Making Security Testing More User Friendly

Making Security Testing More User Friendly

Ioan shares how we can ease into security testing with the help of Zap Proxy

Security Testing: Hurdles In Learning And Barriers To Entry

When you learn about software testing, one place where you might get your information is the ISTQB foundation curriculum, where you can read about different types of testing. Here are just a few:

  • Unit testing
  • Integration testing
  • System testing
  • Functional testing
  • Acceptance testing
  • Smoke testing
  • Regression testing
  • Performance testing
  • Security testing
  • User acceptance testing

Now if you review all of the items in this list, I am sure you would find some to be more familiar, more appealing, even easier than others. There might even be some items in the list that you never encountered before. There was a time in my career when it seemed that no one cared about performance and security testing because they were either done at the end of projects or were never done. As time passed I came to the conclusion that both performance and security were not done that often because they require a special set of tools and skills that are not that easy to obtain or master. For security testing, the first images that come into your mind when thinking about the topic may be of Linux terminals and hackers. That was my experience. I always found the topic of security testing intimidating, especially since I usually run Windows, not Linux. I always thought that it was complicated to set up the tools necessary to do security testing and that the licenses for those tools were expensive.

But is that really the case? Is there no user-friendly and free alternative?

Just Starting Out? OWASP And ZAP To The Rescue

What Are OWASP And ZAP?

In my search for beginner-friendly freeware for security testing, I came across the Open Worldwide Application Security Project (OWASP), a nonprofit foundation that works to improve the security of software. 

OWASP displays this manifesto on their website:

  • Our Vision
  • No more insecure software.
  • Our Mission
  • To be the global open community that powers secure software through education, tools, and collaboration

With that vision and mission,, OWASP is the place to be if you are looking for open source educational material and tools for security testing. The first time I ever heard about OWASP was when I encountered the OWASP Top 10, a list of the top security risks to web applications in a given year. I wanted to know more, so I researched the OWASP tools and stumbled upon ZAP ( Zed Attack Proxy). The fact that it was easy to install, easy to run, and that it worked on Windows leads me to conclude that ZAP is a standout in making security testing more user friendly.

What Makes ZAP Different

To see why I say ZAP is the leading tool in user-friendly security testing, let us first install it. (At the time of writing this article, the latest version is 2.13.0.)

The installation is straightforward:

  1. Open the Download page.
List of download links for zap proxy
  1. Download the installer suitable for your operating system.
  2. Let the wizard install your software (Windows screenshot below).
  3. Start ZAP after the installation is complete.
Image showing the Zap proxy dashboard

Now that you have opened ZAP, your first impulse might be to run an automatic scan, tell ZAP the URL of the website whose security you want to challenge, and then to wait. 

IMPORTANT: you should launch security challenges only against websites for which you have permission to perform a challenge. 

Let’s say you got permission to launch a security challenge against a website, then opened ZAP and performed the default challenge. You’ll get some results, certainly. But where is the learning, where is the control, where is the sapient design that characterizes your other testing? 

There‚Äôs a solution to these problems, and it‚Äôs called the ZAP Heads Up Display (which I refer to as ‚ÄúZAP HUD‚ÄĚ below). You can think of the HUD as ZAP in your browser and under your control. You tell it when and how to challenge a website.

Working With The ZAP Heads Up Display (The ZAP HUD)

A Quick Start With the ZAP HUD

To access the ZAP HUD we need to perform a series of simple steps:

  1. First we select Manual Explore from the OWASP ZAP home page.
A screenshot of the ZAP Hud with the middle item 'Manual Explore' highlighted
  1. Enter the URL against which you want to launch a security challenge. Here’s a website against which you can try your own challenge: 
  2. Select Enable HUD.
  3. Select Launch Browser.
Screenshot of manual explore shown. The URL to explore and Enable Hud fields are highlighted. The url is and the Enable hud is checked.
Screenshot of manual explore shown. The launch browser button is highlighted.

If we have performed all the actions correctly, we should see the image below.

Screenshot of the ginandjuice webpage with the ZAP HUD popup shown.

Exploring What The ZAP HUD Can Do

To explore the ZAP HUD, select Continue to your target, which is the right-hand button in the middle of the page. After the page has finished loading, you should see three sections on the page. 

To show you how much control you have in each section and what each section represents, let us analyze them in more detail.

Picture showing the different Zap Hud options on the left and right hand side of the screen and a report view at the bottom of screen.

The Left-Hand Section

Left hand side of Zap Hud showing different toggles to turn features off as well as different coloured flags.
  • At the top you will see¬†In and¬†Out buttons to include pages in¬†Scope. When you first start the ZAP HUD, nothing is in scope. That means that you will not be able to use tools like active scanners or spiders, since those work only on pages that are in scope. To add a page to the scope, simply select the¬†In button.

           Two buttons one entitled out and another entitled in

  • The next set of buttons in the¬†Break section allow you to capture and stop traffic. When¬†Break is on, it indicates that all requests are intercepted by ZAP, and you can review and step through them.

Two buttons one entitled off and another entitled on 

  • The¬†Show/Enable button gives you access to hidden fields. The number next to the bulb will increase based on the amount of hidden fields found.

           Two buttons with lightbulbs within them, one blue and one yellow. Both have a count of 0 next to them.

  • The next items in the section represent security alerts. They range from High (Red) to Informal (Blue) level. The numbers next to the flags will also change based on the number of alerts found.

         Four flag icons that are red, orange, yellow and blue in that order. Each flag has a count of 0 next to them.

  • The last item allows you to add additional functionality, as we will see later when we will actively use the ZAP HUD‚Äôs reporting feature.

          An image of a plus button.

The Right-Hand Section

A screenshot of the right hand side of the Zap Hud with various options to start different tools.
  • The¬†Sites button is an extension of the history tab. The Sites list will be updated based on the pages that we visit and on what we select to be in scope.¬†

       A screenshot of the zap hud option 'Sites' that shows a list of in scope websites. The domain is shown in th list.

  • The next set of buttons represents the¬†Spider and the¬†Ajax Spider.¬†These will scan pages that are in scope. Note that only the Ajax Spider can scan pages that contain dynamic JavaScript. As the scan progresses you will see the ‚Äúpercentage complete‚ÄĚ of the scan appear next to the icon as well as its current status.

          Images of start buttons for spidering tools.

  • The Active Scanner¬†is, you might say, the heart of ZAP. It will launch security challenges against pages to which you have manually navigated or pages that the spider has discovered.¬†

        Two buttons one entitled start and another showing the button pressed with a 0% indicator on it.

  • A more aggressive approach is the Attack mode.¬†With this button, ZAP will automatically attack in-scope pages on the fly.

       A button shown in two different states of off and on.

  • The next items in the section represent security alerts. They range from High (Red) to Informal (Blue) level. The numbers next to the flags change based on the number of alerts found.

        A collection of buttons with flags of different colours showing different security issues found.

  • Finally we have an¬†Additional Features button:
    • HTML Report - summarizes all security alerts found in an HTML report
    • HUD Errors - shows errors in the ZAP HUD rather than errors in the application under test
    • Comments¬†- displays code comments that are supposed to be hidden
    • Toggle Script¬† - lets you run a script that you have created or imported

  A list of tools that can be selected including: Show HTML Report, HUD Errors, Comments and Toggle Script

The Bottom Section 

The bottom section displays the history and WebSockets details of what you are doing.

A screenshot of the history view showing a list of different HTTP requests.

Diving Deeper With The ZAP HUD

Now that we have seen how to start the ZAP HUD and how to use it, let us put it to a more intense test. You’ll see that it is easy to use and provides results in a user-friendly manner. 

Scanning And Reporting

For our first example we will see that even a simple scan will give us valuable information that we can then further investigate or even report on.

The images below illustrate the following steps:

  • Start the ZAP HUD.
  • Include a page in the scope.
A screenshot of the Zap HUD in which the Out of Scope button has been selected
Popup asking if the current domain should be added to scope.
  • Start the Attack mode.
A screenshot of the Zap HUD in which the Attack mode button has been selected
  • Let it run a bit.
  • Generate an HTML report.
A screenshot of the Zap HUD in which the Show HTML report button has been selected
  • Explore the report and its structure.
A screenshot of a ZAP HUD report

Exploratory Testing With The ZAP HUD

Given enough time, the active scanner will find a lot of information that would take a human tester days to review and check with manual testing alone. However, there are scenarios related to security testing which require thinking outside the box and exploring on your own. Here’s an example.

Our scenario will include the following steps:

  • Start the ZAP HUD.
  • Put a page in scope.
  • Navigate the application‚Äôs pages.
A screenshot of a specific product being displayed from the
  • See what secrets the application shows (for example, code comments that are supposed to be hidden).
A screenshot of a product page in which the show hidden fields has been enabled. New fields have appeared on the screen.
  • Generate an HTML report.
  • Explore the report and its structure.
A screenshot of a ZAP HUD report for the individual report page


In the hopes that this article has made the world of security testing more appealing to you, I leave you with an assignment. Install ZAP and try the HUD yourself on a website you have permission to test, and then let us chat in the Ministry of Testing discussion board about your experience. 

If you cannot find any websites that will give you permission to launch security challenges, I recommend having a look at this video that I created a while ago. It contains a link to the only Web Security Site Practice List you will ever need.

If for any reason you still find security testing to be difficult and scary, have a look first at the Ministry of Testing resources in the next section. Then revisit the first paragraph in this conclusion. Hope to chat with you about your experience on the Ministry of Testing forums!

For More Information

Ioan Solderea's profile
Ioan Solderea

Lead QA

I am one of those people who want to know all about all but will also be happy knowing a lot about a lot. Because of this I choose to be a tester since you get to learn always new technologies, you get to test in the most diverse areas and it is always fun to tell people you found a bug.

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