Manual penetration tests vs. automated: What’s the difference?

Manual penetration tests vs.  automated: What’s the difference?

A penetration test (or pen test) is an authorized cyberattack against a network. It is not done to damage a network, but to measure its ability to repel attacks. After a penetration test, security weaknesses can be fixed.

Penetration testing can be done both manually, with humans, and automatically with tools. Each has different pros and cons, and it’s not always obvious which one is right for you.


So what’s the difference between automatic and manual penetration testing, and which one is right for your business? Let’s find out below.

What is manual penetration testing?

Manual penetration tests are performed by humans. Ethical hackers attempt to break into a system using a variety of techniques. They then document their attempts to do so, point out security flaws, and make recommendations to fix them.

Manual penetration tests often include automated penetration tests because the people involved use automated tools. Before the invention of automated penetration testing, manual penetration testing was the only option for a company that wanted to assess system security.

The advantages of manual pen tests

Manual penetration testing is more powerful in several ways. So, let’s see its advantages.

1. Identify additional problems

Cyber ​​attacks are obviously carried out by human hackers and no tool can predict how they will try to access a network. Because of this, manual penetration tests, which are performed by security experts, can often identify vulnerabilities that automated tools miss.

2. Does not produce false positives

All security tools produce false positives. A false positive is a warning about a vulnerability that does not exist or is not a real threat. Penetration testing tools often produce false positives; this not only wastes the time of the IT staff using them, but also distracts from the real threats. All vulnerabilities are investigated during a manual penetration test and false positives are ruled out.

3. Provide practical advice

Once a manual penetration test is complete, a report is provided to the business that explains the issues identified and how those issues should be fixed. Many ethical hackers also provide assistance in doing so. Automated tools also provide reports, but they are less detailed and don’t always explain what a business should do next.

The Cons of Manual Pen Testing

As much as we like manual penetration tests, they are significantly more expensive. Here’s a look at its downsides.

1. Prohibitive cost

Manual pen tests are significantly more expensive than automated tests. While automated penetration testing is simply a matter of running software, a manual penetration test must be planned. Instead of renting software, a company needs to hire security professionals. Manual penetration tests also require additional work on the part of a company.

2. Diverse skill sets

The effectiveness of manual penetration testing depends entirely on the skill set of the person hired to perform it. Therefore, if you hire the wrong person, important vulnerabilities can go unnoticed. This is in contrast to automated tools, which, while not as comprehensive, are guaranteed to meet a certain standard.

What is the automated pen test?

Automated Penetration Testing is the process of testing a system using computerized tools instead of human expertise. It is significantly cheaper than manual testing because IT staff can perform it without the need to hire an ethical hacker.

Penetration testing tools can quickly inspect a system and point out any vulnerabilities that a hacker could use to gain access. It is popular with small businesses that want to test their network but have a limited budget to do so.

The Advantages of Automated Penetration Testing

One of the biggest advantages of automated penetration testing is that it doesn’t cost a lot of money.

1. Less of an investment

Automated penetration tests are significantly cheaper than manual penetration tests. Instead of hiring a security professional, you simply pay for the software. Automated penetration testing software is also designed to be used by regular IT staff without additional training.

2. Can be performed repeatedly

Due to the significantly lower cost of automated solutions, most businesses can afford to run them regularly. Most companies only perform manual penetration testing once, while you could rent the penetration testing software for a monthly fee. This is very beneficial as new vulnerabilities are constantly being discovered.

3. It identifies many of the same problems.

Automatic penetration tests are not as thorough as manual ones, but they can still detect a wide range of security issues. Depending on the quality of a company’s network, automated penetration tests may uncover identical problems at a fraction of the price.

The cons of automated pen tests

Next, we will look at the single biggest downside of automated penetration testing.

1. Does not identify all vulnerabilities

The main disadvantage of automated tools is that they cannot identify all vulnerabilities. They can’t detect errors in business logic, and they can’t determine how vulnerable a company is to social engineering. Manual penetration tests often include attempts to access a network via phishing attacks, which is not practical with an automated tool.

Which one is right for your business?

Both manual and automated penetration tests can be used to make a network more secure. Although both can identify vulnerabilities, the right one for your business mostly depends on how much you want to spend.

If you are prepared to invest in manual penetration testing, this will provide you with a higher level of testing and a better understanding of your network security. Hiring security experts also means that you will be given advice on how best to implement the necessary changes.

Automated penetration tests are a cheaper alternative and are popular with businesses that want to understand their network’s security posture without investing a lot of money. While not capable of identifying all vulnerabilities, the lower price also means that automated penetration tests can be performed more frequently.

Ultimately, many companies choose to use a combination of manual and automated penetration testing. This allows them to benefit from a comprehensive network security test, after which they can employ automated penetration tests to discover new vulnerabilities.

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