The Evolution of Vulnerability Scanning and Pentesting

An awareness of unprotected vulnerabilities and risks is the starting point for determining the best way to align resources with cybersecurity. By conducting regular real-world attack testing, security operations can illuminate weaknesses while gaining control over risks. Cybersecurity testing is deployed to eliminate risk, improve business continuity and meet compliance requirements. At a minimum, cybersecurity testing should be conducted whenever there are new network changes or user groups, new system configurations or app releases. An organization’s security risk tolerances must be aligned with a testing solution that finds, scans, exploits and reports on their specific risks.

The challenge in testing is finding any exploitable vulnerability within an organization’s environment that poses real risks and that is easily prioritized for mitigation.

This risk-based approach validates and proves business risks through real-world exploitation testing. That said, let’s explore the various solutions.

Vulnerability Scanning

Using a database of known vulnerabilities or probes for common flaws, vulnerability scanners look for misconfigurations or code flaws that pose potential cybersecurity risks. They scan website elements, applications, networks and file systems and inventory each system and network device with their associated vulnerabilities.

Scanners generate thousands of vulnerabilities, all of which are included in the report because they are in the tool’s database of known vulnerabilities. They list common vulnerabilities and exposure (CVE) references and common vulnerability scoring system (CVSS) scores. However, because there is no context within the report, the security team has no insight into how to prioritize vulnerabilities or assess the potential impact.

Manual Penetration Testing

Cybersecurity testing should be conducted as if a real hacker was trying to infiltrate a system or network. Manual penetration testing conducts detailed reconnaissance and examination by highly skilled security professionals. They attempt to detect and exploit various weaknesses within the network and connected systems and assess the extent to which an unauthorized bad actor might gain access.

Pentesting and red teaming play an important role in identifying exposures, vulnerabilities and weaknesses in an organization’s cyberdefenses. Therefore, it should be conducted by vetted service providers with qualified certifications.

Unfortunately, many organizations only test annually or on an ad hoc basis, and it’s not uncommon for a year to pass between tests. This is primarily due to the high costs and time required for planning, contracting, scoping, documenting use cases, testing, reporting and following up on issues found. A pentest represents a snapshot in time after an update, upgrade or system change. In fact, it can take weeks or months to receive a final report. By that time it may be stale, as new updates, misconfigurations and other vulnerabilities can enter the environment.

Automated Pentesting

Rather than contracting third-party pentesting services, automated pentesting is managed by internal IT. There is no need for highly skilled security experts, as the IT admin can run the tests. Just like a human pentester, auto pentesting looks for a system to seize and install an agent or AI-driven bot. Once established, they can then pivot across the network to application programming interfaces (APIs) and front-end/back-end servers to uncover other areas susceptible to attacks.

Cybersecurity risk encompasses system vulnerabilities, internal and external threats, and asset protection. To eliminate risk, auto pentesting conducts four primary steps: The discovery of active assets; scanning and reporting on discovered assets and network infrastructure attack surfaces; exploitation using ethical hacking skills learned from human testers; and post-exploit verification using testing techniques like privilege escalation, Pass-the-Hash and others.

Every time a new attack surface is discovered, AI-powered algorithms use real-time information to generate dynamic attack strategies. As more information is gathered from targets and other attack surfaces, the platform adjusts its techniques on-the-fly to conduct iterative attacks. By finding real, exploitable risks IT and security teams gain clarity to prioritize remediation. By scoring risks, organizations can more logically identify issues and prioritize those that may have the largest impact.

Auto pentesting attack bots plug into the network, scanning, probing and analyzing that can be conducted around the clock. It becomes a virtual red team for which companies of any size can quickly and cost-effectively evaluate systems to uncover risks and vulnerabilities.

Because of the high costs associated with each manual pentest, a human pentester typically has one network entry point. Conversely, auto pentesting can run the same test multiple times from different entry points to uncover susceptible paths and monitor different impact scenarios.

Security Testing Tool Sprawl to Help with Vulnerabilities

For years, organizations have incorporated security testing tools like Burp Suite, Metasploit, Nmap and others, to help discover system vulnerabilities. Whether testing tools are in data centers or clouds, the functional capabilities need to be better integrated. Layering these tools only increases costs, blind spots and additional manual effort trying to cobble together a meaningful report.

Simply having more testing tools doesn’t equate to a stronger security posture. In fact, they impair visibility and create coverage gaps. While manual pentesting uses multiple tools, auto pentesting hides this complexity with an embedded fabric of multiple interconnected testing capabilities.

Eliminating risks from growing exploits across expanding threat surfaces requires threat and vulnerability validation, and reports with hard evidence. These challenges don’t bode well for organizations already suffering from a lack of skilled cybersecurity personnel spending much of their time generating manual reports from disparate tools.

Digital Transformation is Accelerating Security Testing

Relying upon manual interventions to defend against highly sophisticated threats is like fighting a fast-spreading fire with a squirt gun. Without automation, organizations become hamstrung and limit their ability to scale security operations to meet new threats.

The shortage in skilled security professionals is tasking security teams with having to do more with less. Automation can reduce the testing time and effort in identifying and prioritizing attack surfaces from days or weeks to just minutes. Auto pentesting allows organizations to validate new implementations throughout the DevOps cycle and integrate into the CI/CD pipeline. Testing across the development lifecycle allows security personnel to focus on remediation, rather than manually testing each process. And because pen testing is highly accurate, security personnel will spend less time manually triaging false positives.

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Lydia Zhang

Lydia Zhang is president and co-founder of Ridge Security. She holds an impressive entrepreneurial-focused resume that includes 20 years of leadership roles in network and cybersecurity. Lydia leads a Silicon Valley cybersecurity startup that develops automated penetration testing with the goal of delivering innovative security technologies to all. Prior to founding Ridge Security, Zhang held senior vice president and product management roles at Hillstone Networks and Cisco Systems. She holds a double Masters, MA and MS, from USC, and a degree from Tsinghua University in Biomedical Engineering.

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