The Differences Between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scanning

The Differences Between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scanning

The key difference between a penetration test versus a vulnerability scan is that vulnerability scanning is performed against the software to find out vulnerabilities, not to take advantage of weaknesses in the system, whereas penetration testing is performed in order to take advantage of vulnerabilities and flaws. While penetration testing and vulnerability scanning both aim to discover security weaknesses, the way in which they carry out their tests is quite different. Penetration tests are done manually, and most vulnerability scanning is done automatically, but the primary difference between the two types of security tests is in how strict they are. The differences between vulnerability assessments and penetration tests prove the two security services are well worth considering for protecting your system’s security.

What is Vulnerability Scanning?

Since the tests are largely automated, there is very little expertise required for performing a vulnerability assessment. Automated tests, widely used in vulnerability assessments, do not need as much skill, which is why you may have your security team members performing automated tests. Automated tests and assessments are easily repeated multiple times, and they will relatively cost you less than an eventual breach.

Vulnerability assessments include using automated network security scanning tools, the results of which are listed in the report. Such a security scan is designed to identify known issues, though the extent of the vulnerability test depends heavily on the chosen vulnerability scanning tools. Vulnerability assessments are mostly performed using automated scanning tools like AppCheck, Nessus, Qualys, or OpenVAS, which are ready-to-use software packages. Often called vulnerability scans, vulnerability testing is all about finding vulnerabilities and prioritising them based on their level of threat and probability of exploitation. Another consideration to note is that some scanning tools are designed specifically for networks, others for web applications, and some are designed to scan both effectively.

The real skill in vulnerability scanning is the ability to set up the scans correctly, schedule them regularly to give consistency, the ability to read the scan reports, eliminate false positives and determine the priority fixes that need doing. CheckScan+ is a managed vulnerability scanning service that can take care of all of that. [Graphic this]

What is Penetration Testing 

A penetration test involves a team of security professionals who are actively trying to hack your company’s network, leveraging weaknesses and vulnerabilities in your systems. Penetration tests use vulnerabilities in the architecture of your systems, whereas vulnerability scans (or assessments) test for known vulnerabilities and produce a report of the risks exposed. Penetration tests try to exploit vulnerabilities in the system to determine whether it is possible for unauthorized access or other malicious activities to occur and identify what vulnerabilities are posing threats to an application.

Penetration tests require security analysts with high-level skills, while vulnerability scans can usually be performed by analysts trained in using tools and in basic networking and security concepts. Both vulnerability scans and penetration tests are known to be intrusive, causing disruptions and other problems in enterprise networks.

Yes, penetration testing is expensive, but you are paying for a professional to look at every corner and nook of your company in the same way that an adversary in the real world would, in order to spot a possible breach.

Key Differences between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing

  1. Vulnerability assessments are typically slightly less rigorous than penetration tests — that is, they do not include social engineering attacks or exploits designed to break into your security infrastructure. It can give you critical insights, including unapplied patches, vulnerable versions of software, and gaps in your network’s controls, such as firewalls.
  2. Additionally, a vulnerability assessment will determine the potential weaknesses, and suggest appropriate mitigation measures (remediation) that will eliminate these weaknesses or mitigate them to a risk level that is lower.
  3. Furthermore, vulnerability assessments seek to enhance security systems and develop a more mature, comprehensive security plan. Penetration testing involves using vulnerability scanning tools, and typically is applied against external security devices and applications including, but not limited to, firewalls, web servers, web applications, gateways, and VPN servers.
  4. A full-blown pen test is mostly a manual process (although automated vulnerability scans are frequently performed in the recon phase of the pen test).
  5. Pen testing should be carried out by certified ethical hackers or certified penetration testers. Vulnerability scanning can be carried out by qualified and experienced SOC analysts as well as ethical hackers and certified pen testers.
  6. Web Application security – while both penetration testing and vulnerability scanning is advised on web apps to find known and zero-day vulnerabilities. Vulnerability scanning should be baked into the web application operations to find new vulnerabilities and security weaknesses on an ongoing basis. Once security issues have been remediated you can rescan your web application to make sure the issues are fixed.

Conclusion – Use a combined vulnerability scanning programme and penetration testing service

At CommSec, we always advocate the best of both scenarios to security testing your IT Systems; utilising regular vulnerability scanning and pairing that annual or bi-annual penetration test. Get in touch with our sales team to discuss your security testing requirements.

Using the combined Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing approach gives an organisation a more detailed view of the threats facing its applications, enabling the business to better protect its systems and data from malicious attacks.

Additional Resources:

Check out our Penetration Testing Service page

Check out CheckScan+ Vulnerability Scanning Service page

Watch the webinar: Penetration Testing Vs Vulnerability Scanning