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Manual Pentesting Vs. Automated Pentesting – Which Is Right For You?

Updated: Sep 18, 2023


In software development, testing is crucial in ensuring the software's quality and reliability. Software testing can be broadly classified into two categories: manual and automated. In this article, we will define manual and automated testing and discuss the importance of software testing.

Definition of Manual Testing

Manual testing is a technique in which a human tester tests the software manually. It involves the tester executing a series of test cases to identify defects or bugs in the software. The tester manually performs actions such as entering input data, verifying output data, and comparing the actual and expected results. Manual testing requires human intervention at every step of the testing process.

Definition of Automated Testing

Automated testing is a technique in which software tools and scripts are used to automate the testing process. Automated testing involves test scripts and specialized software tools automatically performing test cases. These tests can be repeated multiple times, and the results can be compared to identify discrepancies or errors. Automated testing requires less human intervention compared to manual testing.

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Manual Pentesting

Manual testing has several advantages, including:

Flexibility: Manual testing allows testers to explore the software more flexibly, allowing them to discover defects that automated tests may miss. This can be particularly important for user interface (UI) and exploratory testing.

Customization: Manual testing can be customized to meet specific needs and requirements. This allows testers to adapt their approach to different projects and applications and to tailor their testing to particular usage scenarios.

Cost-effective: Manual testing can be a cost-effective solution for smaller projects, as it does not require the same level of investment in tools and infrastructure as automated testing.

Human touch: Manual testing involves a human touch that automated tests cannot replicate. Testers can apply their experience and knowledge to identify potential issues that automated tests may miss.

Feedback: Manual testing can provide valuable feedback to developers, as testers can provide detailed reports on issues and bugs they discover during testing.

Easy to set up: Manual testing is easy to set up and requires minimal technical expertise, making it accessible to a broader range of users and testers.

However, manual testing also has its limitations, including:

Time-consuming: Manual testing is time-consuming and requires significant effort and resources.

Error-prone: Manual testing is prone to errors and mistakes due to human factors such as fatigue, stress, and distractions.

Inconsistent: Manual testing results can vary from one tester to another, leading to unpredictable results.

Types of Manual Testing There are several types of manual testing, including:

Exploratory testing: Exploratory testing is an approach where the tester learns about the software by exploring it and trying to find defects without a specific test plan.

Regression testing: Regression testing is the process of retesting previously tested features and functionalities to ensure that changes and modifications have not introduced new defects.

User acceptance testing: User acceptance testing is the software testing process from the end user's perspective to ensure that it meets their requirements and expectations.

Manual penetration testing offers several benefits, including flexibility and a higher likelihood of discovering and mitigating vulnerabilities within the tested systems. It can identify clever vulnerabilities and attacks that automated tests may miss, such as blind SQL-injected attacker logic flaws and access control vulnerabilities.

A trained professional can examine the responses of an application to such an attack in a manual pen test, potentially catching answers that may appear legitimate to automated software but, in reality, are problematic. Some pen tests can only be performed manually. For example, if a company wants to examine social engineering, manual pen testing is needed, especially when testing for vishing. Manual pen testing can also enable more creativity when looking for flaws, allowing for unexpected directions in testing.

Another benefit of manual pen testing is having an expert review reports. While automated pen testing tools can generate reports, security analysts must still review and remediate any detected issues.

However, there are some downsides to manual pen testing, including cost and time. Depending on a pen test's thoroughness, it could take weeks to get results, which isn't always ideal, mainly if significant vulnerabilities exist. Manual pen testing can also be expensive, which is why many companies do it only to fulfill compliance and regulatory requirements. When companies can't afford an internal red team or pen testing team, they may turn to third-party service providers for their testing needs, which can also add to the cost.

Automated Pentesting

Disadvantages of automated testing:

High setup costs: Automated testing requires significant upfront investment in tools, infrastructure, and skilled personnel, which can be expensive for small and medium-sized companies.

False sense of security: Automated testing can give a false sense since it only tests what it has been programmed to test. It may miss unexpected errors, interactions between components, or edge cases that human testers may detect.

Maintenance costs: Automated tests must remain relevant and practical over time. This includes updating tests to accommodate software, environment, or requirements changes. Maintenance costs can be high and require skilled personnel, which may not be available.

Limited usability testing: Automated tests are less effective for testing the usability of an application, such as the user interface and user experience. Usability testing requires a human element and cannot be effectively automated.

Lack of creativity: Automated tests follow pre-defined scripts and cannot think creatively or adapt to new situations. This can limit the ability to detect new and unexpected issues.

Inability to replace human testing completely: Automated testing cannot fully replace human testing since it cannot simulate all possible scenarios and does not have the same level of intuition or creativity as a human tester. Human testing is still necessary to detect complex user experience and usability issues.

Automated testing offers several advantages over manual testing, including:

Efficiency and Speed: Automated testing can execute test cases much faster than manual testing, saving significant time and effort in the long run.

Consistency and Reliability: Automated testing eliminates the human errors and inconsistencies that can occur in manual testing, making the results more reliable and consistent.

Reusability and Scalability: Automated tests can be easily reused and scaled to handle larger test suites and more complex scenarios, making them a cost-effective option for testing.

Increased testing frequency: Automated testing tools can be run more frequently than manual tests, allowing companies to promptly address pertinent risks and threats.

While automated testing has disadvantages, it is important to note that it is still an essential part of the testing process and can provide many benefits if used properly.

Automated pen testing is increasingly gaining popularity among companies due to its benefits of increased testing frequency and comprehensive evaluation of computer systems. Security analysts can focus on other essential tasks while handling repetitive and time-consuming tests. However, there are also some downsides to automated pen testing.

One of the potential cons is that the effectiveness of automated testing tools and the accuracy of their results depend on the knowledge and expertise of the person using them. The capabilities of the penetration tool itself may also limit the testing results. Moreover, some analysts still view automated testing as an emerging market that requires improvement.

While some people worry that automated tools may replace human pen testers, it is more likely that automated tests will be overseen and audited by human experts in the future. Additionally, automated pen testing has limitations and may not be suitable for every testing scenario. It cannot be deployed for certain types of testing, such as wireless networks, web apps, and social engineering.

Overall, while automated pen testing is a valuable tool for organizations, it should be used with manual testing methods to ensure complete and accurate results.

You may like this article: An Overview of Internal Penetration Testing.

Combining Manual and Automated Pentesting

Automated penetration testing, often a scan or a vulnerability assessment, can identify known vulnerabilities in a system or application. However, it lacks the depth and context a human tester can provide. Automated tools rely on pre-defined rules and signatures to detect vulnerabilities, which can result in false positives or false negatives. Manual testing, on the other hand, involves a skilled tester who can assess the system or application from various perspectives, identify potential attack paths, and exploit vulnerabilities in real time. This makes manual testing a more objective and comprehensive approach to penetration testing compared to relying solely on automated tools.

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