Manual Penetration Testing – Manual vs. Automated
The following article is a discussion that explores Manual Penetration Testing compared to Automated Vulnerability Scans and why you should implement both.
Penetration tests use different methods to detect application vulnerabilities and evaluate the system or network. During such processes, systems’ weak designs will be exploited via the authorization of simulation attacks. The test aims to protect sensitive information against outsiders like hackers that may unauthorizedly access your system. Once the vulnerability has been detected, the exploitable data can then be retrieved from the system in the hope of obtaining the data. A penetration test is also called a pen test.
Manual Penetration Testing – Overview
“Adversaries continue to show that they have moved beyond malware. CrowdStrike has observed that attackers increasingly attempt to accomplish their objectives without writing malware to the endpoint. Rather, they have been observed using legitimate credentials and built-in tools — a “living off the land” (LOTL) approach — in a deliberate effort to evade detection by legacy antivirus products. Of all detections indexed by the CrowdStrike Security Cloud in the fourth quarter of 2021, 62% were malware-free.” CrowdStrike
So, how do organizations protect their critical data and systems in today’s evolving threat landscape? Is manual penetration testing with the human element more reliable than automated vulnerability scanners? What is Manual Penetration Testing, and How Does it Work?
Definition: Manual Penetration Testing is a controlled assessment of networks and applications that can safely identify and validate real-world vulnerabilities that are potentially exploitable. Manual Penetration Testing removes false positives and provides proof of concept reporting, and an exploit storyboard for more accessible remediation.
Manual penetration testing is quickly becoming the top choice over automated tests for organizations looking to simulate what a threat actor could do. With a deep dive into networks, devices, and applications, Manual Penetration Testing, if performed correctly, can identify exploitable vulnerabilities that are either easily missed out by automated tests or something a scanner cannot do.
MCPT or manual controlled penetration testing is performed by an ethical hacker or penetration tester with the same knowledge as a malicious actor. Fortunately, an ethical hacker is on the good side and will be able to simulate what the wrong side can do. The penetration tester highlights many business logic flaws that automated software typically fails to identify. However, remember that Manual Penetration Testing can be time-consuming and more expensive than running a scan.
Typically, a Manual Penetration Test or Pen-test is performed by Senior Level Experts who find vulnerabilities in a system, network, and application. Utilizing their experience with network systems, custom scripts, and tools, the Sr. Level Engineer manually takes the appropriate controlled steps to exploit those vulnerabilities. Additional knowledge and expertise within IT/OT environments are essential for performing a non-disruptive manual penetration test. Hiring inexperienced teams can often result in unintentional denial of service or, worse, denial of service or, worse case, cause sensitive services to crash.
It’s important to know that current technology has made significant progress but is currently unable to compete with modern-day hackers, ” the human element.”
It’s easy to break things. Much, much easier, it seems, than building them.
Modern-day scanners and Penetration Testing as a Service (PTaaS) providers typically cannot ‘hack’ their way into privileged information. A vulnerability scan is not a worthy substitute for a highly focused testing engagement driven by human knowledge and expertise.
Penetration Testing Items
Manual Penetration Testing or MCPT Manual Controlled Penetration Testing is thorough and, in many projects, will look for issues such as:
- Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) Gathering and Data Collection
- Enumeration of Publicly Accessible Services
- Email-based (non-phishing) attack techniques
- Buffer Overflow & Underrun Conditions or Race Conditions
- Misconfigured Services
- Insecure Services
- Password Guessing & Default Passwords
- Protocol Manipulation
- Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) Interception or Replay of Credentials
- Authentication Exploitation & Bypass
- Testing Cryptography Implementations
- Weak or Insecure File and File Share Permissions
- Exploitation of Domain Trust Relationships
- Database Security Misconfiguration
A Penetration Test can help your team find exploitable vulnerabilities before bad actors find them.
If you are looking to find exploitable vulnerabilities on your OT/IT networks, Manual Controlled Penetration Testing (MCPT®) is an easy-to-execute cost-effective solution.
Manual Controlled Penetration Testing provides reports written by experts highlighting critical data, how targets were compromised, recommendations on best practices, and a complete review of remediation recommendations.
Vulnerability Scanners vs Manual Penetration Testing
The difference, not always noticeable, concerns the testing goals and the organization’s current security approach.
A vulnerability assessment is designed to identify as many vulnerabilities as possible within a network, application, or system. This assessment usually occurs as a first-level analysis within an organization to help determine its current security posture. The organization will know they have problems and need help identifying them.
Penetration tests are typically reserved for organizations that have obtained their desired security posture. That has eliminated all known and discovered vulnerabilities. Have updated systems, patches, and some cyber security programs in place. The penetration test will simulate a scenario of attempting to breach an organization’s strategy by finding exploits and vulnerabilities based on pre-organized goals.
Should I perform a vulnerability assessment and a penetration test?
The classic rule of thumb for an organization is that you should do a vulnerability assessment anytime significant changes occur to your network.
Here are a few examples of these changes.
- New hardware, Infrastructure changes (Firewall, switches, routers, servers)
- Changes in Compliance, Regulations, Laws
- Change Management (Firewall Rules, Routing, VPNs, Wireless)
- Software (removal or addition of new software applications)
As we can see, scheduling vulnerability assessments can be complicated to budget and plan without a long-term IT implementation plan. Some companies offer organizations the option of pre-purchasing vulnerability assessments on an annual contract. If a company typically performs (4) checks a year, although, at various times, this becomes a valuable, cost-effective option.
Testing becomes more periodic when we start talking about manual penetration testing. Every organization is dynamic. Everything is in a continual state of change, from the data to the infrastructure. There are multiple factors to analyze to determine when and how a penetration test should occur. These factors can range from your current IT footprint, company size, compliance, and regulation levels to regions where you do business or organizational growth. Either way, best practice dictates that all companies with some level of cyber posture perform at least one penetration test yearly.
Manual Penetration Testing Advantages and Disadvantages
|Advantages of Manual Pen-Testing (Benefits)
||Disadvantages of Manual Pen-Testing- (Potential Negatives)
|No or Reduced False Positives
||Not as easy to schedule or set up
|Goes beyond just listing vulnerabilities
||Pricing is more expensive than a scan
|Proof of Concept reporting
||Potentially can disrupt systems if not performed correctly
|Storyboard of Exploits
||Requires more time
|Testing is typically performed by engineers with more knowledge
||Flooded Market with a variety of skill level
|Shows steps to remediate
||Results vary by vendor and security consultant
|Demonstrates steps took to achieve exploit
||Not a one size fits all – each project is different
|Simulates what real world malicious actors can do
||Penetration Testing is not a 1x project
|Considered an important compliance step and testing method for hardened cybersecurity
||Results are only a snapshot in time
Manual Penetration Testing
In summary, a vulnerability scanner such as Nessus* or Nmap* is necessary to discover vulnerabilities by internal scans performed by your company or by 3rd parties. Manual Penetration Testing goes quite a bit farther, verifying false positives and manually attempting to show proof of concept for exploits. Something a scanner is not able to do at the present moment.
*Nessus is one of the most popular vulnerability scanners, with over two million downloads across the globe. Additionally, Nessus provides comprehensive coverage, scanning for over 59,000 CVEs.
*Nmap Port Scanner. This tool does not go as broad in its detection but focuses more on mapping open ports (services) across a network. An available port that should not be accessible can still be a vulnerability.
There are many other Penetration Testing Tools; view more info here.