What automation means in application scanning tools – and why you need it

Confused about exactly what “automation” means in the world of application scanning tools? You’re not alone. From executing automatic security checks to scheduling when scans are launched, here’s a breakdown of the many ways automation enables more effective software security.

What automation means in application scanning tools – and why you need it

The world of software is rife with buzzwords. This is especially true in cybersecurity, an industry peppered with terms that are often ambiguous or downright misleading. “Automation” is a major culprit – tossed around freely by vendors big and small yet with several distinct meanings in the broader context of application security (AppSec), and especially of application scanning tools.

The many faces of AppSec automation

Taking the first and likely most common meaning, automation in AppSec can refer to automatic tools and processes that are meant to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of security practices while taking some of the human error out of the equation. With 79% of organizations knowingly releasing vulnerable code on more than one occasion because they’re strapped for time or don’t have accurate tools, that’s a problem. Accurate automatic tools like Invicti’s platform based around dynamic application security testing (DAST) help to identify vulnerabilities, assess the risk of those vulnerabilities, and prioritize remediation efforts so that organizations are developing and releasing more secure software by default.

In workflow terms, automation more typically refers to launching and processing operations without human intervention. For application security testing, that means triggering scans at specific points in the development pipeline or based on a predefined schedule. By running automatic checks without the need for manual input, you can regularly test applications for dangerous vulnerabilities like injection flaws or cross-site scripting (XSS). For DAST-based tools specifically, automation can be used both to check development builds for potential security issues and to monitor production applications for security-related issues.

Automated security checks are often used in conjunction with manual testing and other security measures to provide a comprehensive and continuous approach to AppSec, making them a critical part of the security puzzle for many organizations looking to reduce their overall risk. In fact, automation and security AI significantly lowers the average lifecycle of a data breach by 74 days. And it is important to remember that automated testing alone is not a complete solution to application security but only one of its pillars. When used in combination with secure coding practices and regular security assessments, automation can help organizations reduce their real-life threat exposure and approach security incidents more effectively. 

Automating application scanning tools as part of your AppSec machine 

In AppSec, automation in both main senses can reduce workloads while also helping with consistency and maintaining complete coverage across application environments. In terms of automating the launch of security tests, there are many types of automated tools and processes that can initiate security testing of an application or system in the software development lifecycle. These can include automated vulnerability scanning (dynamic analysis), static code analysis, software composition analysis, and other types of security testing.

DAST solutions represent a family of application scanning tools that rely on automated features. At its core, DAST probes an application that is running and interacting with live data. Intended to simulate the actions of real users (and attackers), vulnerability scans give you an idea of what a bad actor could achieve when able to access the app. They are especially useful for identifying flaws that can be exploited via unsanitized user inputs, such as SQL injection attacks. Invicti’s DAST solution can save teams hours of work by automatically creating issues and assigning confirmed vulnerabilities to developers along with recommendations for easy and permanent remediation.

Interactive application security testing (IAST) is another flavor of security testing that can be set up to run automatically. Depending on the type of tool, IAST can either add a dynamic element to static analysis or add code-level insight to dynamic testing, in both cases analyzing an application while it is running and interacting with live data. Invicti’s True IAST approach combines an industry-leading DAST scanner with a server-side IAST agent. Working fully automatically in constant interaction, the two can find more vulnerabilities, confirm more exploitable issues to minimize false positives, and deliver detailed information needed to fix defects faster.

Accurate automation means efficiency

There are a number of benefits to automating the way that application scanning tools like DAST and IAST are launched and their results consumed. Most directly, organizations can save time and resources by automating previously manual processes for initiating security tests. This allows security teams can focus on higher-value tasks, such as analyzing result trends, investigating more advanced vulnerabilities, and implementing measures to prevent the introduction of new vulnerabilities down the road. Automation can also help improve the consistency and accuracy of security while building and maintaining web apps, as it eliminates the risk of human error by making security a standard part of the development process.

“When security tests are automated, such as with static analysis and software composition analysis being run on every check-in, developers can find and fix issues much more efficiently,” says Dan Murphy, Distinguished Architect at Invicti. “The goal is to treat the introduction of a critical security vulnerability just like a code change that causes unit tests to fail – something that is fixed quickly, without requiring the overhead of meetings and internal triage. Security, like software quality, is baked in from the start, rather than as an afterthought.” Crucially, Invicti brings the same automation and integration capabilities to dynamic analysis to expand the scope of issues that can be found and addressed already during development.

To automate the launch of security tests, organizations often use security testing platforms, continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD) pipelines, and security orchestration solutions. Like the Invicti platform, these tools are typically customizable so that teams can set scans to launch on a schedule or in response to certain events like the deployment of new code or the detection of a security incident. Automating testing enables organizations to improve their security practices for fewer incidents, less downtime when a flaw is discovered, and more peace of mind for customers who want to know that their sensitive data is safe from breaches.

Why automation should be a core feature of your security arsenal

In security, having solid automation in place translates to confidence. Whether you’re talking about automating how and when scans are run or what automatic security checks your tools can perform, automation is a critical feature of any strong AppSec program that strives to reduce human intervention – but all the while maintaining accuracy.

Automation without accuracy does not scale because it multiplies manual work instead of eliminating it. To ensure accuracy, Invicti uses Proof-Based Scanning for many of its automatic checks, confirming 94% of direct-impact vulnerabilities with a confidence of 99.98%. Each automatic confirmation means an exploitable issue that needs addressing, so security team members can spend less time manually checking results and more time working with developers to fix immediate issues and prevent them from resurfacing in the future.

By correctly integrating automated tools and features into your AppSec strategy, you get not only improved accuracy and efficiency but also measurable business benefits that help prove ROI, including:

  • Enhanced scalability: As businesses grow, so do their requirements and expectations for application development. Security testing automation is crucial for smoothly scaling up dev processes and workflows without leaving security behind. With the right tools in place, the same security teams can assess and maintain the security of many additional applications – something that is difficult to achieve manually.
  • Reduced risk: Organizations need to identify and fix vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by bad actors. Automating accurate and integrated AppSec solutions helps them do this regularly and predictably to minimize the exploitable attack surface and reduce risk. 
  • Efficient compliance: With regulatory and compliance requirements dictating security needs, automating the process of identifying and fixing vulnerabilities will often make it easier for organizations to attain and maintain compliance with standards such as the updated ISO 27001.

Overall, having automation as a core AppSec program feature helps organizations improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their application security practices. Not only that, it can drastically reduce the time and resources required to identify and fix vulnerabilities so that businesses stay one step ahead of the bad guys when it matters most. 

Read Automated Application Security Testing for Faster Development from ESG to learn more about how automation increases efficiency across the software development lifecycle.