DAST vs Penetration Testing: What Is the Difference?

Oliver Moradov
What Is DAST?What Is Penetration Testing?
Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) is a solution used to analyze web applications at runtime to identify security vulnerabilities and misconfigurations. DAST tools provide an automated way to scan running applications and try to attack them from a hacker’s perspective. They can then offer valuable insights into how applications are behaving, identify where hackers can launch attacks, and provide actionable guidance on how to remediate vulnerabilities.
DAST tools take a black box approach to testing. They run outside the application without having access to its source code or internal architecture. DAST can be used to identify and resolve all common web application vulnerabilities including broken access control, cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL Injection (SQLi), and cross site request forgery (CSRF).
Penetration testing (also called pentesting) is a cybersecurity technique used by organizations to identify, actively exploit, and remediate vulnerabilities in applications and their security controls. Penetration tests are usually conducted by ethical hackers, who can be internal employees or contractors of an organization. 
Ethical hackers use the same tactics and behaviors as real hackers to assess how an organization’s computer systems, networks, or web applications could be attacked. Organizations can use the resulting report of a penetration test to discover and remediate vulnerabilities, and for compliance purposes.
Ethical hackers are security professionals who use a variety of methods, tools, and techniques to simulate cyberattacks against an organization. The term “penetration” refers to the degree to which a hypothetical threat actor or hacker can break past an organization’s security measures and cause damage.

In this article:

How Is a Typical Pen Test Carried Out?

Step 1: Reconnaissance

Penetration testing begins with reconnaissance. At this stage, ethical hackers spend time gathering data they use to plan their simulated attack. Based on this data they identify vulnerabilities, find a viable attack vector, gain and maintain access to the target system. 

Step 2: Exploitation

The penetration testing process requires an extensive set of tools. These include network and vulnerability scanning software, as well as tools that can launch specific attacks and exploits such as brute-force attacks or SQL injections. There is also hardware designed specifically for penetration testing. For example, there are hardware devices that connect to a computer on a network and give hackers remote access to that network. 

Another tool in the pentesting arsenal is social engineering. Ethical hackers might use techniques like phishing emails, pretexting (pretending to be an authority or someone known by the victim), and tailgating (entering a building immediately after an authorized person).

Step 3: Disengagement

After a penetration tester achieves access to sensitive systems and demonstrates their ability to steal data or perform other damage, they disengage, covering their tracks to avoid detection.

Step 4: Report and resolution of discovered weaknesses

The final and most important stage of a penetration test is the pentest report. This is a detailed report the ethical hacker shares with the target company’s security team. It documents the pentesting process, vulnerabilities discovered, proof that they are exploitable, and actionable recommendations for remediating them. 

Internal teams can then use this information to improve security measures and remediate vulnerabilities. This can include patching vulnerable systems. These upgrades include rate limiting, new firewall or WAF rules, DDoS mitigation, and stricter form validation.

How Does DAST Work?

DAST tools go into action when an application is deployed, either in a test or staging environment or in a real production environment. They can continuously scan applications to discover new vulnerabilities or misconfigurations that are introduced over time.

Most DAST tools only test the exposed HTTP and HTML interfaces of web-enabled applications, but some also support APIs and protocols like Remote Procedure Call (RPC) and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). DAST tools start by crawling web applications to identify URLs, forms, and other exploitable elements. A DAST tool attempts to find all the ways an application accepts input from users, testing these inputs one by one.

DAST tools can be automatically run at multiple stages of the testing and deployment process, allowing teams to quickly identify and address risks before security incidents occur. When a vulnerability is discovered, the DAST solution sends an automatic alert to the appropriate development team for the developer to fix. Some DAST solutions integrate directly with bug trackers to integrate smoothly into the development process.

DAST works best as part of a comprehensive approach to web application security testing. While DAST provides security teams with timely insight into how web applications behave in production environments, businesses often use DAST for application penetration testing and static application security testing (SAST) to discover additional vulnerabilities during early development stages.

Related content: Read our guide to DAST vs. SAST

DAST vs Penetration Testing

DAST and penetration testing are often confused because of their role in helping detect application vulnerabilities. What they have in common is that both of them are black box testing techniques, which attempt to exploit vulnerabilities in applications. However, the similarities end there:

  • DAST uses a dynamic approach to testing web applications, while penetration testers can use both dynamic and static methods.
  • DAST tools are automatic, while penetration tests are usually manual (although there is a growing category of automated penetration testing tools)
  • DAST tools can be run at any time, enabling continuous testing and scanning of an application. Manual penetration tests are performed infrequently—typically quarterly or annually.
  • DAST tools are inexpensive and can typically be run as many times as needed (depending on the licensing model). Penetration tests conducted by ethical hackers are high-cost and limited to a single, well-scoped penetration test.
  • DAST tools can generate false positives—they might discover issues that are not real vulnerabilities. Penetration testing, by definition, does not result in false positives. However, modern DAST tools use artificial intelligence (AI) and fuzzing tools to close this gap and provide reports with zero false positives.
  • DAST tools can be run by anyone—security teams, developers, or even automatically with no human intervention. Pentesting requires deep expertise.
  • DAST tools have higher return on investment (ROI) because they can discover issues earlier in the development process. Pentesting is almost always conducted on production applications, so the cost of fixing issues is much higher.

Bright Security’s Next-Gen DAST Solution

Unlike other DAST solutions, Bright Security was built from the ground up with developers in mind. It lets developers automatically test their applications and APIs for vulnerabilities with every build.

Bright Security tests every aspect of your apps. It enables you to scan any target, including web applications, internal applications, APIs (REST/SOAP/GraphQL), websockets, and server side mobile applications. It seamlessly integrates with the tools and workflows you already use, automatically triggering scans on every commit, pull request or build with unit testing. Scans are blazing fast, enabling Bright to work in a high velocity development environment.

Instead of just crawling applications and guessing, Bright interacts intelligently with applications and APIs. Our AI-powered engine understands application architecture and generates sophisticated and targeted attacks. By first verifying and exploiting the findings, we make sure we don’t report any false positives. 

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