Efficiency and Effectiveness: Achieving Robust Security through Hybrid Penetration Testing

Bar Refael

July 12, 2023

TL;DR

  1. Maintain a strong cybersecurity posture despite ever-evolving threats – test your defenses routinely.
  2. The increasing popularity for automated penetration testing.
  3. Combining manual and automated penetration testing provides a comprehensive approach to identifying and mitigating security risks.
  4. The pros and cons for each method. 
  5. Prominent cyber attacks and their implications.

Introduction:

In today’s ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats, organizations face an unprecedented need to strengthen their defense mechanisms and protect their digital assets. Penetration testing has emerged as a vital practice in assessing the security posture of organizations and identifying vulnerabilities that could potentially be exploited by malicious actors.

As the other side (attackers) continues to evolve and employ ever more creative tactics, organizations must recognize the growing importance of strengthening their defense mechanisms and protecting their digital assets and sensitive data. This includes investing in practices like penetration testing to assess their security posture, identify vulnerabilities, and stay ahead of malicious actors. As we look towards the future of cybersecurity, it becomes increasingly crucial to recognize the growing importance of both manual and automated penetration testing. 

In this article, we will explore the value of both manual and automated penetration testing approaches, shed light on notable attacks occurring in late 2022 into early 2023, and demonstrate effective strategies for incident remediation. 

The Rising Need for Automated Penetration Testing:

In the face of an ever-changing threat environment and continuous organizational digitization, particularly towards cloud dependency, organizations must engage a holistic approach that blends both automated and manual penetration testing strategies. Automated tools provide 24/7, 365 days of scalability and efficiency for analyzing large systems, while manual testing leverages human skill, creativity, and the ability to unearth intricate vulnerabilities missed by automated tools. 

At OP Innovate, we underline the crucial role of this integrative approach in enabling organizations to dramatically improve their ability to pinpoint and address potential security risks. By employing a blend of automated and manual penetration testing, organizations can establish a strong security stance.

Automated penetration testing offers numerous benefits that organizations should leverage:

  • Scalability: Automation enables organizations to test their systems at scale, assessing vulnerabilities across multiple applications, networks, and infrastructure components simultaneously.
  • Continuous Monitoring: By implementing automated penetration testing tools, organizations can conduct regular, ongoing assessments to promptly identify and address emerging vulnerabilities between manual PT sprints.
  • Time and Cost Efficiency: Automated testing reduces the time and resources required for testing, allowing organizations to focus on strategic security initiatives while maintaining a robust security posture.

Evaluating Vulnerability Detection Approaches: A Comparative Analysis of Automated Scanners vs Manual Assessment

ApproachConsPros
Manual Penetration Testing (MPT)Can be time-consuming and costly.Relies on the skill set of the research team.Provides flexibility and in-depth vulnerability discovery.Leverages expertise in analyzing application responses.Identifies additional problems and avoids false positives.Constitutes a project-type engagement, customized testing, and detailed reports.
Automated Penetration Testing (APT)Relies on the quality of the tools and the user’s knowledge, and may not cover all testing scenarios.May not detect all vulnerabilities and lacks the depth of manual testing.May not tailor to specific needs, lack real threat actor representation, and produce false positives.Provides consistent and  frequent testing.Cheaper and can be performed repeatedly.Offers low cost and speed.
Hybrid Penetration Testing (HPT)Requires careful balance and management to ensure that the benefits of both approaches are effectively utilized.Combines the benefits of both manual and automated testing.Can be tailored to specific requirements.Provides comprehensive security.complex exploitation attempts. 

This table gives a generalized view, and actual results can vary depending on various factors such as the complexity of the systems being tested, the skill level of the testers, the quality of the tools used, and so on.

Prominent Attacks and Their Implications:

Despite continuous security improvements, cybercriminals continue to find new ways to exploit vulnerabilities. Below are a couple of noteworthy attacks that we came across this year that highlight the importance of combining manual and automated penetration testing. 

Case Study 1:  Optus – The Limitations of Exclusively Manual Penetration Testing.

In late 2022, Optus suffered a major data breach, resulting in unauthorized access to customer data. The attacker demanded a payment of $1 million in cryptocurrency from Optus else they would disseminate the stolen data. It is not clearly stated whether Optus complied with this ransom request. 

The breach exposed various types of personal information, including names, email addresses, phone numbers, addresses, and in some cases, identification numbers like passport and driver’s license numbers. Additionally, Medicare details of nearly 37,000 customers were exposed, which was initially unmentioned by Optus.

The incident, which saw the compromise of approximately 10 million customer accounts, brought into question the effectiveness of Optus’ current approach to cybersecurity.

It is assumed that attack paths and lateral movement began at the initial entry point into the network via open API. Once a presence has been established on the network, attackers conduct reconnaissance using their user identity. This includes gathering comprehensive information about the network, including access and available privileges for compromised identities.

The consequences of this breach might be devastating for this company. They might suffer significant financial losses, regulatory penalties and reputational damage, and their recovery would be time and resource consuming. .

This case study underscores the drawbacks of exclusively relying on manual penetration testing. While manual testing can uncover complex vulnerabilities and potential attack vectors, it can miss simple but critical misconfigurations or vulnerabilities that occur outside the scope of the scheduled tests. In this instance, automated scanning tools could have quickly identified the misconfiguration, preventing the breach and its subsequent consequences.

Case Study 2: Neglected Security – Lessons Learned from a DevOps Software Development Company’s Breach”

This case study highlights the consequences faced by “Y” Software Solutions, a recently established software development company, due to a severe security breach. The incident serves as a wake-up call, emphasizing the criticality of robust monitoring and security practices in a software development environment. Despite adopting a DevOps approach to enhance their development and deployment speed, “Y” Software Solutions overlooked rigorous security assessments and vulnerability testing, leading to the release of a major software update with a critical flaw.

The breach remained undetected for several weeks, allowing malicious actors to access sensitive customer data and proprietary information. Only after customers reported suspicious activity did “Y” Software Solutions become aware of the attack. Recognizing the need for expert assistance, the company enlisted our Incident Response (IR) team to aid in recovery and strengthen their security measures.

To prevent future breaches and align with the highest security standards, “Y” Software Solutions would incorporate hybrid penetration testing into their security practices. This approach would provide a more comprehensive and effective testing strategy, addressing their commitment to mitigating cyber risks and ensuring resilience.

Case Study 3: Company X – The Importance of Holistic Perspective in Penetration Testing.

In their early days, Company “X”, a rising fintech startup located in New York, chose to invest heavily in automated penetration testing services. They utilized a leading automated vulnerability scanner and conducted network scanning on a weekly basis.  We met Company “X” in early 2023 when they became one of our Incident Response (IR) customers having suffered a cybersecurity incident. The breach resulted in significant loss of sensitive customer data and cost the company millions in both financial and reputational damage.

The post-incident forensic investigation revealed that the breach was likely due to a misconfigured scanner. While the scanner had indeed detected a SQL Injection vulnerability, it had deemed it a medium severity issue. Left unresolved, this vulnerability was exploited by the cyber attackers, demonstrating how a seemingly minor flaw can lead to disastrous consequences when its implications are not fully understood and addressed.

This underlines a key issue with relying solely on automated penetration testing. While automated tools provide valuable broad-spectrum coverage, they often lack the nuanced understanding that a manual tester can bring to the table. A manual tester would have recognized the risk that a medium severity SQLi could pose to an asset of significant value, prompting immediate mitigation measures.

The connection between the three case studies lies in the importance of a balanced and comprehensive approach to cybersecurity testing. Relying solely on manual testing or automated scanning has its limitations, as demonstrated by the vulnerabilities that were missed in both approaches. 

Combining manual penetration testing with automated scanning can provide a more effective and thorough assessment of an organization’s security posture. Manual testing allows for the identification of complex vulnerabilities and specific target areas that automated tools may miss, while automated scanning enhances the frequency and coverage of vulnerability detection. By leveraging the strengths of both approaches, organizations can better protect their systems and data against potential threats.

In summary, companies and organizations should be prepared to effectively respond to emerging threats by integrating a combination of manual and automated testing techniques that can help organizations strengthen their security posture, minimize incident damage, and maintain stakeholder trust in the evolving threat landscape. Automated testing offers scalability and efficiency, but it cannot replace the expertise and ingenuity of manual testing. Therefore, by leveraging the best of both approaches, organizations can strengthen their defenses, reduce risk, and ensure a safer digital ecosystem for all.

Don’t wait until an incident occurs and you need an IR team. Take proactive measures and contact us to discuss which penetration test can help ensure your business is secure.

About The Author 

Bar Refael is a cyber security researcher and Web penetration tester at OP Innovate, specializing in web applications, open source security and code review. He is the man who is responsible for making the Hybrid Pentesting mode effective. He enjoys listening to Classic rock and Punk-Rock and lives in Hod Hasharon with his family.

About Us 

OP Innovate was established in 2014 to defend global enterprises from the increasing challenges of organizational cybersecurity. Our team has unmatched expertise in cyber research, penetration testing, incident response, training, and forensics. Our team members are exposed to cutting-edge responses to today’s most critical cybersecurity concerns, allowing us and our partners to remain ahead of the bad guys.

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