Security Solutions

5 mins

Is Automated Penetration Testing the Future?

Penetration testing may be nothing new - but it has remained an ever-present solution within a security team’s arsenal because it has displayed a capacity to constantly evolve and re-configure itself over a number of years. With cyber threats showing a similar commitment to reinvention, the ability of penetration testing to embrace new developments is a core reason why it is still used by cyber defense teams today. 

According to Cybercrime Magazine, the global penetration testing market is set to exceed $5 billion annually by 2031, a testament to the enduring popularity and efficacy of this approach to cybersecurity. In recent years, many penetration testing strategies have incorporated automation tools to keep pace with a fast-moving threat landscape. With the evolution of this landscape showing no sign of slowing, it is likely that automated penetration testing will only increase in prominence. Is it set to represent the future of penetration testing?

PenTest Trends Over the Years

When penetration testing first emerged as a security tactic a few decades ago, it was largely goal-oriented. Ethical hackers were tasked with compromising systems and gaining access to a particular asset. For example, this was the case in 1974 when the US Air Force decided to conduct one of the earliest known white hat hacking efforts on the Multiplexed Information and Computing Service - at the time central to corporate networks across a number of industries. 

Over time, penetration testing shifted away from focusing on a single asset amid the realization that the number of vulnerabilities within a particular corporate network was likely to be numerous - as were malicious efforts to take advantage of them. This development led to the rise of third-party penetration testing tools, where vendors based outside a particular company offered to breach a system in exchange for payment. 

Today, businesses that are interested in penetration testing have a multitude of vendors to consider. Often, the decision regarding which external PenTest platform to collaborate with will depend on an organization’s goals. For example, there are various methods of penetration testing available, and different vendors may specialize in one over another. 

Black box versus white box penetration testing is one of the ways that approaches can differ, for instance. Black box penetration testing describes efforts where the outside party is not given any information regarding the system they’ve been tasked with infiltrating before testing commences. On the other hand, white box PenTesters will be given some degree of non-public information, such as source codes, to aid their ethical hacking exploits. 

While a completely uninformed hacker could provide a closer estimation of a real-world scenario, on the other hand, white box strategies may ultimately be more useful as they allow testers to become intimately familiar with the underlying workings of the system being tested. This perhaps explains the enduring popularity of white box PenTesting, with the white box global network security market projected to grow at a CAGR of 18.2% between now and 2028.

Other differences between penetration test vendors concern the duration of the testing. Financial considerations are usually front of mind here, but there is also an acceptance that sometimes longer tests are needed to mirror the length of time that malicious hackers are willing to spend targeting a network or asset. 

And finally, another factor in determining which penetration testing platform to partner with concerns whether a vendor employs automation or not. Increasingly, few vendors rely exclusively on manual penetration testing due to the implications this often has on resource consumption. For most vendors, automated penetration testing is no longer a “nice-to-have” but fundamental to their security credentials.

The Benefits of Automation

Automation is being deployed by more and more applications and to emphasize this, it was central to the 2023 Gartner Hype Cycle for Security Operations. In fact, 29% of organizations have automated 70% and more of their security testing. The adoption of automation within cybersecurity is only traveling in one direction. 

The rising adoption of automated penetration testing is the result of the undoubted advantages it provides. Chief among these is speed. Manual penetration testing is limited by the pace of your human security personnel but automated PenTesting, on the other hand, can scan all the assets within your network simultaneously and provide instant feedback. Instead of security teams being asked to draw up reports of their findings and what remediation should take place as a result, automated penetration testing can take care of this without the need for human input. 

Another benefit of automated penetration testing is its scalability. With manual testing, as companies grow, they generally gain more digital assets and, as a result, their attack surfaces expand. This means manually assessing an ever-growing collection of risks, requiring ever-larger security teams. However, with automated PenTesting, third-party platforms can assess any number of assets - perfect for companies of any size.

What’s more, automation is a great way for penetration testing to keep pace with a rapidly evolving array of cyber threats. While manual penetration testing relies on security teams constantly updating their knowledge of the latest exploits to be effective, automated tools can test for new vulnerabilities in an instant, leveraging continuous asset mapping, risk discovery, and remediation prioritization to ensure they are always up to date with the latest risks.

Automated PenTest Challenges

Of course, there are some challenges to incorporating automation within your approach to penetration testing. While different platforms may have weaknesses regarding poor contextualization or a high number of false positives, the main issue concerns organizations believing that automation is some kind of security silver bullet. 

In fact, automated penetration testing doesn’t mean that human security teams are no longer needed. Instead, automation should be used to support security personnel - not replace them. Organizations should always remember that automated penetration testing is designed to lessen the manual burden on security teams, allowing them to focus on adding value to an organization’s security posture.

The Impact of AI

Signaling the latest stage in the evolution of penetration testing, artificial intelligence (AI) is being used by many tools to improve the efficiency of threat detection, emulate a hacker’s actions more accurately, predict future threat profiles, and simplify report writing. 

In the face of a rising number of threats, AI takes automated PenTesting from real-time threat assessment to something more - data-driven advanced analysis with zero false positives. This is what companies gain access to with Hadrian’s AI-powered offensive security platform. 

Trained by our in-house hackers to identify a wide variety of risks, Hadrian’s automated penetration testing verifies and prioritizes risks automatically by exploitability and impact. It offers the kind of real-time visibility that simply couldn’t be gained from manual security teams - no matter how large. Hadrian detects configuration changes and new internet-facing assets with lightweight passive monitoring. 

Hackers won’t stop attempting to infiltrate your networks. In a world where constant vigilance is needed, automation is the only viable option.

The future of penetration testing is here. Be part of it with Hadrian. 

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