Cybercriminals grow more creative and effective year after year. Keeping pace with them to avoid hacks and other cyber-attacks requires matching the speed of their evolution. One method involves studying the actual behaviors of these attackers to learn how your company should adapt. This approach is called penetration testing (pen-testing). Automated penetration testing leverages artificial intelligence (AI) to “hack” your network and internal systems, allowing you to study attacks without actually experiencing them.
How Do Automated Penetration Testing Tools Work?
Automated penetration testing tools work by replicating the techniques used by human penetration testers. These techniques are also replications, or simulations, of techniques used by actual hackers and cyber-criminals. The use of AI and machine learning can make the tests easier to run, but there are trade-offs compared to traditional penetration testing.
This blog will break down everything you need to know about automated penetration testing:
- How traditional, human-led pen-testing works and some examples
- How automated pen-testing works and other critical considerations
By the end, you’ll know exactly what automated pen-testing is, whether it’s right for your business, and what other approaches you may consider.
Traditional Penetration Testing: Primary Approaches
Understanding the mechanics of automated penetration testing requires understanding how its traditional predecessor works. A penetration test is a form of “ethical hacking” that simulates attacks on your company. This testing assesses your cyberdefenses, identifies gaps in controls weaknesses, and provides insight to prioritize things that may need immediate attention.
The underlying principle of penetration testing is that offense informs defense. Your company needs to set tests as realistic and far-reaching as possible, no matter how uncomfortable stakeholders are watching their defenses crumble and sensitive information gets compromised.
To that effect, there are two types of tests most commonly used: those originating “outside” the company and those originating “inside” of it. Let’s take a look at how each works in practice.
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External Penetration Testing With a Human Test Team
All pen-testers work differently, and no two tests are the same. Nonetheless, most external penetration tests follow a similar route, consisting of the following major stages or steps:
- Contract planning, where the tester and target agree on boundaries and logistics.
- Reconnaissance, the tester will begin scanning the target’s security systems.
- Target acquisition, where the tester determines what vulnerabilities to attack and how.
- Breach and access, where the tester initially enters the systems, gaining data access.
- Control and exploitation, where the tester seizes control over all or most resources.
- Forensic reporting, tester exits the system and reports on the findings.
One of the most significant differences between traditional and automated testing is the flexibility a human tester or test team can provide. Methods and goals can be re-negotiated mid-attack if something is unveiled that makes the target organization want to adjust.
Internal Penetration Testing With a Human Test Team
Internal penetration tests are radically different from their external counterparts. Rather than beginning from scratch without privileged information about the systems or access privileges, the tester assumes the position of a disgruntled employee or another insider already well within system boundaries. Negotiation of starting position and simulated motive make internal testing highly customizable, but the goal is generally to study how an attacker operates once inside.
The purpose of an internal penetration test is often to see how quickly an internal attacker can move from an unspecified position within the company to a centralized position with control over all or most resources. This focus includes studying which internal vulnerabilities they exploit and any gaps in the visibility of internal cybersecurity operations.
Automated Pentesting Framework and Approaches
As with traditional pen-testing, all automated equivalents are unique; no two are the same. But most automated penetration tests operate in nearly identical ways to traditional tests. The only real difference is that the actions are performed by software such as an agent or virtual machine (VM) simulation rather than by a single individual or team of individuals operating in real-time.
In many cases, an automated penetration test may be indistinguishable from a traditional one.
The term “automated penetration testing” typically refers to a fully automated process. Given the prevalence of AI, nearly all pen-tests incorporate some automated functions. But in the event of fully automated tests, the only interaction with another person occurs before the test, during negotiation, and after the test during operationalizing strategies based on insights gained from testing.
Biggest Strengths of Automated Penetration Testing
Automated pen-testing comes with two primary strengths:
- Speed and frequency of tests – Automated pen-tests report results significantly faster than traditional tests. This speed allows for frequent or regular tests rather than singular events.
- The flexibility of test configurations – Since they can be conducted often, tests can begin at multiple weak points to offer the broadest possible range of insights into vulnerabilities.
These are especially critical in light of legally required security controls. Automated penetration testing tools typically satisfy the requirements for specific compliance frameworks. For example, they claim Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard (DSS) requirements for risk scanning are easily met through frequent automated pen-tests.
Weaknesses of Automated Penetration Testing Tools
Despite their accessibility and speed, automated pen-testing tools do have their disadvantages relative to traditional pen-tests. These all stem from one flaw: automated pen-tests cannot understand, nor operate on, web applications.
This flaw is a significant weakness in the range of your testing. It essentially means that automated pen- tests can only be conducted from an internal position or network architecture specifically.
If your company relies on web applications and other web-based architecture, these are impenetrable to an automated pentest tool. This flaw leaves you with a gap in your cyberdefense program. Real cybercriminals can potentially reach these assets and attack them. You will need a traditional pen test for those parts of your system. It is not uncommon to deploy a hybrid solution of partial-automation and traditional methods to provide full coverage.
Similar Alternatives to Automated Penetration Tests
Automated penetration testing tools are still in their infancy compared to traditional methods. For many companies, it’s wise to consider alternatives to replace or accompany automated pen- tests. Three approaches to consider, listed from the most active to the most passive option are:
- Incident tabletop exercises simulate attacks on a smaller, game-like scale. Staff is introduced to methods attackers take and how to handle them in a low-risk setting.
- Managed detection and response (MDR), which reacts to threats rather than events. Scanning software will identify threats and treat them like attacks to prevent them.
- Vulnerability scanning scans for any potential vulnerabilities or weaknesses at regular intervals, generally as part of a threat and vulnerability monitoring program.
RSI Security is happy to work with your team on implementing all of these practices, along with flexible pen-testing. We offer fully automated, human-led, and hybrid solutions for all these services.
RSI Security: Professional Pen-Testing Solutions
To recap from above, automated penetration testing involves using a combination of specially designed hardware and software to simulate the behaviors of a human pen-tester. These are themselves simulations of the behavior an actual attacker would use. And studying them can help to prevent an actual attacker from compromising your defenses. While they offer easier access than most traditional services, they do come with less flexibility. If you want the benefits of both automated and traditional pen-testing solutions, contact RSI Security today!