What is Automated Penetration Testing?

automated penetration testing

In a previous article, we discussed penetration testing from the perspective of compliance and cybersecurity. While pen testing is often a core component of most regulations, it’s generally a good practice to consider using outside of just checking compliance boxes. A good way to do that is with a partner that can offer automated penetration testing. 

What is automated penetration testing? It’s the use of automation and other cloud tools to perform the basics of a penetration test. Sometimes mistaken for vulnerability scanning, automated penetration tests provide additional insight and continuing coverage that annual pen tests do not. 


Automated Penetration Tests from a Technical Perspective

automated penetration testingAutomated penetration testing is exactly like it sounds: security professionals use AI, machine learning and intelligent agents (or some combination) to launch prescriptive scans and attacks against an IT system to determine vulnerabilities. 

Ideally, the idea for this kind of testing is that the machine automates system scanning in the same way a human hacker would… looking for technically unsecured areas, common breach points and previously discovered security gaps. The machine then uses the scan to collect data, sort through possible attack vectors and determine the best approach to attack. 

The general idea behind this kind of testing is that, initially, the way an automated system scans and exploits vulnerabilities will closely resemble a human tester–after all, there are always best practices for how to crack cybersecurity measures. Additionally, as AI and intelligent agents mature these automated systems can make more developed decisions regarding how to exploit that system to gain access and perform other aspects of the test (including propagating through a system and determining how to spread malicious tools). 

Sometimes you’ll see automated pen testing mentioned in the same context as vulnerability scanning, and some businesses will often conflate the two. However, it’s important to know what you are getting:

  1. Automated Penetration Testing is just that: a complete suite of penetration tools and techniques that will mimic the work of a live human tester, including creative attacks, security gap analysis and exploitation and systemic evaluation.
  2. Vulnerability Scanning usually takes part in only what is commonly the first step of penetration testing; scanning for vulnerabilities (hence the name). You’ll then receive a report on that scan, which will be more or less robust depending on the depth of the scan itself.

With that in mind, automated testing does provide several advantages over traditional approaches, including: 

  • Continuous Testing: many human-led tests focus on an event or audit, and as such miss out on rapidly emerging threats or changes to your infrastructure. Humans can only test so quickly. However, automated tests can automatically run tests on a schedule programmed by their administrator, up to and including multiple times a day. This kind of coverage can provide more information based on different variables (time of day, usual or unusual system events, etc.).
  • Volume and Scope: Human testers, depending on the type of test, will usually enter through one or two predefined entry points. Automated systems, on the other hand, can scan for and attack multiple points, often at the same time, for a more comprehensive testing outcome.
  • Speed: These tests are fast. Depending on what you need to evaluate, you can get results back much faster than in some human-led efforts. 

Obviously, there are also limitations to automated penetration testing:

  • Testing Web Applications: Automated testing is much harder, if not impossible, for web interfaces. Studies from 2019 show that automated testing can only find roughly half of the vulnerabilities existing in web applications due in part to their complexity. Tasks like API security or human-led breaches (like brute-force attacks) aren’t the strength of an automated pen test.
  • Limited Applicability: Following from the previous disadvantage, if your company is focused primarily on web-facing applications, then internal tests will probably have a limited value to your security and compliance needs.
  • Damaged Files and Misconfiguration: If the automation system is manipulating files, it’s entirely possible that it can damage or corrupt files accidentally if not configured properly. Since penetration testing usually involves accessing critical files, this could cause a major problem for your IT system. 

That being said, automated pen testing has become more dependable, and has therefore seen wider adoption in several industries. 


Automated Penetration Tests from an Operations Perspective

One of the biggest advantages your organization is going to see when adopting an automated penetration testing model is the continuous testing capabilities. With regular testing, your organization can readily act on emerging threats while collecting critical intelligence on security gaps and other issues as they rise. 

Along with that, you are rolling out these tests fast, often without the heavy overhead of human-directed testing. While your IT team (and any third-party security firms) will plan tests, you won’t find the need to perform extensive meetings with testers. Instead, you can plan high-level testing strategies and then tweak the automation as needed to test different aspects of your system. 

Additionally, your fast and recurring tests will cover potentially thousands of security issues. That includes things like new injections, patch problems, IAM issues and so forth. On top of that, automated systems can test all your systems just as quickly, if not more so, than traditional testers. 

So, we can see how the speed, accuracy and scale of automated penetration testing are a huge benefit for any organization. From an operational and business perspective, however, this also frees up key personnel to focus on larger and more complex problems. Instead of working on the nitty-gritty of planning and executing pen tests, your IT team can consult with business and compliance leadership, third-party security experts and security analysts to build more comprehensive and effective strategies and solutions. 


Automated Compliance and Testing with Continuum GRC

The future of compliance and cybersecurity is automated. Accuracy, efficiency, effectiveness and scalability are the tools that we have to face the security threats of today and tomorrow. It’s time that you start working with a partner that brings automation and the cloud to bear on the complex problems facing data-driven businesses in retail, healthcare, government service and defense contracting. 

Continuum GRC is proactive cyber security®. Call 1-888-896-6207 to discuss your organization’s cybersecurity needs and find out how we can help your organization protect its systems and ensure compliance.

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