Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning

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Navigating the ever-evolving terrain of cybersecurity can often feel like you're trying to hit a moving target. The threats are relentless, the stakes are high, and the terminology can sometimes feel overwhelming.

In the world of system security, there are two main types of tests that are often confused: penetration testing and vulnerability scanning. While they have some similarities, these are two different procedures with different goals. In this post, we will take a look at the key differences between vulnerability assessment and penetration testing in order to understand why and when each should be used.

What is the Main Difference Between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing?

Vulnerability scanning is the process of identifying security issues that might be present in a system. Penetration testing, on the other hand, is the simulated hacking of the system in order to expose weaknesses that might be exploited by malicious attackers to gain access. Penetration testing is also referred to as pen testing.

Simply put, vulnerability scanning focuses on detecting security threats, while penetration testing involves actually trying to exploit these threats to see if they are real, how bad they are and if they are weaknesses that a real-world attacker could exploit. Examples of common vulnerabilities include weak encryptions, outdated software, faulty hardware, operating system flaws, network misconfigurations, missing authentications, SQL injection, etc.

The difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing can also be illustrated in terms of scope. Penetration testing is a much more thorough and extensive process that goes beyond simply scanning your systems for vulnerabilities. It looks for vulnerabilities that may be exploited. It plays a key role in helping companies to protect sensitive data, which is very important because data breach can be very costly. Vulnerability scanning, on the other hand, is less comprehensive and only looks for known issues.

Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing: Pros

Both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing offer a number of pros or benefits if you like. Firstly, they help you identify vulnerabilities in your systems so you can fix them before an attacker exploits them.

Secondly, they help you test the security of your systems and networks. By simulating real-world attacks, you can identify any weak points and fix them before attackers take advantage.

Finally, vulnerability scanning and penetration testing can help you improve your overall security posture. They provide a level of assurance that your systems are secure and can help you justify investments in security solutions.

Benefits of Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing: Summary

Pros of Vulnerability ScanningPros of Penetration Testing
  • Automates thousands of security tests

  • Quickly identifies easy threats

  • Easy to deploy  in-house

  • Can be integrated easily into an organization's threat management program

  • The process is repeatable

  • Reasonably affordable 

  • Offers continuous insight as it can be used for constant monitoring 

  • Generates logical, easy to implement recommendations

  • Sets the stage for a proactive security plan

  • Provides valuable insights into the system's security

  • Contributes to protection of customer data 

  • Can help protect organizations from cyberattacks

  • Can help organizations meet administrative requirements, and avoid fines. 

Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing: Limitations

While vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are both important aspects of system security, they do have their limitations. For example, vulnerability scanners can only identify known vulnerabilities, so they're not 100% effective. This means that some vulnerabilities may not be identified. It is also possible that vulnerability scanners can be fooled by malware or other malicious code that may be present on systems. This can result in false positives (identifying vulnerabilities that do not exist) or false negatives (missing vulnerabilities that exist).

One of the main limitations of penetration testing is that it can be expensive and time-consuming. Additionally, penetration testing may reveal sensitive information or degrade vital creation data. There's also the risk that your employees may be tricked into granting access to unauthorized third parties. 

Limitations of Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scanning:  Summary

Limitations of Vulnerability ScanningLimitations of Penetration testing
  • The scanning tool (scanner) can be fooled by malware and give false outcomes

  • The scanner may never find all vulnerabilities

  • The scanner requires constant updates to identify new vulnerabilities

  • Some scanners can take hours or even days to complete the process

  • Any errors in the process can be costly to the organization

  • This kind of testing can be considered unethical in certain circumstances

  • Expensive and time-consuming

  • Requires huge testing teams

  • Conducting pen tests on an organization's critical legacy systems can present complications

Which is Better? A Vulnerability Scan or Penetration test?

So, which should you choose despite the differences in vulnerability testing vs penetration testing? Vulnerability scanning or penetration testing? 

If you want to identify and fix vulnerabilities in your system, then vulnerability scanning is the way to go. However, if you're looking for a more comprehensive assessment of your security posture and want to find out how easily an attacker could break into your systems, then penetration testing is the better option. For both, you can use your in-house teams if capable or utilize cybersecurity services. 

In conclusion, vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are both valuable security tools, but they have different strengths and weaknesses. Vulnerability scanning can identify security issues in your systems, but it cannot exploit them to determine the impact that they would have on your business. Penetration testing can exploit vulnerabilities to determine the impact that they would have on your organization, but it is more expensive and time-consuming than vulnerability scanning.

When Do You Need Penetration Testing?

You will need penetration testing when your organization has a significant amount of sensitive data that needs to be protected. You will also need it in the unfortunate event that your organization experiences a data breach in which case you would want to uncover the extent of the damage. Though there isn't yet a  universal standard on frequency, a significant number of cybersecurity experts have indicated that they pen test at least once a year. 

When Do You Need Vulnerability Scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is a more routine security measure that you can conduct constantly as part of your organization's overall risk management strategy. It's typically used to identify which areas of your systems are vulnerable to attack. Once you know where the weak spots are, you can focus your efforts on penetration testing. A survey conducted by Netwrix established that 70% of the participating organizations have invested in a vulnerability assessment tool, either outsourced or executed in-house. 

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