A cheap penetration test can cost you more in the end

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Penetration test is a simulated cyberattack against a computer system performed to evaluate its security. By intentionally seeking out vulnerabilities – be it in software, hardware, or even human processes – this practice offers invaluable insights into potential threats.

Given the growing emphasis on cybersecurity, many businesses are in a rush to incorporate penetration testing into their defenses. This urgency, coupled with budgetary constraints, often propels them towards services labeled as “affordable penetration tests” or “cheap penetration test”. It’s tempting, of course. Who wouldn’t want to ensure their system’s safety without digging deep into their pockets? However, the real question is: what is the cost of this affordability?

The myth of the cheap, fast and affordable penetration test

The age-old adage “you get what you pay for” rings particularly true in the domain of cybersecurity. The misconception that cheaper always equates to better value can be a dangerous path, especially when it concerns the digital security of an organization.

To start, an affordable penetration test might indeed seem financially appealing upfront. The immediate savings are tangible, and the promise of a secured system at a fraction of the cost is enticing. But this immediate gratification often masks the longer-term ramifications. When we discuss penetration testing, we’re not merely referring to ticking off a compliance checklist; it’s about genuinely safeguarding critical digital assets and sensitive information.

Cheap pen testing services often operate under constraints that limit their effectiveness. They might resort to using outdated tools, methodologies that haven’t kept pace with the latest threats, or even a narrow focus that omits crucial attack vectors. In fact, many are nothing but a glorified automated vulnerability scan without human expertise involved. A pentest that doesn’t reflect real-world threats is, in many ways, a facade. It provides a veneer of security without truly fortifying defenses, neither exposing real risks your organization may be exposed to.

Furthermore, the return on investment (ROI) for a thorough penetration test extends far beyond the test itself. The true value lies in the insights gleaned, the vulnerabilities unearthed, and the actionable recommendations provided to bolster defenses. If an affordable penetration test skimps on any of these aspects, the seemingly ‘saved’ funds could pale in comparison to the potential costs of a future security breach.

In essence, the allure of immediate savings from an affordable penetration test can obscure the greater value and ROI offered by a more comprehensive, albeit pricier, alternative. Making a decision based purely on cost might not only miss the mark in terms of efficacy but could also prove more expensive in the long run.

Compromising on expertise

Penetration testing is as much an art as it is a science, relying heavily on the experience, intuition, and skill set of the professionals executing the test. Unfortunately, services offering cheap penetration testing may not always prioritize expertise, leading to a shortfall in the quality of the assessment.

First and foremost, there’s the issue of qualifications. High-quality penetration testing teams typically comprise individuals with extensive experience, reputable certifications such as OffSec’s OSCP, OSWE or CREST’s CRT and CCT, a solid track record, and a deep understanding of emerging threats. Their expertise allows them to think like attackers, adopting varied and innovative strategies to probe, test, and challenge a system’s defenses. On the contrary, more affordable services might employ pentesters with limited experience, fewer certifications, or a lack of continual training. The result? A pentest that only scratches the surface, missing nuanced or sophisticated vulnerabilities.

The repercussions of these oversights can be profound. Beyond the immediate financial costs of a security breach, there’s the potential loss of customer trust, damage to brand reputation, and even regulatory penalties. In hindsight, the marginal savings from opting for a cheaper test can seem minuscule compared to the cascading costs of a cyberattack.

One amusing example of how cheap penetration tests go hand in hand with subpar expertise is well explained in the article Penetration Testing and Low-Cost Freelancing, where the author created a sample vulnerable application and hired several low-cost, budget-friendly pentesting firms and freelancers to perform testing against the app; the result showed how basic vulnerabilities were missed, and others greatly exaggerated to inflate their risk severity.

Compromising on expertise in a domain as critical as cybersecurity can have far-reaching consequences. It’s a risk that, more often than not, simply isn’t worth taking.

Over-reliance on automated tools

Automation has revolutionized many industries, including cybersecurity. In penetration testing, there’s an array of automated tools that can quickly scan systems, detect known vulnerabilities, and even recommend remediations. While these tools undoubtedly have their place in a tester’s toolkit, an over-reliance on them is a glaring red flag.

Why? Because cybercriminals are innovative, perpetually devising new tactics, techniques, and procedures. Their attacks aren’t automated scripts but rather evolving threats. Hence, a penetration test that leans too heavily on automation is akin to preparing for yesterday’s war, not the battles of today or tomorrow.

Automated tools are excellent at detecting known vulnerabilities, i.e., threats that have been previously identified and cataloged. They can comb through vast amounts of code quickly, highlighting potential weak spots based on an existing database of threats. However, they falter when faced with novel or customized threats that might not yet be part of their database.

Moreover, these tools still lack the critical thinking and adaptability of a human tester. They can’t yet strategize, pivot based on findings, or intuitively sense when something feels “off” even if it doesn’t match a known signature. This human intuition, honed over years of experience, is often what distinguishes a good penetration test from a great one. It’s true, however, that tooling is improving, but it’s not quite there yet.

Many affordable penetration testing services rely heavily on automated tools, primarily because it’s more cost-effective. A software-based approach requires less manual effort, fewer hours, and less specialized expertise. While this might reduce the price tag in the quote, it also drastically limits the depth and breadth of the test, in most cases turning it into nothing but a vulnerability scan. The resulting assessment can be patchy at best and utterly misleading at worst.

Additionally, a test that’s predominantly automated might produce generic recommendations that lack context or nuance. It’s one thing to know where a vulnerability lies; it’s another to understand its implications within the larger system architecture, business operations, or user behaviors. Human-led tests often yield insights that are tailored to the organization’s unique ecosystem, ensuring that remediation efforts are both effective and efficient.

In essence, while automation plays a valuable role in modern penetration testing, it shouldn’t be the sole, or even primary, approach. By placing too much faith in automated tools, affordable penetration testing services run the risk of providing a superficial assessment, potentially leaving organizations exposed to unforeseen threats.

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Lack of comprehensive reporting

Upon the conclusion of a penetration test, one of the most valuable deliverables is the report. This document, detailing findings, insights, and recommendations, is the roadmap guiding an organization’s subsequent cybersecurity efforts. However, not all reports are created equal, and this is especially true when it comes to more affordable penetration testing services.

The primary purpose of a penetration test is not just to identify vulnerabilities but to equip an organization with the knowledge and understanding needed to rectify them. A comprehensive report provides not only a list of discovered weaknesses but also a deep dive into their implications, real-world exploitation scenarios, and, crucially, actionable and prioritized recommendations for remediation.

When opting for cheaper penetration testing services, organizations often find the reporting stage to be sorely lacking in depth and clarity:

  1. Superficial overviews: Instead of in-depth analysis, cheaper services might only provide a cursory overview of the vulnerabilities detected. Such a superficial perspective can leave IT teams without a clear understanding of the threats they face or the steps needed to mitigate them.
  2. Lack of contextual insight: Every organization’s tech ecosystem is unique. A vulnerability’s potential impact in one environment might differ significantly from another. Affordable penetration tests often lack the tailored insights that account for the company’s specific infrastructure, applications, and business operations.
  3. Generic recommendations: Instead of tailored solutions, cheap reports might offer generic remediation steps. These one-size-fits-all suggestions can prove ineffective or, in some cases, even counterproductive.
  4. Missing prioritization: Not all vulnerabilities carry the same weight. Some pose immediate threats and require urgent attention, while others are less critical. A quality report will prioritize vulnerabilities based on factors like potential impact, exploitability, and the value of the targeted assets. Cheaper tests might neglect this hierarchy, leaving organizations overwhelmed and uncertain about where to focus their efforts.
  5. Limited follow-up: Quality penetration testing often involves a degree of post-test engagement, allowing organizations to seek clarifications, ask questions, and receive further advice on addressing vulnerabilities. Affordable services might not provide this level of support, leaving clients in the lurch once the initial report is delivered.

We have summarized the above in an infographic.

What to look out for cheap pentest

The hidden costs

When it comes to security breaches, the cost of prevention is often a fraction of the cost of remediation. This principle becomes even more pronounced when discussing security testing. When an organization opts for cheaper services, the immediate savings on overall penetration testing cost might seem appealing. However, the hidden costs that emerge due to potential oversights can be staggering.

  1. Immediate financial repercussions: Let’s begin with the most apparent. A failed or inadequate vulnerability assessment can lead to security breaches in the future. These incidents come with direct financial implications, from dealing with the breach itself to potential fines and legal settlements. In the context of penetration testing pricing, what seemed like a bargain initially could lead to expenses that dwarf the original savings.
  2. Damage to reputation and trust: Beyond immediate financial implications, there’s a cost that’s harder to quantify but equally, if not more, devastating: the erosion of trust. Once customers or partners feel that their data isn’t safe with an organization, regaining that trust is an uphill battle. The fallout from a security incident, facilitated by inadequate penetration testing, can lead to lost business and long-term reputational damage.
  3. Operational disruptions: A cyberattack or breach can disrupt operations. Depending on the severity, this could mean hours, days, or even weeks of downtime. The longer the disruption, the higher the operational costs. When juxtaposed against the initial penetration testing costs, the value of a robust vulnerability assessment becomes glaringly evident.
  4. Legal and regulatory repercussions: In an age where data privacy and security are paramount, regulatory bodies worldwide are imposing stringent cybersecurity standards. A breach resulting from a subpar penetration test can lead to heavy fines and penalties. In some cases, organizations might even face lawsuits from affected stakeholders. Again, when considering penetration testing pricing, it’s essential to factor in these potential legal ramifications.
  5. Remediation costs: Addressing vulnerabilities post-breach is often more complex and expensive than proactive mitigation. Once attackers exploit a vulnerability, the entire system’s integrity might be compromised, necessitating comprehensive audits, patches, and even overhauls.
  6. Loss of competitive edge: In a market where data security can be a unique selling point, a breach can lead to a loss of competitive advantage. If competitors maintain robust security postures and highlight this fact, the organization in question can find itself at a distinct disadvantage, all due to skimping on penetration testing costs.

The value of quality penetration testing

While budget constraints can lead organizations to seek cost-saving measures, compromising on the quality of penetration testing can have far-reaching implications. This section sheds light on the value of investing in high-quality penetration testing services.

  1. Depth of analysis: Quality penetration testing delves deep into an organization’s systems, applications, and networks. Instead of merely scratching the surface, a thorough test probes into every potential vulnerability, ensuring that even the most concealed threats are identified.
  2. Tailored testing techniques: Premium services customize their testing techniques to align with an organization’s specific infrastructure, applications, and operational nuances. This ensures that every potential weak point, unique to the particular setup, is meticulously assessed.
  3. Expert insight: A quality penetration test is more than a set of automated tools; it involves seasoned professionals who bring years of experience and expertise to the table. Their intuition, strategic approach, and ability to think like adversaries can uncover vulnerabilities that automated systems might overlook.
  4. Ongoing engagement: Beyond the initial testing, reputable services often offer ongoing engagement. This might include re-testing after remediation, offering guidance on evolving threats, or conducting periodic reviews to ensure continued security.
  5. Detailed reporting: A hallmark of quality penetration testing is the comprehensiveness of its reports. These documents not only list vulnerabilities but offer in-depth insights into their potential impact, exploitation scenarios, and prioritized, actionable steps for remediation tailored to the organization’s environment.
  6. Cost efficiency in the long run: While the initial investment in high-quality penetration testing might be higher, the long-term savings are significant. Avoiding breaches, protecting brand reputation, and ensuring compliance can save organizations vast amounts in potential losses, fines, and recovery efforts.
  7. Building stakeholder confidence: In today’s data-conscious world, clients, partners, and stakeholders prioritize data security. Knowing that an organization is committed to top-tier cybersecurity practices not only safeguards its assets but also bolsters its reputation, fostering trust and confidence among its stakeholders.
  8. Future-proofing the business: The digital landscape is ever-evolving, with new threats emerging daily. Quality penetration testing services are attuned to this dynamic environment, often updating their methodologies and tools to counter the latest threats. By investing in such services, organizations are better positioned to face future challenges, ensuring longevity and resilience.

While the appeal of cost savings is undeniable, cybersecurity is not where corners should be cut. In this field, quality is not just a preference; it’s a necessity.

Final remarks

Very often, cheap and affordable penetration tests are nothing but vulnerability assessments in disguise. They tend to rely heavily on automated tools that lack the nuanced understanding a seasoned penetration tester brings. While automated tools can scan for known vulnerabilities, they can miss out on bespoke or emerging threats specific to an organization’s infrastructure. Furthermore, these ‘penetration tests’ can churn out false positives, diverting critical resources from addressing genuine security weaknesses.

The real penetration test cost goes beyond mere dollar figures. It encapsulates the potential fallout from overlooked vulnerabilities, the repercussions of false positives, and the stakes of safeguarding an organization’s data, reputation, and operations.

A skilled penetration tester ensures that assessments are thorough, accurate, and insightful. Their expertise allows them not only to identify security weaknesses but also to gauge their potential impact, guiding remediation efforts in a prioritized and strategic manner. In essence, the expertise of the tester transforms raw data into actionable intelligence.

Furthermore, a comprehensive penetration test does more than just pinpoint vulnerabilities; it offers a panoramic and unbiased view of the organization’s security posture. By understanding where they stand, organizations can develop forward-thinking strategies, reinforce weak points, and foster a proactive rather than reactive approach to cybersecurity.

By investing in top-tier penetration testing services, organizations can not only bolster their defenses but also lay the groundwork for resilient and secure business operations.

As the saying goes, “If you think experts are expensive, wait until you hire an amateur.”

About the author

Ewelina Baran

Ewelina Baran

Ewelina is a SEO copywriter specialized in technology, more specifically in cybersecurity. She holds a masters degree in English Philology from Jagiellonian University, Krakow.


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