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What Is Automated Penetration Testing?

LAST UPDATED: September 11, 2023

Picus Labs   By Picus Labs  •  September 08, 2023, 9 min read

Automated penetration testing tools play a pivotal role in cybersecurity, offering organizations insights into potential vulnerabilities within their systems. However, when selecting these solutions, organizations must exercise caution. Traditional automated penetration testing tools often focus primarily on known vulnerabilities, offering a limited scope.

In contrast, Picus Complete Security Control Validation platform delivers a more expansive approach with its comprehensive threat library that not only identifies vulnerabilities but also simulates how a skilled adversary might exploit them. This holistic approach provides organizations with context-aware insights into the potential business impact of an attack. Furthermore, Picus goes beyond mere identification by offering vendor-based mitigation suggestions, ensuring that customers are not left in the lurch, wondering how to address and remediate identified vulnerabilities.

What Is Automated Penetration Testing?

Automated penetration testing is a cybersecurity process that uses software tools to simulate cyberattacks on a system, network, or application within an organization's IT environment to identify and remediate vulnerabilities before adversaries can exploit them.

Rather than relying solely on the expertise and tactics of human penetration testers, automated penetration testing streamlines the process by rapidly scanning for known software vulnerabilities, such as missing security patches, common password vulnerabilities, or unintended internet exposures

Automated penetration testing tools are designed to detect a wide array of vulnerabilities, offering continuous protection against the ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats. While they do not entirely replace the nuanced expertise of a human tester, they provide an efficient and scalable means to enhance security posture, especially when complemented with periodic manual assessments.

What Gartner Thinks About Automated Penetration Testing?

In the "Hype Cycle for Security Operations, 2023" report by Gartner [1], there's a pronounced emphasis on the growing significance of automated penetration testing solutions in the contemporary security landscape. 

Recognizing this crucial trend identified by Gartner, Picus underscores its longstanding commitment to security by offering a sophisticated Complete Security Control Validation platform. This platform not only provides users with an advanced automated penetration testing experience compared to regular and traditional practices, but also delivers immediate remediation suggestions such as vendor-based prevention signatures, as well as detection rules for SIEM products

Echoing Gartner's focus, Picus Complete Security Control Validation platform ensures that organizations are not just equipped to identify vulnerabilities but are also ready and equipped to proactively address them, championing continuous assessment and reinforcement of security controls.

Figure 1. Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Security Operations, September 2023 [1]

In the "Hype Cycle for Security Operations" report by Gartner, the Picus Complete Security Validation platform offers its customers Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS), Penetration Testing as a Service (PTaaS), Automated Penetration Testing and Red Teaming Technologies, and Automated Security Control Assessment (ASCA) practices.

How Does Automated Penetration Testing Differ from Manual Penetration Testing?

Automated penetration testing and manual penetration testing are both essential components of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, but they differ in their approach, capabilities, and the depth of assessment they offer. 

Automated penetration testing leverages tools and software to scan systems and identify known vulnerabilities. It's particularly effective at rapidly scanning large networks or systems and detecting common weaknesses. This method is driven by pre-programmed rules, algorithms, and vulnerability databases, making it adept at identifying routine and known threats. However, its scope is confined to its programming, which means it may overlook novel or complex vulnerabilities.

On the other hand, manual penetration testing involves human ethical hackers meticulously exploring systems to detect vulnerabilities that might be missed by automated tools. These professionals bring to the table their critical thinking, adaptability, and ability to understand the business logic and context of a system. Their expertise allows them to identify custom threats, execute targeted attacks tailored to a specific system's nuances, and adapt to emerging threat vectors. Additionally, they can validate the results from automated tests, eliminating potential false positives and uncovering false negatives.

While automated tools provide a broad and rapid assessment, manual testing delves deep, offering insights grounded in the real-world tactics and strategies of attackers. The dynamic nature of cyber threats and the evolving landscape make the combination of both these methods indispensable. Automated tools offer efficiency and scale, but the nuanced understanding, creativity, and adaptability of human experts ensure a thorough and accurate assessment of an organization's security posture.

Benefits of Penetration Testing Automation

In today's dynamic and complex IT environments, organizations face a continuous challenge. 

Organizations need to 

  • quickly identify new vulnerabilities, 
  • assess if a patch is available, 
  • gain complete visibility on their assets, 
  • understand which products are affected, 
  • measure the potential business impact, and 
  • decide on the patching strategy without causing business disruption.

Penetration testing automation offers a solution. It swiftly scans systems for known software flaws and can incorporate updates to stay in line with the latest cyber threats. By handling repetitive tasks, it allows testers and developers to focus on more nuanced challenges. Regular testing with automated tools ensures consistent protection against emerging threats and helps address vulnerabilities promptly. While these tools can't replace human testers, they significantly enhance the penetration testing process, making it more efficient and responsive to the ever-changing world of cybersecurity.

Advantages and Challenges of Automated Penetration Testing

Automated tools bring notable advantages. They

  • offer cost-effective solutions, 
  • deliver rapid results, 
  • can scale with ease, and 
  • are proficient at identifying common vulnerabilities.

Their suitability for routine evaluations and reduced reliance on deep expertise, coupled with their capability for consistent monitoring, make them attractive. 

However, they often provide 

  • only a surface-level analysis, 
  • have a propensity for false alerts, and 
  • can struggle to recognize the recent, unknown vulnerabilities.

Their limited scope in identifying all attack vectors, difficulties in adapting to ever-changing environments, challenges in executing intricate attack sequences, and the provision of generalized feedback underscore the necessity of combining them with human expertise.

Here are both the pros and cons of automated penetration testing.



Budget-friendly: Allows for cybersecurity measures even with limited financial resources.

Surface-level analysis: The depth of assessment might be basic, potentially overlooking deeper vulnerabilities.

Instant feedback: Provides almost immediate insights into potential vulnerabilities, helping in faster decision-making.

Increased potential for false alerts: The system may frequently flag non-issues, which can lead to unnecessary resource allocation.

Easier to scale: Can easily be expanded across larger networks without significantly increased effort or resources.

Difficulty identifying novel threats: Newly emerging or less common vulnerabilities might not be detected, leading to possible exposures.

Good for common vulnerabilities: Effectively identifies and addresses well-known and frequently encountered security flaws.

Incomplete attack vector identification: Not all possible breach methods or scenarios might be recognized, potentially leaving gaps in defense.

Optimal for periodic evaluations: Ideally suited for regular, routine checks ensuring consistent security oversight.

Challenges in adapting to dynamic infrastructures: For systems and networks that change frequently, consistent threat detection might be an issue.

Reduced reliance on expertise: Makes it possible to conduct initial assessments without a deep pool of expert personnel.

Struggles with complex attack chains: Multi-step or coordinated attacks might go unnoticed or might not be fully understood by the system.

Limited customization: Designed for specific, standard scenarios that might be commonly encountered by many organizations.

Not optimized for discreet evaluations: The approach might be detectable, making it unsuitable for stealthy security assessments.

Continuous monitoring possible: Enables continuous monitoring of systems, ensuring constant vigilance against potential threats.

Generalized feedback: The system's output may lack the specific guidance required for effective remediation and security enhancements.

Continuous Automated Penetration and Attack Testing with Picus

In the realm of cybersecurity, it's not just about identifying known vulnerabilities; it's about proactive defense against real-world threats. Picus Complete Security Control Validation platform elevates automated penetration testing beyond the standard by not merely scanning known vulnerabilities. 

Instead, our platform harnesses a vast and continually updated threat library, curated by seasoned red team professionals. When a new vulnerability emerges, be it a known flaw or a zero-day vulnerability accompanied by publicly available proofs of concept or exploit examples, our team acts swiftly. We incorporate the corresponding threat into our library and simulate an attack that safely mimics the exploitation of that vulnerability.


Figure 2. Vulnerability Exploitation Attack Simulations with Picus Complete Security Control Validation Platform

This means that with Picus Complete Security Control Validation platform, organizations aren't just getting a snapshot of their vulnerabilities; they're getting a real-time simulation of how recent threats could impact them.

Figure 3. Vendor-Based Mitigation Suggestions for Vulnerabilities by Picus Complete Security Control Validation Platform

Moreover, our platform goes the extra mile by offering vendor-specific mitigation suggestions, ensuring businesses are not only aware of their vulnerabilities but are equipped with actionable insights to defend against them. By simulating real-life tactics, techniques, and procedures of adversaries, Picus offers a holistic approach to continuous automated penetration and attack testing, ensuring organizations are always a step ahead in their cybersecurity endeavors.

Automated Network Penetration Testing

Automated network penetration testing is an essential aspect of modern cybersecurity, aiming to uncover vulnerabilities and weaknesses within an organization's network infrastructure. The Picus Complete Security Control Validation platform stands out in this domain by offering an extensive threat library encompassing a wide array of network infiltration attacks. 

Users are empowered to customize their testing parameters by selecting specific attack categories, including Attack Scenario, Data Exfiltration, Lateral Movement Techniques, Malicious Code, Vulnerability Exploitation, and Web Application.

Figure 4. Simulating Network Infiltration Attacks Leveraging the Vulnerability Exploitation Attack Category with Picus Complete Security Control Validation Platform.

Given that penetration testing, whether human-led or automated, fundamentally aims at leveraging system vulnerabilities, the "Vulnerability Exploitation" category is especially pivotal. 

This category allows users to emulate realistic scenarios in which adversaries might exploit specific vulnerabilities to gain initial access to networks. The beauty of the Picus platform lies in its capability to safely simulate these attacks within the client's environment without any business disruptions. Beyond mere identification, it offers a proactive security approach, enabling clients to ascertain not only the presence of a vulnerability but also the potential severity of its exploitation, determining if it could lead to business-critical consequences.

Figure 5. Mitigation Suggestions by Picus Complete Security Control Validation Platform for Vulnerability Exploitation Attacks

In fact, once the simulation is conducted, the Picus platform provides immediate vendor-based mitigation suggestions, not leaving you with a single result that says

  • Yes, you are likely to suffer from that vulnerability on a business-critical level.”,

but also says

  • Here are the vendor-based prevention signatures that you can apply on your security controls to prevent a possible attack.

Hence, Picus Complete Security Control Validation platform provides an advanced and proactive penetration testing practice to organizations.

Open Source Automated Penetration Testing Tools

Automated penetration testing has become an invaluable method to uncover glaring security vulnerabilities within systems. While there are several tools available for this purpose, here's a list of open-source options that can be considered:

  • Nessus: Offered by Tenable for system scanning.
  • Metasploit: User-friendly for comprehensive penetration tests.
  • OpenVAS: Free tool with advanced scans and its own framework.
  • BurpSuite: Comes in both open-source and premium versions.
  • Nikto: A free tool designed for automated penetration testing.
  • Nmap: Identifies network ports and related assets.
  • SQLmap: Useful for detecting potential injection attacks.

While the aforementioned tools offer valuable insights, they can produce a significant number of false positives. Interpreting these results often demands a dedicated professional to discern between genuine vulnerabilities and potential false-positive alarms. This somewhat counters the inherent advantages of automated penetration testing. 

It's therefore imperative for organizations to not only understand their vulnerabilities but also gauge the business-critical risks associated with them. Platforms such as the Picus Complete Security Control Validation platform provide a more comprehensive and context-aware assessment, enabling organizations to navigate the complex landscape of security threats with greater precision.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Here are the most frequently used questions regarding automated penetration testing.
Should I Do Manual or Automated Penetration Testing?
To achieve a robust level of security, we recommend performing both manual and automated penetration testing (more commonly known as vulnerability scanning). The automated tools provide continuity of security and speed whereas humans excel at finding more complex vulnerabilities, so you will benefit from combining the two. Read our blog to find out more about the differences.
What Is Automated Penetration Testing?
Automated penetration testing utilizes software tools to simulate cyberattacks on a system, network, or application to identify vulnerabilities without human intervention. It provides quicker vulnerability detection compared to manual methods.
Can AI Do Penetration Testing?
Yes, AI can assist in penetration testing by automating complex tasks, analyzing vast amounts of data, and adapting attack patterns based on defense responses. However, human expertise is still essential for context-driven tests and interpreting results.
What Are The Three 3 Types of Penetration Tests?
The three primary types of penetration testing are black-box assessment (no prior knowledge of the system), white-box assessment (complete knowledge of the system), and gray-box assessment (partial knowledge).
What Are the Advantages of Automated Penetration Testing?
Automated penetration testing offers fast vulnerability detection, protection against a wide range of threats, accessibility online, and scalability. It can quickly scan large networks or systems, providing immediate feedback on potential security threats.
Please click here to see the references

[1] “Hype Cycle for Security Operations, 2023,” Gartner. Available: [Accessed: Sep. 07, 2023]

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