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Manual vs. Automated Penetration Testing: What You Need to Know

Updated: Apr 10

Penetration testing, or pentesting, is a simulated cyberattack on a system or application to identify and exploit its vulnerabilities. Pentesting helps organizations assess their security posture, comply with regulations, and prevent data breaches.


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Pentesting can be performed in two ways: manually or automatically. Manual pentesting involves human experts who use various tools and techniques to attack the target system. Automated pentesting involves software tools that scan and test the target system for known vulnerabilities.

 

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and choosing the right one depends on several factors, such as the scope, budget, and objectives of the pentest. In this article, we will compare manual and automated pentesting and help you decide which one is best for your needs.

 

Manual Pentesting

Manual pentesting is the traditional way of conducting a pentest. It requires skilled and experienced ethical hackers who can think like real attackers and use their creativity and intuition to find and exploit vulnerabilities.

 

Manual pentesting typically follows these steps:

  1. Planning and scoping: The pentesters define the scope, objectives, and methodology of the pentest, as well as the rules of engagement and the expected deliverables.

  2. Reconnaissance: The pentesters gather information about the target system, such as its architecture, functionality, technologies, and potential attack vectors.

  3. Scanning: The pentesters use automated tools to scan the target system for common vulnerabilities, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting, or broken authentication.

  4. Exploitation: The pentesters manually verify and exploit the vulnerabilities found by the tools, as well as look for other weaknesses that may not be detected by automated scans, such as business logic flaws or authorization issues.

  5. Reporting: The pentesters document their findings, provide evidence of exploitation, and give recommendations for remediation.

 

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Pros of Manual Pentesting

Manual pentesting has several benefits over automated pentesting, such as:

  • Identifying complex vulnerabilities: Manual pentesters can find vulnerabilities that automated tools may miss or misinterpret, such as logic flaws, chained exploits, or context-specific issues.

  • Avoiding false positives: Manual pentesters can validate the results of automated scans and eliminate false positives, which are alerts that indicate a vulnerability that does not exist or is not exploitable.

  • Providing actionable advice: Manual pentesters can provide detailed reports that explain the impact, root cause, and remediation steps for each vulnerability, as well as offer guidance and support for fixing them.

 

Cons of Manual Pentesting

Manual pentesting also has some drawbacks compared to automated pentesting, such as:

  • Prohibitive cost: Manual pentesting is significantly more expensive than automated pentesting because it requires hiring qualified and experienced professionals who charge high fees for their services.

  • Time-consuming process: Manual pentesting takes longer than automated pentesting because it involves human intervention and analysis at every stage of the process.

  • Variable coverage: Manual pentesting may not cover all the aspects of a system or application because it depends on the skills, knowledge, and preferences of the individual pentesters.

 

Automated Pentesting

Automated pentesting is a newer way of conducting a pentest. It relies on software tools that automate the scanning and testing of the target system for known vulnerabilities.

 

Automated pentesting typically follows these steps:

  1. Configuration: The users configure the tool with the target system's URL, credentials, parameters, and other settings.

  2. Scanning: The tool performs a comprehensive scan of the target system for common vulnerabilities based on predefined rules and signatures.

  3. Reporting: The tool generates a report that lists the vulnerabilities found by the scan, along with their severity, description, and references.


coding computer scanning website design

 

Pros of Automated Pentesting

Automated pentesting has several benefits over manual pentesting, such as:

  • Lower cost: Automated pentesting is cheaper than manual pentesting because it does not require hiring human experts or paying for their time and effort.

  • Faster process: Automated pentesting is faster than manual pentesting because it can scan and test large systems or applications in a matter of minutes or hours.

  • Consistent coverage: Automated pentesting can cover all the aspects of a system or application because it does not depend on human judgment or bias.

 

Cons of Automated Pentesting

Automated pentesting also has some drawbacks compared to manual pentesting, such as:

  • Missing complex vulnerabilities: Automated tools may not find vulnerabilities that require human intelligence or creativity to discover or exploit, such as logic flaws, chained exploits, or context-specific issues.

  • Producing false positives: Automated tools may generate false positives that waste time and resources of the users who have to verify and dismiss them.

  • Lacking actionable advice: Automated tools may not provide enough information or guidance on how to fix the vulnerabilities found by the scan, or may suggest generic or inappropriate solutions.

 

Manual vs. Automated Pentesting: Which One to Choose?

There is no definitive answer to which method of pentesting is better, as both have their strengths and weaknesses. The best approach is to use a combination of both methods, depending on the situation and the goals of the pentest.

 

Some factors that can help you decide which method to use are:

  • Scope: If you want to test a large or complex system or application, you may want to use automated pentesting to scan it for common vulnerabilities, and then use manual pentesting to verify and exploit them, as well as look for other weaknesses that automated tools may miss.

  • Budget: If you have a limited budget, you may want to use automated pentesting to save money and time, and then use manual pentesting only for critical or high-risk areas of the system or application.

  • Objectives: If you want to comply with a regulation or a standard that requires a pentest, you may want to use manual pentesting to meet the requirements and provide evidence of compliance. If you want to improve your security posture and prevent data breaches, you may want to use automated pentesting to identify and fix vulnerabilities before attackers do.

 

Conclusion

Pentesting is an essential practice for organizations that want to protect their systems and applications from cyberattacks. Pentesting can be performed manually or automatically, each with its own pros and cons.

 

Manual pentesting involves human experts who use various tools and techniques to attack the target system. It can identify complex vulnerabilities, avoid false positives, and provide actionable advice, but it is also costly, time-consuming, and limited in coverage.

 

Automated pentesting involves software tools that automate the scanning and testing of the target system for known vulnerabilities. It can lower costs, speed up the process, and ensure consistent coverage, but it may also miss complex vulnerabilities, produce false positives, and lack actionable advice.

 

The best way to conduct a pentest is to use a combination of both methods, depending on the scope, budget, and objectives of the pentest. This way, you can leverage the advantages of both methods and mitigate their disadvantages.

 

If you are looking for a reliable and affordable solution for pentesting your systems and applications, you can try Webcheck Security, a solution provider that combines automated and manual pentesting in best practice methods. Webcheck Security provides comprehensive and accurate reports that help you fix your vulnerabilities and improve your security posture.

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