Astra Security

The Astra Security vulnerability scanner is an on-demand vulnerability scanner that can be used to conduct automated penetration testing. It detects over 2,500 vulnerabilities and provides you with instant results, CVSS score, bug-bounty loss, and so on. The vulnerability database receives regular updates to include the latest vulnerabilities.

Other features of Astra’s Pentest Scanner include:

  • Authenticated Scanning: We support authenticated scanning, which means that we can scan the user / admin dashboard behind a login.
  • Real-Time Reporting: All alerts are raised real-time during testing. This means that we display the found vulnerabilities the moment they are found, unlike certain other tools which only display the results after the scan has concluded.
  • Manual Verification: Our security researchers manually verifies the reported issues for relevance & instances of repeated alerts.
  • Scoring System: We have a scoring system for each issue, which helps the developer in prioritizing what needs to be done at the earliest and not miss out on critical things in pursuit of other issues.
  • Grading System: We have a grading system for your website, which gives you more idea about how your site is performing according compared to the multitude of websites or applications tested by the scanner.

FAQs

1. What type of penetration testing should I perform?

Go for a combination of automated & manual penetration testing.

2. Does your vulnerability scanner include authenticated areas of a web app?

Yes, a vulnerability scanner like Astra’s can scan authenticated areas, i.e., the user/admin dashboard behind a login.

3. How long does an automated vulnerability scan take?

It takes a couple of seconds to a few minutes for an automated vulnerability scan to complete. Astra’s Pentest Scanner, in fact, reports vulnerabilities in real-time as the scan proceeds.

4. Who needs automated penetration testing?

Anyone who has a web-facing application & network needs automated penetration testing.

5. Can automated penetration testing replace humans?

No. Automated tools merely scratch over the surface and do not provide a complete picture of the system’s security.

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Aakanchha Keshri

Aakanchha is a technical writer and a cybersecurity enthusiast. She is an avid reader, researcher, and an active contributor to our blog and the cybersecurity genre in general. To date, she has written over 200 blogs for more than 60 domains on topics ranging from technical to promotional. When she is not writing or researching she revels in a game or two of CS: GO.
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