Security Audit

Automated vs Manual Penetration Testing – Which One Do You Need?

Updated on: July 12, 2024

Automated vs Manual Penetration Testing – Which One Do You Need?

An average website faces 94 attacks daily, and only 26% of all data breaches are attributed to web application hacks. The cyber threat landscape has worsened over the last couple of years, and keeping a continuous tap on all aspects of cyber security can be overwhelming. 

This is where penetration testing steps in, but which is best for you? You need both automated and manual penetration testing to get a complete picture of your organization’s security posture and actionable insights to fix and prevent issues.

In this article, you will learn what a penetration test is, the different approaches to it, how automated and manual penetration testing serve your purpose, and how you can choose the perfect pentest partner.

FeatureAutomated Penetration TestingManual Penetration Testing
ApproachUses software tools to scan for vulnerabilities based on pre-programmed rules and databases.Performed by security professionals who employ various techniques to exploit vulnerabilities.
SpeedMuch faster, can scan large networks and systems quickly.Slower, takes time for testers to methodically assess the system.
CostGenerally less expensive, requires less manpower.More expensive, requires skilled penetration testers.
AccuracyProne to false positives, may miss complex or novel vulnerabilities.More accurate, less likely to generate false positives.
DepthLimited scope, focuses on identifying known vulnerabilities.More comprehensive, explores potential weaknesses and exploits them.
ReportingGenerates automated reports with vulnerability details.Provides detailed reports with exploitation steps and recommendations.
Skill LevelRequires minimal technical expertise to run the tools.Requires highly skilled and experienced security professionals.
SuitabilityIdeal for initial scans, identifying common vulnerabilities in large systems.Best for in-depth assessments, finding complex vulnerabilities, and simulating real-world attacks.

What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is the process of evaluating the security of a system by finding and exploiting vulnerabilities with the help of hacker-like tactics.

It is analogous to finding ways to break into a house and assessing how many rooms were accessible from each break-in point, how easy it was to break, and how much valuables could be stolen during the operation. 

The main difference between a hack and a penetration test is that hackers break in to steal and cause harm, and penetration testers make you aware of the exploitable flaws in your security and help you fix them.

What is Manual Penetration Testing?

Manual penetration testing is the process where security engineers manually perform penetration testing to assess a system’s security posture. 

They use hacker-style techniques to find ways to break into your system, evaluate the vulnerabilities in terms of impact and exploitability, and prepare a report documenting the vulnerabilities and how to reproduce and fix them.

Manual Penetration Testing Process

  • The security experts prepare a running profile of attack methods that can be used against a target system. 
  • They prepare test cases and execute them in a way that detects software vulnerabilities without affecting the business functionalities that might be active on the target system.
  • After that, they customize attack payloads for specific applications and execute them while taking note of the environment.
  • They analyze the data captured through the operation to identify vulnerability patterns, interpret the results, and prepare a plan for remediating the issues.

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

Get your web app audited & strengthen your defenses!
See Pricing
Starting from $199/month

What is an Automated Penetration Testing?

Automated penetration testing refers to scanning your systems for common vulnerabilities using automated tools and processes. It is a faster and comparatively cheap process that can quickly analyze your website or network’s vulnerability status.

Image: Automated Scan Feature in Astra Pentest

An automated penetration test or vulnerability scan produces results in minutes by checking your system and APIs for vulnerabilities by referencing a vulnerability database. It is perfect for a small business that does not deal with too much sensitive data and runs a simple application.

What are the Advantages of Manual Penetration Testing?

Manual penetration testing has a significant edge over vulnerability scanning or automated pentests. The foremost advantage is that it involves both automated tools and human intelligence, naturally increasing the depth of the penetration testing. Let us look at some specific benefits.

Zero False Positives: 

If you have dealt with vulnerability scanners or are a security-aware person, you would know how big a deal false positives can be. The real pain of false positives is felt by the developers wasting hours trying to fix an issue that does not exist.

Manual pentesters exploit each vulnerability to ensure that they are genuine issues. This saves you a lot of time and effort. This is one of the most essential advantages of manual penetration testing.

Deep and Exhaustive Testing: 

Automated vulnerability scanners have become savvy over the last decade, with regularly expanding test cases. But let’s face the fact: They still miss vulnerabilities. 

A definitive vulnerability report cannot be produced without a manual pentest. An automated scanner cannot detect some security errors, like business logic errors and payment gateway escalation vulnerabilities.

A Thorough Pentest Report: 

Security engineers who have run manual penetration tests on your systems can produce a detailed report with step-by-step guidelines for you to reproduce and fix vulnerabilities. 

Moreover, you get their assistance while trying to fix the issues. Reading, interpreting, and acting upon the pentest report is a tenuous task even for IT professionals; a little human assistance makes the process fruitful.

Compliance: 

Some compliance regulations, like the PCI-DSS, require manual penetration testing. What Are Some Key Differences Between Automated and Manual Penetration Testing?

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.

What Are Some Shortcomings that Require Manual Penetration Testing to Detect?

While automated penetration testing tools have made great strides in speeding up the process, certain areas still require human attention to detail. Manual penetration is irreplaceable when it comes to rooting out complex vulnerabilities that do not necessarily show up on vulnerability scans and ensuring zero false positives.

Here are some vulnerabilities that require manual pentesting to detect

  • Privilege escalation attacks
  • Payment manipulation vulnerabilities
  • Sophisticated IDOR vulnerabilities
  • DOM-based cross-site scripting
  • Blind SQL injection at areas of the app where automated tools fail
  • Business logic errors
  • Template injection
  • Broken access control

An experienced security expert can catch anomalies that appear legitimate to an automated scanner. Many complex vulnerabilities may be found when pentesters follow their instinct and use creative ways to examine things from an unexpected perspective.

On top of everything, the support you get from manual pentesters in terms of reviewing and remediating vulnerabilities is quite indispensable.

The Advantages of Using Astra’s Pentest

The pentest suite by Astra Security is a complete and elegant solution to your penetration testing needs. The security team at Astra ensures zero false positives by manually exploiting the vulnerabilities. 

The pentest report they produce is as thorough as it gets, but at the same time, it is easy to follow, thanks to the step-by-step guides and video POCs. You get best-in-class human support if the developers hit a roadblock while remediating the issues. The scope of collaboration between your team and the security experts is ample and smooth.

Astra dashboard
Image: Astra’s Pentest Dashboard

Image: Astra’s Pentest Dashboard

Here are some key features that set Astra’s Pentest apart

  • 9300+ tests to ensure no vulnerability is left unchecked.
  • Manual penetration testing by security experts ensures that zero false positives are present and critical business logic vulnerabilities are uncovered.
  • Intuitive dashboard to visualize vulnerability analysis, assign vulnerabilities to team members and communicate with security experts.
  • Continuous Scanning with the help of CI/CD integration. You do not have to visit the pentest dashboard to start scans after product updates. You can just automate it.
  • Scan behind logged-in pages without manually authenticating the scanner every time the session times out.
  • Pentest compliance reporting helps you understand your company’s position in terms of compliance requirements in real-time and eases up the process of remediation.
  • A publicly verifiable Pentest certificate helps you build trust among customers.

Companies with sensitive information and internet-facing assets need automated and manual penetration testing. Astra’s pentest makes it super simple, pocket-friendly, and hassle-free to evaluate the security posture of your apps or network.

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

Get your web app audited & strengthen your defenses!
See Pricing
Starting from $199/month

Final Thoughts

An automated pentest cannot match the depth and effectiveness of manual penetration testing, but the speed and scalability of automated tests are incredible. What you need is a combination of both, received from a perfect pentest partner.

Your systems are most likely vulnerable to attacks, so the sooner you get a pentest, the better your chances of avoiding the nuisance of getting hacked are. Find the right pentest firm to collaborate with and get secure.  

FAQs

Which is better, manual security testing or automated security testing?

There’s no single winner! Manual penetration testing offers in-depth tests and avoids false positives, while automated scans are faster and cover wider areas. They complement each other to create a strong security posture for your company.

What is OWASP in penetration testing?

OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project) isn’t a testing tool but a valuable resource in pen testing. It provides lists of the most critical web application security risks. Pen testers leverage this during testing to prioritize vulnerabilities and ensure they cover the areas most attractive to attackers.

Ankit Pahuja

B2B cybersecurity marketing lead with years of experience in SEO, performance marketing, email marketing, lead generation, web analytics & marketing automation. Ankit is an avid speaker and has delivered various talks in top companies, early-age startups, and online events.
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