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Hierarchical reinforcement learning for efficient and effective automated penetration testing of large networks

Ghanem, M. C., Chen, T. ORCID: 0000-0001-8037-1685 & Nepomuceno, E. G. (2022). Hierarchical reinforcement learning for efficient and effective automated penetration testing of large networks. Journal of Intelligent Information Systems, 60(2), pp. 281-303. doi: 10.1007/s10844-022-00738-0


Penetration testing (PT) is a method for assessing and evaluating the security of digital assets by planning, generating, and executing possible attacks that aim to discover and exploit vulnerabilities. In large networks, penetration testing becomes repetitive, complex and resource consuming despite the use of automated tools. This paper investigates reinforcement learning (RL) to make penetration testing more intelligent, targeted, and efficient. The proposed approach called Intelligent Automated Penetration Testing Framework (IAPTF) utilizes model-based RL to automate sequential decision making. Penetration testing tasks are treated as a partially observed Markov decision process (POMDP) which is solved with an external POMDP-solver using different algorithms to identify the most efficient options. A major difficulty encountered was solving large POMDPs resulting from large networks. This was overcome by representing networks hierarchically as a group of clusters and treating each cluster separately. This approach is tested through simulations of networks of various sizes. The results show that IAPTF with hierarchical network modeling outperforms previous approaches as well as human performance in terms of time, number of tested vectors and accuracy, and the advantage increases with the network size. Another advantage of IAPTF is the ease of repetition for retesting similar networks, which is often encountered in real PT. The results suggest that IAPTF is a promising approach to offload work from and ultimately replace human pen testing.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit
Publisher Keywords: Penetration testing, Artificial intelligence, Machine learning, Reinforcement learning, Hierarchical reinforcement learning, Markov decision process, Vulnerability assessment
Subjects: Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA75 Electronic computers. Computer science
Departments: School of Science & Technology > Engineering
SWORD Depositor:
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