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The illusion of automated vulnerability scans: unveiling the risks and limitations

While automated vulnerability scans provide a quick overview, they often leave critical gaps that can expose businesses to potential risks, giving you a false sense of security. Read our blog post on the limitations of automated vulnerability scans and the steps you can take for a holistic security approach.

Levente MolnarJuly 18, 2023 · 6 min read · Last Updated:

Automated vulnerability scans have become popular among today’s tech-forward organizations use, thanks to their rapid testing capabilities. However, it’s critical to recognize their downsides, as they can give you a false sense of security.

Although these automated scans are useful tools for providing a quick overview, they fall short of offering full and comprehensive protection, leaving critical gaps that can expose your business to potential risks.

Does this mean you should not use automated vulnerability scans? No, but you should not rely too much on them either. Ideally, they should be integrated into a comprehensive set of security testing methodologies employed by your company.

In this blog post, we explore the limitations of automated vulnerability scans and shed light on the importance of a more holistic security approach.

Limitations of automated vulnerability scans

Automated vulnerability scans suffer from a significant limitation: they can only scan your code for known vulnerabilities that are already documented in public databases like the CVE List. They do not scan for unknown vulnerabilities.

The reality is that all vulnerabilities start as unknown, and most of them remain undisclosed for a while too. It’s only after these vulnerabilities have already caused significant damage to various applications worldwide that they become known and documented.

But that’s not all. There are many other shortcomings that come with automated scans, including:

  • Giving false negative results

Automated vulnerability scans may fail to detect certain vulnerabilities, providing a false sense of security. The scan might overlook complex or emerging threats that are not included in its vulnerability database.

  • Giving false positive results

Conversely, automated scans can also generate false positives, flagging non-existent vulnerabilities. This can lead to wasted time and resources as security teams investigate and address issues that are not actually present.

  • Limited scope

Automated scans typically focus on surface-level vulnerabilities, such as known software vulnerabilities or misconfigurations. They may miss more subtle issues that require manual assessment or advanced penetration testing.

  • Lack of context

Vulnerability scans lack the ability to assess the overall risk and impact of identified vulnerabilities within the specific context of an organization’s infrastructure. Understanding the risks and prioritizing remediation accordingly can be challenging without human analysis.

  • Inability to test certain environments

Some automated vulnerability scanners may not be compatible with certain environments, such as complex network architectures, custom applications, or cloud-based systems. This can result in blind spots and leave critical areas untested.

  • Limited visibility into zero-day vulnerabilities

Automated vulnerability scans typically rely on already-known vulnerabilities. They struggle to detect zero-day vulnerabilities, which are previously unknown and do not yet have publicly available fixes. This leaves organizations vulnerable to attacks exploiting unknown weaknesses.

Here’s a real-life example:

One of Hackrate’s clients, an SMB SaaS company, had relied solely on automated vulnerability scans by a market-leading provider. The results always came back clear: these regularly running scans did not uncover any security vulnerabilities, giving the company a false sense of security.

However, once they employed Hackrate’s ethical hackers, the reality started to unfold. Hackrate’s experts found numerous critical vulnerabilities that managed to elude the automated solution. Thanks to their in-depth experience and comprehension of business logic errors, they managed to flag several access permission issues that could have led to serious data breaches.

Staying vigilant: a holistic approach to safeguarding your code

We’ve seen that depending solely on automated vulnerability scanners means that you’re probably not vigilant enough when it comes to protecting your code base.

So how can you become better at safeguarding your code base — and your company? Here are some more steps for a more holistic approach to security:

  • Perform ongoing, comprehensive security reviews

Remaining vigilant means performing regular security reviews each time you roll out new or updated code, whether proprietary or open source. By implementing a continuous evaluation process, you can identify and address security issues early on, minimizing the risk of potential breaches.

  • Monitor unchanged code

Vulnerabilities can also emerge in existing, unchanged code over time. Thus, it is crucial to continuously check your codebase for newly discovered insecure practices. Regularly scanning and reviewing your codebase, even if it hasn’t undergone recent changes, helps maintain a strong security posture.

  • Keep up with the evolution of security tools

As technology advances and new vulnerabilities surface, it is imperative to stay informed and adapt your security tools and methodologies accordingly. By evolving your security review processes, you can effectively address new cracks and emerging threats and strengthen your codebase against potential attacks.

  • Leverage human skills through ethical hacking platforms

You can further enhance their security testing by leveraging ethical hacking platforms that harness the power of human skills. Ethical hackers are skilled and vetted security professionals who possess expertise in identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities, and simulating real-world attack scenarios to evaluate the robustness of your codebase and infrastructure.

Summing up

Automated vulnerability scans are great at uncovering known vulnerabilities and have an important role in reducing the risk of a potential security breach. However, they also introduce a risk that should not be overlooked: overconfidence that leads to relying solely on automated scans.

A common misconception among organizations is that if their vulnerability scans pass without any issues, their code is as secure as it can possibly be. This assumption often leads to the false belief that all necessary measures have been taken to ensure security.

The key thing is to always ask yourself, have we really taken all necessary measures to protect our code?

We hope you found this article useful. Let us know if you have any questions or get in touch to discuss how we can help.

Written by Levente Molnar
CTO & Founder of HACKRATE Ltd. Levente lives in a world of zeros and ones. He is an active bug hunter, successfully reported bugs to US DoD, Adobe, Logitech, BMW, Sony, and other big enterprises. As an IT Security Engineer, he planned, implemented, and managed various IT security solutions. He worked on international projects in Kuwait and Oman as an ethical hacker.

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