When it comes to security testing, choosing between traditional penetration testing and the crowdsourced approach, or bug bounty program, remains a critical decision. Each method has its own set of advantages and drawbacks. A traditional pentest follows a structured and easier-to-control process, providing a sense of security, but it may lack the agility and in-depth insights that crowdsourcing can offer. In contrast, bug bounty programs leverage the collective wisdom of a diverse pool of ethical hackers to uncover vulnerabilities, but pose challenges in terms of coordination and data privacy.
In a recent webinar, Traditional pentest vs. crowdsourced approach, Tamás Mihály, IT security expert and Deputy CEO of TheFence, gave a comprehensive overview, comparing the two methods within the context of the rapidly evolving cybersecurity landscape. In this blog post, we summarize the key takeaways of his talk.
A penetration test is an authorized, simulated cyberattack on a computer system, performed to evaluate the security of the system. A traditional pentest usually follows one of the three common approaches:
- Blackbox testing: in this approach, pentesters examine a website or application from an external standpoint, relying primarily on their internet connection. This method often combines an automatic scan with a manual assessment, making it a cost-effective but somewhat limited option.
- Greybox testing: Greybox testing permits pentesters to pass external perimeters, such as firewalls, to access and assess the target application. This approach typically gives more comprehensive results compared to blackbox testing, given the increased access and insights gained into the system.
- Whitebox testing: Whitebox testing is the most open and comprehensive approach. Pentesters are granted complete access to the application, even allowing them to scrutinize its source code. This method involves both automatic and manual code checks, culminating in a detailed and multifaceted report.
One of the main challenges of traditional pentesting stems from the common practice of outsourcing the testing process to service providers. Many of these providers engage in additional outsourcing for the testing process, which can give rise to several significant issues related to a lack of transparency and inconsistent quality.
Another issue is that some service providers may resort to automated vulnerability scans as a shortcut. As Tamás said:
“With the rapid advancement of hacking techniques, relying solely on automated vulnerability scans is no longer acceptable.“
While automated scans offer fast results, they are superficial — and should always be complemented by other manual testing methods to ensure a thorough and robust evaluation of an organization’s systems.
As a result of inconsistencies, many organizations decide to rotate their pentest providers to maintain objectivity. This approach itself has its own set of challenges. The varying levels of knowledge and expertise among different providers can result in the underreporting of vulnerabilities, thereby potentially compromising the security of the organization.
Facing the limitations of traditional penetration testing, a new idea emerged. To address the quality and transparency issues and involve more testers with a wider range of skills, some security-conscious organizations started offering rewards to people who found and reported vulnerabilities. This initiative gave birth to the crowdsourced approach, also referred to as bug bounty programs.
This approach has many advantages: it adds an additional security layer that makes it more difficult for malicious hackers to exploit website vulnerabilities. This method also leads to faster results, compared to traditional pentests, primarily because more individuals are engaged in the project, all driven by the prospect of rewards. This heightened motivation often leads to the discovery of a greater number of vulnerabilities within the targeted systems. Overall, crowdsourced security testing makes vulnerability research more lifelike and authentic, and as a result, helps strengthen the company’s cybersecurity posture.
One of the biggest limitations associated with bug bounty programs lies in the challenge of measuring the quality. When the testing is crowdsourced, it can be difficult to determine the precise methods used for vulnerability testing, whether all vulnerabilities have been identified, the specific individuals responsible for the assessments, and the extent of their skill sets.
However, it’s important to remember that the struggle to evaluate quality isn’t limited to bug bounty programs; it’s just as tricky when it comes to traditional penetration tests.
When deciding between traditional pentesting and crowdsourced testing, it’s not a matter of choosing one over the other. As Tamás explained in his talk, to make the most out of crowdsourcing, it’s useful to have first experienced traditional pentesting. This initial phase allows the company to develop a comprehensive understanding of its weaknesses and vulnerabilities, providing valuable insights into areas that require testing.
He also emphasized the importance of prioritizing precision over speed. While automated security scans and outsourced pentests offer quick results, they tend to be superficial in their analysis. Therefore, a meticulous and in-depth examination of systems and applications by skilled human testers is essential to uncover hidden vulnerabilities and ensure a robust security posture.
In the past few years, managed bug bounty programs and advanced systems have emerged to provide better transparency and insights into bug bounty initiatives. These platforms offer visibility into the testers’ identities, the scope of their assessments, and the duration of their involvement.
One of these platforms is HackGATE™, the industry’s first managed getaway to monitor pentest projects. Thanks to the solution, companies can access analytics and insights regarding the specifics of their pentest projects, including details about the activities conducted by individual pentesters. Having access to such data empowers organizations with a genuine and comprehensive overview of their security tests, addressing a longstanding challenge associated with both traditional tests and crowdsourced approaches.
This development marks the beginning of a new era in security testing. As a result, organizations no longer need to concern themselves with the intricacies of pentest management; instead, their sole focus can be on fixing identified vulnerabilities.
Organizations often face a critical decision between traditional penetration testing and the innovative approach of bug bounty programs. Both methods bring their own set of advantages and challenges. Traditional penetration tests offer structure and control but may lack agility and depth, while bug bounty programs, relying on the intelligence of ethical hackers, provide unique insights but pose coordination and privacy challenges.
Emerging solutions revolutionize security testing by incorporating analytics and improving transparency, enabling security professionals to focus on understanding and fixing vulnerabilities faster, and as a result, enhance their trust in their organization’s security.
We hope you found this blog post helpful! If you’re interested in learning more, you can watch the full webinar.
- About TheFence.net: THEFENCE™ is a software-as-a-service solution designed for risk assessment, applying a crowdsourced approach to conduct realistic tests in a short timeframe. THEFENCE™ helps measure and thereby reduce the risks of human error, misuse, and operational problems resulting from unnecessary privileges.
- About the speaker: Tamás Mihály is the Deputy CEO and Co-founder of TheFence.net. He spent 10+ years in the financial sector as CISO, specialized in internal fraud prevention, data leakage prevention and monitoring: this experience helped him develop his own methodology for risk-based access profile reviews.
- About HackGATE™: Developed by the Hackrate team, HackGATE is the industry’s first comprehensive solution for controlling and monitoring pentest projects. Find out more here: https://www.hackgate.io/