Manual Testing is a Vital Component of Securing an Application

Why Manual Testing is Vital for Your Application’s Security

Manual Testing is a Vital Component of Securing an ApplicationIn the world of Information Technology, maintaining adequate application security is just as important as developing a functional software application that fulfills its requirements. As both end-users and executives become more acutely aware of major cybersecurity threats surrounding applications, engineers are beginning to implement more security measures to mitigate costly data breaches. One method of maintaining application and data security is by incorporating security testing into software development life cycle phases. This includes the use of automated security scanning and manual security testing, both of which differ greatly in their implementation.

What is the Difference Between Automated and Manual Application Testing?

Automated scanning typically encompasses a static source code, white-box scan that tests the application from the “inside-out.” Automated software can also test the running application (dynamic testing). These tests typically are passive in nature, and search the entire attack surface for vulnerable points that can be exploited by malicious cyber-criminals.

Manual testing generally includes black-box (or white-box) penetration testing, which is an active test generally conducted against a running application to test the implementation of source code from the outside-in. Such a test seeks to actively determine if secure coding processes have been followed. This type of test also seeks to bypass security controls that are in place. Some examples of manual testing tools include Burp Suite, OWASP Zap, MetaSploit, and frameworks/toolkits associated with Kali Linux. Manual tests also include comprehensive code reviews conducted by security experts. While automated scanners require little human input outside of configuration, manual testing requires a human to directly test the system using their penetration skills in conjunction with toolkits and frameworks.

What are the Limitations of Manual Testing?

The singular, major limitation of manual testing is the skill set of the individual conducting the test. Cybersecurity and manual testing is a vast subject, thus everything from toolkits to methodologies to secure coding knowledge and experience plays a major role in how productive a manual tester will be. Due to a potentially large amount of code/data to test, when it comes to scanning for basic, known vulnerabilities, the use of automated scanners can be more efficient. This is the case since using scanning software to match the application’s source code with vulnerability patterns based on set parameters can cut down on time requirements for testing. This can leave an experienced tester with the task of conducting specific, targeted manual testing. Simply put, while manual testing is a necessity, automated software can scan an application and find known vulnerabilities faster than a human can. The use of automated scanners is the most efficient practice for identifying common vulnerabilities in an application, a manual tester can test the application after a thorough automated scan to identify less common issues.

The Experience of the Tester Themselves

The experience and knowledge of the security engineer is paramount in gauging how successful a manual security test will be. Knowledge working with a variety of frameworks, platforms, and programming languages is important. For the latter, it is important for a tester to have both theoretical knowledge and experience working with the known vulnerabilities associated with different coding languages (e.g. Buffer Overflows in C++). In addition to this, previous experience in application development will give the tester knowledge and experience on what types of vulnerabilities that an automated scanner may miss.

Education of the Person Conducting the Test

A professional security tester should be thoroughly educated in the field of cybersecurity. Whether dealing with web applications, network security, or the security of mobile applications, a cybersecurity tester should have a thorough understanding of software engineering, security, networking, cryptography, and more. The education of the tester, and their level of experience is directly proportional to how successful the security test will be.

Types of Tests the Technician is Experienced With

While there are a handful of different types of security tests that can be conducted, there are a myriad of tools, platforms and frameworks that one can use and gain experience with. At the same time, a tester may be more experienced dealing with white-box tests as opposed to black-box tests, or may have conducted dynamic tests more than static tests in the past. Combined with the various methods and tools available to a tester, there are numerous possibilities associated with how experienced a technician is with a given type of tool or test.

Who They Have Worked With

As with any industry, the professional experience of a security tester, and how successful they are at conducting tests, is largely dependent not only on education but on practical training and mentorship. In an optimal situation, a security tester should work as an apprentice under a senior security engineer, and should have sufficient hands-on training to allow him or her to work with a variety of toolkits, programming languages, and testing methodologies.

While mentors are good for guiding the maturation of the security tester, a hands-on trainer is equally important to help the tester work efficiently. Without a mentor or trainer, a security technician may not be as adept at conducting a variety of security tests as efficiently as a tester that has been mentored and trained by a senior security engineer.

Exposure to Various Applications and Testing Methodologies in the Past

Experience with a variety of applications and testing methodologies provides a tester with a wide spectrum of abilities that can make them more successful. Such experiences consequentially help a tester to be more flexible and productive when working with a myriad of different platforms and applications. This makes makes them a more viable threat that can identify a larger number of vulnerabilities.

Skill Set of the Tester

On par with an education in cybersecurity is how experienced and trained a security specialist is, and what comprises their skill set. The skill set of the tester is typically a good indicator of how experienced he or she is in dealing with different testing frameworks and methodologies, and is based on three things:

  • Training – a tester needs to be trained in working with the wide variety of security testing tools available, and to know how to identify well-known and lesser-known vulnerabilities.
  • Certifications – Certifications such as Security+, CEH, OSCP, GPEN, GMOB, and CISSP are industry-standards which show that a security engineer has both knowledge and hands-on training dealing with the security of systems, networks and applications.
  • Experience – Hands-on experience working as a tester helps a security expert to excel in testing applications using familiar methods and even newer, less familiar ones.

How Much Time They Have Allocated to Conduct Tests

Even with efficient testing workflows and a productive developmental pipeline, the amount of time allocated to testing can greatly affect the outcome of an application’s overall security. Time constraints for testing an application’s security means that the amount of testing will be compressed, which can result in security debt accumulating. In addition to this, too little time for testing means that some security vulnerabilities may not be identified.

The Budget Allocated for Testing

As with time constraints, corporate budgets play a large role in overall application security testing. An adequate budget is required to cover the utilization of robust testing tools and frameworks – as well as providing testing personnel – and to provide the resources for the remediation process, if it’s needed.

Limitations of Automated Application Security Testing

While manual testing is a powerful testing process that has inherent limitations, automated security testing is also limited in its ability to thoroughly ensure data security. Some of these limitations include its narrow ability to detect vulnerabilities based on set parameters for basic attack vectors, and its inclusion of false positives. In addition to this, scanners are limited in their inability to detect categories such as phishing, malware, and zero-day exploits.

It Can Only Look for Predetermined Vulnerabilities

Automated scanners are set to look for vulnerability patterns and signatures, and are inherently limited to known security issues. Scanners usually focus on basic attack vectors, typically those of the OWASP Top 10 and similar lists, and thus do not usually include more advanced attack vectors such as zero-day exploits (which are unknown to the security community until they happen). Such common security issues include XSS, SQLi, Buffer Overflows, JavaScript/Command Injection, etc. However, as new threats are discovered on a daily basis, these scanners will not be able to discover these new vulnerabilities.

Another limitation is based on the nature of being a software-based tool. Whether proprietary or open source, such scanners are only as good as the developers that created them. Thus the scanner’s effectiveness is based solely on the creator’s knowledge of vulnerabilities and their experience working with application security as a whole.

Provide a False Sense of Security

As noted above, automated scanners generally only cover a limited set of vulnerabilities, and thus may provide a report indicating that application systems are secure while security holes exist. More advanced vulnerabilities may not be discovered by most scanners, leaving your application wide open to attack while convincing corporate executives to incorrectly believe that complete application security has been achieved.

The Automated Scanner is Limited by Whoever is Actually Running It

A tool is only as good as the person that uses it. While manual testing also uses tools, penetration testing tools and frameworks require manual work with application systems, while automated scanners require little human input, greatly limiting their effectiveness. In addition to this, the many false positives that often result when using automated scanners require the keen intuition of an experienced security engineer to differentiate between correct scanning results and incorrect ones. This requires both knowing what the tool looks for, and requires fine-tuning the tool to eliminate further false positives. Thus, to use automated tools effectively, a technician must know how to configure the rules of the scanner, which requires in-depth security knowledge. The effectiveness of scanners is limited by the technician that runs it.

In the end, security tools are simply extensions of a technician, and are never a replacement for experienced security specialists.

About The Author

Aaron Cure

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