Re: Verify Your Security Provider -- The truth behind manual testing.

This should be fun/interesting, I'll embed my comments below.

On Jul 18, 2009, at 8:51 PM, Dotzero wrote:

I'm going to respond to Adriels comments from a client side perspective.

On Thu, Jul 16, 2009 at 11:36 AM, Adriel T.
Desautels<ad_lists@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:
A recent blog entry that we thought "some" of you pen-testers might find
interesting. Feel free to leave comments on the blog:

Direct URL:

Verify Your Security Provider -- The truth behind manual testing.
Something that I’ve been preaching for a while is that automated
vulnerability scanners do not produce quality results and as such shouldn’t
be relied on for penetration tests or vulnerability assessments. I’ve been
telling people that they should look for a security company that offers
manual testing, not just automated scans. The price points for quality work
will be significantly higher, but in the end the value is much greater.
After all the cost in damages of a single successful compromise is far
greater than the cost of the best possible security services.

Adriel is correct that there is a wide variation in the nature and
quality of services offered in the pentesting space. Perhaps the
larger issue is that a significant portion of people on the client
side are not in a position to a) understand exactly what they are (or
should be) asking for and b) to evaluate the proposals from vendors.

I've often wondered if there would be a market for a company or group that
did nothing but evaluate proposals for vendors. It is after all not always about
the ferrari, it is about offering a service that meets the customers requirements.

I’ve noticed that there are a bunch of vendors who claim to be performing
manual testing. But when I dig into their methodologies their manual testing
isn’t real manual testing at all, its just vetting of automated scanner
results or testing based on the results. In other words they test on what
the automated scanner reports and don’t do any real manual discovery. I’m
not saying that tools like nessus (an automated scanner) don’t have their
place, I’m just saying that they aren’t going to protect you from the bad
guys. If you want to be protected from the threat, you need to be tested at
a level that is a few notches higher than the threat that you are likely to
face in the real world.

The threat in the real world is not a constant and in fact is a
constantly moving target. Pentesting (whether manual or automated) is
a snapshot in time. The risk associated with the fluctuating threat
level is also constantly changing as the target environment changes.

That is absolutely accurate. As a result of the evolving threat it is important
that the security vendor be active in keeping tabs on the threat. Additionally,
it is the evolving threat that requires businesses to perform vulnerability
assessments and/or penetration tests more than once a year. My suggestion
is that quarterly vulnerability assessments be done and annual penetration

This is akin to how the Department of Defense tests the armor on its tanks,
and I’ve probably mentioned this before somewhere on the blog. But, we don’t
test our tanks against fire from bb guns and .22 caliber pistols. If we did
that they wouldn’t be very effective in war.We test the tanks against a
threat that is a few levels higher in intensity than what they are likely to
face in the real world. As a result, the tank can withstand most threats and
is a very effective weapon. Doing anything less isn’t going to protect you
when the threat tries to align with your risks; you’ll end up being an
expensive casualty of war.

So why do some security companies test at this lesser level? Its simple
really, they are in the business of making money and care more about that
then they do about actually protecting their customer’s infrastructure.

It might be that the customer has decided that the "lesser level" is
what they want. Even in military purchasing tradeoffs are made. A
country may choose a less heavily armored vehicle because they believe
they can get greater mobility and range. It is in fact not a binary
choice. The purchaser may choose a mix.

Well, I can't argue with you about the customer's needs and desires. My point
was more that security companies often test at a lesser level than what they
market to their customers. It is almost as if some are selling a false sense of
security to their customers. If they do sell a service that tests at a lesser level
than the "real world threat" then they should make it clear to their customer that
they are testing at this lesser level, shouldn't they? Isn't that type of honesty ethical?

Additionally, there is a market for that sort of low quality testing. There
are some businesses that don’t actually care about their security posture;
they just care about passing the test so that they can put a check in their
compliancy box. Then there are other businesses that unknowingly get taken
advantage by of vendors because they don’t know the difference between high
quality and low quality services.

So what is the difference between high quality and low quality? From a high
level perspective it’s the difference between real manual research based
security testing or not. Once hackers have access, they can do anything to
your data from steal it, to install back door technology in your product's
source code. Its happened before, and its going to happen again.

I'm going to have to disagree with you Adriel. "Access" is not a
generic. The real questions are access to what? Access of what nature?
and access for how long?.

I think that I'll partially agree with your disagreement because I didn't clearly
define "Access". When i say "Access" I am talking about code execution /
command execution. Once that level of access is attained its usually, but not
always just a matter of time till Distributed Metastasis happens with great

When a company tells you that they perform manual testing hold their feet to
the fire. You can do the following things to verify it:

• Dig into their methodology and ask them specific questions about
how they perform their testing. (See our white papers on how to do that).
• Don’t swallow jargon and terms that sound cool and don’t mean
anything, use Wikipedia to look up the terms and make sure that they make

I'm not sure that I would consider wikipedia authoritative. Take the
term "pivot" this is commonly used in pentesting/security yet if you
search on wikipedia for it you will not find it as relates to

I agree that the sites that I provided are not "authoritative" but they can provide
insight into a vendor's capabilities. What other tools do customers have to use
to verify their security vendor?

• Ask them for the names of their security experts and then use tools
like Google, LinkedIn, Facebook and PIPL to do research on those experts. If
nothing comes up then chances are their experts aren’t experts at all.

Knowing some highly qualified people that do not show up in searches
such as you describe, I'm not sure that I would agree with you. I'm
thinking of folks that have backgrounds with 3 letter agencies or use
handles/nom de plumes (if you will) to distinguish their personal
activities from their activities as employees or representatives of
organizations. I've used dotzero (various ISPs/mail accounts) for over
20 years. It is a simple and easy way to make clear that what I write
or post is personal.

Remember, I'm not talking about individuals, I'm talking about businesses as a
whole. Most businesses that have teams that perform research do publish their
research. That said, you are right in that there are individuals who are talented
but don't have any "public" exposure as a matter of speaking. That said, I wouldn't
consider someone talented just because they worked at a 3 letter agency. In fact,
we have members of our team that come from some of those agencies, most of what
they learned they didn't learn working public sector. Instead, they were hired because
of what they learned on their own.

• Search vulnerability databases like milw0rm, securityfocus,sirtfr,
secunia, packetstormsecurity, etc. for the vendor’s name to see if they have
research capabilities. If you don’t get anything in return then chances are
that they don’t have research capabilities. If that’s the case then how do
you expect them to perform quality manual testing? Chances are that they
won’t be able to.

Remember you’re putting the integrity of your business and its respective
name into their hands.

I agree with you that there are significant issues but it's not clear
to me that it is as clear cut as you make it out to be. I'm currently
evaluating proposals for a pentest engagement and I figure I will have
about 110+ hours into it by the time we make a decision. This doesn't
include the hours for the other folks who will need to sign off on the
decision. The rough break out of my time is:

8 hours to prepare the RFP (working from and modifying a previous version)
8 hours deciding which vendors to invite to participate in the RFP process
4 hours dealing with the NDA that potential vendors were required to
sign (does not include time of our contract coordinator)
20 hours answering questions from vendors
80 hours evaluating proposals

I think that the most difficult part of your job is going to be proposal evaluation.
You'll need to find vendors that don't just have a big hat, but that also have a
lot of good healthy cattle. :)

So how many companies are going to spend 3+ person weeks of working
time (what kind of impact does that have on the organization assuming
the person is qualified and not simply an administrative drone going
through the motions?) just to select a vendor? Price is certainly a
factor but there so many other things to look at.

How should the average client compare various alphabet soup
combinations that follow peoples names? How does a CISSP compare to a
CEH or a GIAC certification? Some people look mighty impressive on
paper (or the internet) but are not worth the air they breath if you
were to end up hiring them.

I absolutely agree with you and understand your frustrations.

My personal take is that the overall situation will get worse before
it is likely to get better. There simply aren't enough
qualified/experienced security people to go around.... and let's be
honest, IT security does not come cheap (although I agree a breach is
potentially much more expensive)
Even though we may not agree 100% I appreciate your perspective and
your thought provoking posts.

Thank you and it was my pleasure. I knew when I published that post that
most people would have a problem with my idea of using the various sites
that I mentioned to vet providers. I have some of my own issues with it as well,
but I'm not sure what else to recommend. I'd like to help people find providers
that meet their needs and that are honest about their service offerings. I hate
seeing people buy a service only to find out later that it wasn't worth the paper
that it was printed on.

That is to say, some people buy penetration tests and get nothing more than
nessus scans in return but in the end they don't know it because they are not
the experts. It is the job of the ethical provider to educate their customers so
that they know what they are getting, and what they aren't. If a customer just
wants a scan, then fine, scan them and charge them fair value. If a customer
wants a penetration test, figure out how intense and deliver it if you have the
required talent. But don't say that you are delivering a penetration test that's
manually intensive and produce a report that is based on nessus scans. That
is where my frustration with this industry comes into play. That happens too
often and that is selling someone a false sense of security.

Anyway, I am supposed to be on vacation right now... so I really should get
off the computer... my wife will kill me. :)

This list is sponsored by: Information Assurance Certification Review Board

Prove to peers and potential employers without a doubt that you can actually do a proper penetration test. IACRB CPT and CEPT certs require a full practical examination in order to become certified.

Adriel T. Desautels

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This list is sponsored by: Information Assurance Certification Review Board

Prove to peers and potential employers without a doubt that you can actually do a proper penetration test. IACRB CPT and CEPT certs require a full practical examination in order to become certified.

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