When it comes to network security, two key terms are often used interchangeably: vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing. But while they both aim to identify weaknesses in a system, there is a big difference between the two approaches.
I remember when I first started working in IT security, I was constantly getting these two confused. It wasn’t until I had to do some research for a project that I realized just how different they are.
Vulnerability assessments focus on identifying potential vulnerabilities within a system. This can be done through manual inspection or by using automated tools like scanners. Once identified, the goal is then to provide recommendations on how to fix them so that the system can be made more secure.
Penetration tests go one step further and attempt to exploit any vulnerabilities that have been found to not only confirm their existence but also assess the impact of an attack if successful. These tests simulate real-world attacks and help organizations understand what needs to be done to mitigate risks. Let’s dive deeper into vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing.
Vulnerability Assessment vs Penetration Testing
A vulnerability assessment is a process that identifies, quantifies, and reports any vulnerability in a system. Its goal is to provide an organization with information about the risks associated with its systems and networks and to recommend mitigation strategies.
A vulnerability scan is an automated process that uses software to scan your network for vulnerabilities.
As findings in a vulnerability assessment report are not always accurate, some may be false positives.
A solid vulnerability assessment report should contain the title, the description, and the severity (high, medium, low) of each vulnerability uncovered. This will help you to quickly identify which vulnerabilities are the most critical and need to be addressed first.
A mix of critical and non-critical vulnerabilities can be problematic, as you may not know where to start.
Have you ever paid for penetration testing services and received hundreds of pages reporting a list of vulnerabilities detected by the scanning tool? You’re not alone.
Unfortunately, many vendors claim to offer penetration testing when in reality they offer only vulnerability assessments.
What is a Penetration Test?
A penetration test is a comprehensive evaluation of your company’s security posture that includes attempts to exploit vulnerabilities in your systems. This assessment is conducted by a team of security professionals with expertise in various hacking techniques.
Penetration testing can include any of these techniques:
- Social engineering hacking techniques to access the system and its database
- Phishing emails to access critical accounts
- Unencrypted passwords to access sensitive databases
A penetration test is an authorized simulated attack on a computer system, performed to evaluate the security of the system. These tests can be more invasive than a vulnerability scan and can cause a DoS, increase resource usage, reduce productivity, and corrupt machines.
In some cases, you may want to inform your staff of an upcoming test or run a test without their knowledge.
However, if you want to test how your internal security team would respond to a real-life threat, this method would not be applicable.
When performing a penetration test, you have to be clear about your intentions and communicate your needs to the penetration testing team. This will help ensure that the test is conducted effectively and that you get the results you are looking for.
For instance, maybe you’ve just rolled out a cybersecurity program for your small business and you want to see how successful it is.
A penetration test can help assess its effectiveness by testing its ability to meet certain objectives, such as maintaining 99.99% availability during an attack or ensuring data loss prevention (DLP) systems are blocking would-be attackers from exfiltrating data.
Vulnerability Assessment Scan vs. Penetration Test
Below are a few differences and similarities between a vulnerability assessment scan and a penetration test.
Area of Focus
When conducting a vulnerability assessment, security at the surface level is given more attention than the in-depth coding structure. In contrast, penetration testing puts more emphasis on the coding structure and in-depth security.
Vulnerability assessments are less expensive than penetration tests because they don’t require as much in-depth analysis. Penetration tests are more costly because they involve a more thorough examination of the security of an application.
You don’t need to be an expert to do a vulnerability assessment. Just a basic understanding of cybersecurity and the tools involved will do.
Penetration testing, on the other hand, requires a high level of skill in being able to hack and beat the hackers at their own games.
Vulnerability scan techniques include:
- Authenticated testing
- Unauthenticated testing
Penetration testing techniques include:
- Black box testing
- White box testing
- Gray box testing
While a vulnerability assessment is usually done automatically, it can also be performed as a one-off manual test. On the other hand, a penetration testing exercise lasts from a couple of days to several weeks.
A vulnerability scan should be performed on new equipment after it is uploaded. A penetration test shouldn’t need to be run as frequently as a vulnerability scan because it can be costly.
But having this done regularly, like once a month, is best.
After a vulnerability scan, you’ll receive instructions on how to partially solve the problem.
After a penetration test, you will have full details of the loopholes and how to prevent any future attacks.
Do You Need a Vulnerability Assessment or Penetration Testing?
Now that you understand the difference between vulnerability assessments and penetration tests, which one should you choose?
The purpose of a vulnerability assessment is to identify and fix any weaknesses in your system/network.
On the other hand, the objective of penetration testing is to identify the weaknesses in your systems and exploit them to gain access to sensitive data.
So, your decision will depend on whether you want to look for any weaknesses in your IT system and then build a strong security system or if you want to simply test out how secure your current system is.
Both techniques aim to strengthen network security by highlighting and fixing problem areas.
An organization must choose between both methods, depending on the objectives, features, and importance of the application.
Note that all penetration tests will include a vulnerability assessment as well.
Both vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing is equally essential to an IT security risk assessment.
The VA/PT test helps determine what security controls and frameworks are required and the best fit for your business.
Both these tests work effectively as strategies to help reduce cyber-security risks. To implement them, however, it is important to understand the distinctions between them, their importance, their purpose, and the outcome.
A lack of training and knowledge when it comes to how to conduct these tests could lead to greater risk.
To strengthen your company’s cybersecurity, you should consult with security experts to find out which assessments or tests work best for your organization.
Overall, vulnerability assessment and penetration testing are two very different approaches to security. Vulnerability assessments focus on identifying potential weaknesses while penetration tests aim to exploit them. While both can be useful in their own right, it’s important to understand the difference so that you can choose the right approach for your needs.