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False Negatives in Application Security Testing

Harold de Vries


Within cybersecurity, a false negative represents a critical concern. During penetration testing, the presence of false negatives and false positives can expose vulnerabilities in application security. However, false negatives, in particular, pose a significant risk to your cyber well-being. Let's delve into why they demand attention.

Understanding False Negatives and False Positives in Penetration Testing

In instances where an automated vulnerability scan produces inaccurate results, it can manifest in two forms of errors: false negatives and false positives. A false negative occurs when the test incorrectly reports no findings, while a false positive triggers an alert for a non-existent vulnerability. Whether employing a vulnerability scanning tool or any other method of vulnerability detection, it's crucial to understand both types of errors:

  • Type I error (false positive): This arises when a scan indicates the presence of a vulnerability that isn't actually there. This generates unnecessary noise and leads to remediation efforts for non-issues.
  • Type II error (false negative): This occurs when a vulnerability exists but goes undetected by the scan, potentially leaving the system vulnerable.

False negatives pose a greater risk compared to other errors as they instil a false sense of security within both the organisation and the cybersecurity operations team. In application security testing, comprehending false negatives becomes imperative, especially when dealing with simulated test environments used for security benchmarking or evaluation, as the primary objective is to uncover vulnerabilities unknown to you.

In contrast, false positives hold more significance in real-world security testing scenarios. This is attributed to cybersecurity solutions lacking the capability to discern whether certain application behaviours indicate a vulnerability. Consequently, they often opt for caution, flagging everything they encounter, leading to numerous false alarms. This inherent uncertainty makes automating security workflows challenging.

The Impact of False Negatives on Application Security Testing

When a security alert slips under the radar, it grants the attacker unrestricted access to proceed. Depending on the attacker's skill, determination, and intent, this could lead to anything from minor disruptions to a complete system compromise.

Potential ramifications encompass, but are not confined to:

  • Data Breaches: Exposing sensitive information can trigger extensive negative publicity, damage the organisation's reputation within its industry and among customers, incur legal liabilities, and lead to substantial financial penalties imposed by privacy regulators.
  • Intellectual Property Loss: Successful infiltration may result in the subsequent loss of trade secrets and other forms of intellectual property. Across various industries, this could severely impact profit margins and potentially erode a company's market leadership position.
  • Ransomware Vulnerability: Ransomware, a malicious software type, encrypts all data within a system and demands a hefty ransom for decryption. Ransomware incidents can occur across sectors, posing significant threats to data security and operational continuity.

The Cost of Fale Negatives

Keeping pace with the escalating volume of cyber warnings, threats, and breaches has become progressively more demanding for key stakeholders as of 2023 and beyond. This surge is largely driven by "alert fatigue," a phenomenon where individuals within an organisation become desensitised to cybersecurity risks, leading to delayed responses or overlooked notifications.

Adding to this dilemma, once alert fatigue sets in, IT departments are prone to burnout, resulting in elevated staff turnover rates and diminished performance. This cycle perpetuates as new hires join the team, exacerbating declines in performance and overall security posture. Excessive alerts, unnecessary notifications, false negatives, and false positives all culminate in one outcome: alert fatigue. Recent studies have corroborated this:

  • On average, it takes 30 minutes to address every actionable alarm and 32 minutes to investigate each false lead.
  • Organisations with 500-1,499 employees ignore or fail to investigate about 27% of all notifications.
  • 51% of surveyed individuals reported that the volume of cyber alerts negatively impacts their team's performance.
  • In 2023, 55% of organisations lack confidence in their ability to effectively prioritise and respond to cybersecurity threats.
  • IT teams spend approximately 27% of their time managing false negatives or false positives, as per survey findings.

What Causes Vulnerability Scans to Generate False Negatives

In vulnerability scanning, a false negative indicates that your security solution overlooked a vulnerability. This occurrence is prevalent in fully automated vulnerability assessments. Now, why does this happen?

Reason #1: Scope

Precision during the crawling phase of a VA scan holds paramount importance. Contemporary websites frequently employ tailored error pages for user convenience, URL rewriting to enhance search engine visibility, anti-CSRF tokens for security reinforcement, and authentication protocols to safeguard restricted data access.

A less advanced scanner may encounter difficulty in locating all necessary testing points. Consequently, if it encounters authentication barriers, it might inadvertently overlook entire sections of the application during the scanning process.

Reason #2: Security Assessment Protocols

At the heart of an application security evaluation lie the security checks. While VA scanners originated as scripts to streamline manual penetration testing tasks, modern application security solutions demand a more comprehensive approach. The objective now extends beyond expediting manual testing; it's about automating tests with minimal human intervention.

Nevertheless, each overlooked vulnerability poses a security threat, and every false alarm generates extra workload. Therefore, an imprecise scanner can prove more detrimental than having no scan at all.

Reason #3: Configuration

VA scanners mimic threat actors' actions by manipulating user-accessible page elements and other exposed endpoints. Given the unique nature of each web application, achieving accuracy demands extensive setup and technical expertise.

However, if the tool lacks sophistication or the team lacks resources to configure all scan parameters manually, the scanner may overlook numerous vulnerabilities simply because it fails to test the appropriate areas in the correct manner.

How Hackurity prevents false negatives (and false positives)

Crafting automated tests capable of precisely identifying software defects poses a considerable challenge. During scanning and testing processes, false negatives occur when issues remain undetected, despite the presence of bugs or vulnerabilities within the targeted application.

One way to prevent this is by creating an automated solution that’s updated frequently with newly discovered and reported vulnerability. Hackurity’s “Push Button Pentesting” solution, ATRAX, syncs itself on a daily basis, throughout the day, with multiple, international databases that record and register new vulnerabilities and accompanied CVE numbers. This process ensures that ATRAX can test within hours of a new vulnerability been recorded for that specific vulnerability.

False positives are a known downside of automated vulnerability scanners, causing hours of wasted time for many IT security teams. False positives indicate vulnerabilities that are actually not there. ATRAX overcomes this time wasting issue quite simply each vulnerability it finds, it will automatically try to exploit with a payload-less attack. If ATRAX can successfully exploit the vulnerability it simply proves that the vulnerability is present. Only at that point will it notify the IT team. A payload-less attack is harmless for the infrastructure and systems, because it has no malicious load and only works within the specific parameters of each vulnerability.

ATRAX is an automated sequence that bridges the gap between vulnerability scanning and manual pentesting, designed to work autonomously in the background, creating real-time insight into your security posture. Subsequently, this frees up invaluable time for your IT team to focus on their daily operational duties, rest-assured that their infrastructure is being comprehensively, holistically and continuously tested inside and out.


About Hackurity

Hackurity is redesigning cybersecurity through its unique and innovative concept of Push Button Pentesting. By fully automating the discovery and exploitation of vulnerabilities, Hackurity is that all-important extra pair of hands for your IT team, contextualising risks in a unified repository, streamlining remediation.

Headquartered in the Netherlands and developed by pentesters, Hackurity provides enterprise security solutions to businesses around the world, small and large.
Blaak 520
3011TA Rotterdam
The Netherlands

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