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Application Security Testing – Automated Vs Manual

The massive rise in the number of web and mobile applications in recent years has indirectly led to an inferno of cybercrime that aims to exploit application-layer vulnerabilities. Organizations have a wide range of security products at their disposal today, but they are often unable to decide between automated and manual application security testing. This article aims at providing an in-depth comparison between the two methodologies.

Manual Application Security Testing Explained


Manual application security testing, which is still implemented in numerous organizations all around the world, is a methodology that has been in use for decades. Just as the name suggests, this testing technique involves the manual revision and examining of application code with the help of security professionals using dedicated security tools.


The three phases of manual application security testing include:


Syncing: The initial process involves the security officials having lengthy discussions with the developers. This is done to try and optimize the testing process by getting more familiar with the application. Needless to say, the interviewing process is complicated and demanding, especially for the developers who are usually busy with their programming tasks.


Reviewing: The security leaders then brief their teams with the information they have collected in the first stage and prepare a work plan based on the time/resource/budget limitations they are facing. The common practice involves the whole team reviewing the entire application code to utilize everyone’s specific field of expertise.


Reporting: First comes the amassing of the findings made by each of the testers, involving elimination of all the False Positives (FP) and irrelevant data. This is followed by the reporting of the findings to the project managers and team leaders, who in turn pass on the information to the relevant developers for mitigation actions.


This reporting includes a basic summary of the findings and a detailed breakdown of the vulnerabilities as per their severity. It ideally should contain remediation recommendations.


The three aforementioned stages lead to the remediation process. Unfortunately due to the late detection of the issues, pin-pointing vulnerable junctions in the application code and fixing them on time turn into daunting tasks. Organizations often have to resort to releasing post-release security updates and patches to try and clog the various issues.


Penetration (Pen) Testing has traditionally gone hand in hand with manual application security testing. This is where the testers try to mimic hackers with dedicated tools and try to expose vulnerabilities. But the high costs and limited coverage have always limited the scope of this methodology, which is best used as a complimentary security tool.


Related – Game of Hacks: Promoting Secure Coding Practices


What is Automated Application Security Testing?


Automated application security testing basically involves the automation of the testing process. The security solution is integrated into all stages of the development process, providing findings and feedback on a constant basis. Every change to the code is analyzed automatically and the developers are alerted if vulnerabilities are found.


The security testing starts scanning the application code in the pre-commit stages. Raw chunks of source code can be scanned for a wide range of vulnerabilities, which can then be squashed easily. This quick mitigation of flaws/loopholes eventually leads to improved code integrity and better coding practices among developers in the organization.


Static Application Security Testing (SAST) solutions, also known as White Box testing, are more flexible and can be integrated into all types of developer environments. This includes Waterfall scenarios, Continuous Integration (CICD) environments and also Agile/DevOps, which have arguably become the top choice for large/complex projects.


Static Code Analysis (SCA), a leading SAST solution, can be easily integrated into build automation tools and Continuous Integration servers. This out-of-the-box functionality, along with the light-weight plugins that sit in the developer IDEs, enables smooth remediation. Organizations can then plan, create and enforce security benchmarks.


Related – Application Security in Continuous Integration


Automated vs Manual – Why Automated Application Security Testing?

1 – Better Human Resource Management


With automated application security testing, lesser personnel is needed to perform the scanning and analysis. Security reports are generated automatically and can be exported as XML or PDF files for offline scrutiny. The build can also be halted when a medium or severe level vulnerability is detected, something that can be pre-defined by the security officers.


2 – Avoiding Human Errors and Drawbacks


Using human resources for security tasks requires the security team to know the application inside-out. More often than not, the security team is not in complete sync with the developers, leading to a wide range of human errors. More technical problems can arise when old members of the security team leave and new workers need to be brought up to speed.


3 – Faster Results in Bigger Projects


Modern web and mobile applications typically consist of many KLOCs. This can be an overwhelming task for a small team of security experts, regardless of their experience and tools used in the process. Automated application security testing has no problem scanning large projects and has the added benefit of not needing to re-scan unchanged code.


4 – Better ROI


Automated application security testing enables the detection and mitigation of application layer vulnerabilities early in the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). This saves the organization a lot of time, resources and money. There is also no need to employ extra workers just to perform security testing, something that saves organizations money.


Static Code Analysis



5 – Full Integration in CICD, Agile & DevOps Environments


CICD, Agile and DevOps development techniques are becoming more and more popular in large organizations as they allow different teams to work simultaneously on the same project. Automated application security testing fits the bill perfectly as it doesn’t need to scan unchanged code, offers fast scanning speeds and also full SDLC integration.


6 – Wider Vulnerability Coverage and Detection of Code Errors/Flaws


Manual application security testing performed by human reviewers is simply not effective in locating coding errors such as buffer overflows. Automated application security testing is better in locating the leading application-layer vulnerabilities and is more capable of detecting code errors, dead code and other flaws that lead to buggy software.


7 – Better Programming Language Support and Framework Compatibility


Many organizations use a wide range of programming and scripting languages with multiple frameworks, things that require extra training for manual application security testing staff. Automated techniques such as Static Code Analysis (SCA) solve the problem with their wide programming language support along with multiple framework compatibility.


With more and more organizations gravitating towards continuous integration methodologies, security has to be fast, comprehensive and efficient. Automated application security testing is turning out to be the solution of choice for organizations looking to locate vulnerabilities as soon as possible in the SDLC and enforce customized security standards.

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