Breach and Attack Simulation or Pen Testing: Which Solution Does Your Business Need? |

Breach and Attack Simulation or Pen Testing: Which Solution Does Your Business Need?

Cybersecurity is not just about installing malware protection tools or scanning systems to remove infections


Cybersecurity is not just about installing malware protection tools or scanning systems to remove infections. As technologies advance, cyber-attacks evolve, and cybercriminals find more sophisticated ways to skirt defenses. Two of the top solutions organizations use to prepare for these more aggressive attacks are penetration testing and breach and attack simulation (BAS).

Also known as pen test, penetration testing is a form of manual security evaluation method that is undertaken separately from vulnerability assessment. It seeks to examine the effectiveness of a vulnerability management program as well as its related controls. It can verify whether or not assets, networks, hardware, and software have security infirmities, identifying areas or points that may be exploited by attackers.

On the other hand, breach and attack simulation (BAS) is a relatively new security testing tech. It addresses a concern in cybersecurity that is generally described as adjacent to vulnerability assessment. BAS involves automated security testing designed to defeat the integrity of an existing security infrastructure. This is done to determine the points or paths that will most likely be used by cybercriminals.

Both pen test and BAS intend to boost cybersecurity, albeit in different ways or approaches. The questions: Is it necessary to choose one or the other? Is the new tech better than the older but more established one? Is it possible to do both?

The Differences

It’s easy to confuse different security testing methods or technologies with each other, since they share a common goal and core concept. They all aim to enhance cybersecurity by examining the capabilities of a security system.

The following summary should be helpful in differentiating penetration testing and BAS.

Manual vs Automated

As mentioned, pen testing is mostly done via manual, although recently open source software as well as security providers started conducting automated pen testing. It involves security experts or white hat hackers who devise and implement creative ways to attack a security system, then evaluate the results.

With BAS, the attacks are always automated. Security experts employ BAS tools that automate the process of repeatedly and frequently launching attacks. This results in greater security testing efficiency. It has the advantage of ensuring consistency throughout the process and generating reports at a faster rate. Additionally, BAS can provide loads of useful insight on security issues while minimizing the need for the involvement of people in doing the attacks.

The automation, however, does not take away the human factor in the process. In doing the simulations, people need to oversee the outcomes constantly. This human involvement is important because BAS tools need to be configured and customized in relation to the changing cyber threat landscape and the specific situation of an organization.

‘Real’ Attacks vs Simulations

Another important distinction between penetration testing and BAS is the nature of the attacks used. For the former, the attacks are undertaken as if an actual hacker is trying to breach the system—just like a real cyber-attack. When it comes to BAS, the attacks are simulated. This does not mean, though, that simulated attacks are not real. They are essentially similar to real attacks, except that they are controlled and the organization knows what is happening.

In penetration testing, the attackers commissioned by the organization may not provide information on what they intend to do and when they will launch the attacks. If things were to be compared to how the military operates, BAS can be likened to war games. They are simulated skirmishes with real equipment and people involved, but everyone knows what is happening, and there is no intention to inflict actual harm.  Penetration testing, meanwhile, is like the military dangling bounties for anyone who can penetrate their camps or bases successfully.

Temporal vs. Continuous

In terms of duration, penetration testing is different from breach and attack simulation because it is a one-point-in-time undertaking. A pen test project may consist of several independent attacks conducted at different points by different teams. It’s the opposite for BAS, as the attacks are repetitive and iterative. Thanks to automation, the effort to test the effectiveness of a security system using BAS can be re-done numerous times to determine if the system will hold up consistently. If the attacks fail, they may be reconfigured or modified and launched again to find out how the defenses would respond. BAS tools can continuously operate depending on how they are configured.

Additionally, breach and attack simulations cover an entire attack cycle. The automated attacks go through the initial recon, initial compromise, foothold establishment, escalation, internal recon, lateral movement, access maintenance, and mission completion phases. They don’t just stop when a security weakness is discovered. The full cycle of the attack is completed to compile data on how attacks are likely to proceed. This allows security experts to model attacks and prepare for eventualities.

The rationale behind this is the need to learn about all possible attacks in in-depth. If the attack is stopped to plug the loophole that has just been found, the organization will not be acquainted with the consequences of an attack that managed to exploit the loophole. Hence, they will have a hard time applying solutions to a specific attack on a specific security weakness.

So Which Is Better for Your Business?

Arguably, simple penetration testing is inferior to breach and attack simulation. Pen tests that seek out vulnerabilities without a corresponding replication of threat behavior can’t compare to the effectiveness and efficiency of BAS tools. However, sophisticated pen tests that go along the line of red team exercises provide something more valuable to businesses.

As asserted in a post on the blog of Gartner, a security research and advisory company, BAS and red teams are set to make pen tests obsolete. They conduct more thorough and far-reaching tests that generate more insightful information on how to strengthen an organization’s cybersecurity.

With BAS tools being offered as software-as-a-service, they become more attractive options for security testing. Not all businesses have the resources to get these automated security tools in their standalone full version, so the expenditure may make them stick with traditional penetration testing. However, through a SaaS arrangement, BAS tools become more affordable as businesses don’t have to buy them. They can just them on an essentially rental basis at significantly lower costs.

On the question of using both pen test ad BAS, it’s not practical to do so. The latter can cover almost all of what the former addresses with better efficiency. It would be a different story if it’s a more sophisticated form of penetration testing that entails high-quality exercises and replications.

In Conclusion

Breach and attack simulation is a superior security testing tech as compared to simple penetration testing (the manual type). Some security experts predict that its mainstream adoption can cause the eventual demise of pen tests, as it offers greater efficiency and the reduced human involvement in deploying the attacks. Businesses can achieve excellent cyber protection with the help of BAS tools, but it’s still possible to find other security testing options that are more cost-efficient and effective in relation to the specific needs and threat situations. BAS is not a perfect solution, but it’s a highly attractive one.


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