There is a substantial amount of confusion regarding the difference between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning. Many people in the information technology world use it interchangeably. But is it right to do so?
Most of the times, when people associate penetration testing with vulnerability scans, they miss the vital components in their overall network security profile. Of course, both these processes are critical at their respective levels and analyze the cyber risks. However, it would not be wise to consider both of them as an extension of one another.
Penetration testing exploits weaknesses in your system architecture and determines the level to which malicious attacker can gain unauthorized access, while vulnerability scanning, as the name suggests examines for vulnerabilities and generate a report for the potential exposures.
In simple words, vulnerability scanning is like checking if the doors of your home are locked or not, while, penetration testing (also known as a pen test) involves not just checking for the doors but also a walk inside the home to discover specific details/security flaws, just as the burglar would do.
Pen tests require a brain and thinking capacity of a cybercriminal, which is why these are usually conducted by experienced professionals, who are highly versed in ethical hacking. It targets vulnerabilities in applications or common patterns which occur across many applications.
Below you will find main points of difference between penetration tests and vulnerability scans:
1. Understanding the Purpose
When you conduct vulnerability scanning, you are looking to report potential exposures to the system, which if exploited, could compromise the system. Basically, you scan and report each vulnerability within your system. The scans could be internals – done from inside of the organization or external – conducted from outside of the organization.
On the other hand, a penetration test is a simulated attack against your network infrastructure or information systems. Here you attempt to evade the security features of system components and exploit weaknesses within your system, determining your level of risks. It can also be performed both externally and internally. However, the idea here is to go deeper within your system and examine the vulnerabilities as a cybercriminal would exploit.
2. Manual vs Automation
Vulnerability scans are fundamentally automated and are performed using a combination of automation tools. You could ask your MSP or an expert internal technician to review the report afterwards. The person assigned could confirm the results of the report after a thorough analysis of the system for high-risk exposures.
In comparison, penetration tests always involve a human component. These are performed by “Ethical hackers” who are highly skilled and experienced in exploiting the system and network for weaknesses using a variety of tools and techniques. For a better perspective of the system, ethical hackers usually review vulnerability reports to find the most basic attack vectors.
3. Defining the Frequency
In our view, vulnerability scans should be conducted continuously. If not possible to continually evaluate for vulnerabilities, they should be done every quarter. More importantly, the scans should take place at least after installation of every equipment or after making any significant changes.
The same is true in case of penetration tests as well. It is great to conduct a pen test, especially if you are installing new equipment or making system upgrades. But in general, it is okay to perform this test at least once a year.
4. Evaluating Value to the Firm
When it comes to vulnerability scanning, it identifies the areas of risks both within the network or outside of the network, which can be exploited by the user. However, penetration tests give full visibility to the risk exposures and identify malicious entities that could be attacking the system. This means a pen test defines the broader extent of risk exposure.
5. What Reporting Includes?
After vulnerability scanning is concluded, you’ll find a comprehensive report for all the vulnerabilities that may be exploited, including software exposures, expired patches etc whereas the reports for penetration tests discuss the level of risk and potential exposure to your system architecture. The report assesses the vulnerabilities and ranks them from low to high. This report will also identify how high-risk vulnerabilities can be exploited and what outcomes you can expect.
Partner with GRIP I.T. for Comprehensive Cyber Risk Analysis
While both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are critical processes. They both have a different purpose and outcome. More significantly, these can feed into the analysis of cyber risks and help determine the controls best suited for your business. At GRIP I.T., we can help you to reduce risks and get the most out of your vulnerability scans and pen tests. To learn about these processes in further detail or to get an assessment of your current situation –