Vulnerability scanning is a common practice for businesses to verify and improve security controls. So, it is often heard that it can replace penetration testing. And while vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are supposed to help identify vulnerabilities, they are in fact two separate and distinct processes.
Organizations typically try to cut costs by limiting penetration testers to scanners.
While this approach is understandable, it’s not recommended. Both penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are essential to upholding and maintaining a strong security posture.
What a hybrid model of pen testing that uses scanners looks like, and the benefits of combining both to maximize coverage and your web application security.
Penetration testing with scanners — cheating or not?
Traditionally, most organizations test their network and application security through penetration testing. It can theoretically be performed by internal red teams but is typically outsourced to contractors in practice.
Manual penetration testing is highly effective at assessing and identifying a company’s exploitable weakness in the application through simulated attacks. Penetration tests —provided they are well-scoped — can work out the operational system’s risk and grant assurance for security best practices.
However, penetration tests by experienced ethical hackers can also be expensive – so companies may invest in penetration testing but limit its scope and consequently obtain a result that doesn’t illustrate the entire security weakness that should be addressed.
In addition, penetration testing is a process that’s both time-consuming and leaves gaps in between tests for the attackers who are always on. That’s where scanning tools come in.
Scanning tools help to discover and report known vulnerabilities and misconfigurations without exploitation. Because it’s automated and easy to set up, more of these scanning tools are likely to become more widespread and available, as the machine learning market is growing.
So, simply put, penetration testing with scanners is NOT cheating. For organizations, It is a way to compensate for expensive manual tests that can really only be run during events like red team vs blue team exercises. You should also keep in mind that human intelligence cannot be replaced by automated application scanning.
Why application security teams should combine scanning tools and manual testing?
Penetration testing has multiple advantages over automated vulnerability scanning: it includes engaging annually penetration testers who guarantee zero false positives and can leverage attack vectors that a real-life threat actor would use.
Unfortunately, penetration testing is impossible to scale up readily and accelerate.
A direct comparison of penetration testing with automated scanning tools only concerns dynamic application security testing tools, or DAST, since static security testing tools require source code access, which is typically unavailable to penetration testers.
Automated tests are attractive since they’re quick and economical tools, and a business can use them much more often than manual penetration testing. They also allow for at-scale security testing automation since businesses can integrate them into development and testing.
Automated scans can’t detect logical errors the same way manual pen testers can, and they commonly flag false positives that may outweigh the benefits that come with at-scale automated security testing.
Data security is an increasingly important area of focus, and organizations that take their information security seriously must consistently run automated scans.
Though, automated scanning tools can’t substitute a real human’s logical thinking and experience. You need to put together automated scanners with manual penetration testing in order to identify vulnerabilities that you’d otherwise never detect.