Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Testing: Which One is Right For You?
May 8, 2021
Cybersecurity is a hot topic these days. With the curve of cyberattacks showing no signs of dipping in an increasingly ghetto cyberspace, you must know how to assess your systems for vulnerabilities properly. Security threats can go undiscovered for months or even years without the proper know-how and tools, posing enormous risks for your organization’s assets.
That said, you can always get in the driving seat of your company security system with the right tools. These security tools help businesses understand the structural weaknesses within their network infrastructure and stay ahead of malicious cyberattacks.
Penetration testing, for one, is a method of assessing security by simulating an attack on your systems by hackers to find out where they would get in and what sensitive information they could access. This article will help you dip your feet into the vulnerability assessment vs. penetration testing pool, so you’re more than prepared (and equipped!) when choosing which one best fits your company’s needs.
The first step in any cyber security strategy worth its salt is understanding exactly what your most significant safety risks are, as well as taking steps to fix those risks (#knowyourenemy.) Consequently, it’s now a matter of urgency that companies fully understand the difference between vulnerability assessment vs. penetration testing before deciding on which they want to pursue further with their company.
Vulnerability assessment and penetration testing are two different types of security audits used to assess the vulnerabilities in a system. The difference between both tests is that vulnerability assessments only identify the potential weaknesses that could be exploited, while penetration tests exploit those weaknesses and can cause harm if proper precautions aren’t taken.
Knowing these key differences will ensure that they’re making an informed decision about how they should proceed when trying to keep their organization. To get a good grasp of what each test entails, keep reading!
What is a vulnerability assessment?
We get that this is a post on cyber-security. However, it’s worth mentioning that vulnerability assessment is a process we’re anything but strangers to. We have conducted this test in one form or another, from double-checking our locked car or house doors before heading out to checking our laptops for viruses.
Bringing it close home, though, a Vulnerability Scan or Assessment searches for security weaknesses within a network infrastructure. This scan reveals security issues within a network, such as outdated protocols, certificates, and missing patches.
Despite identifying these security loopholes, a vulnerability scan does not exploit these flaws. It merely prescribes recommendations on how to fix the vulnerability. A vulnerability scan may be conducted periodically or when there is a significant change to a network. While an in-house staff may run it, such testers must be PSI-approved to ensure that relevant vulnerabilities are not left unscanned.
A vulnerability assessment comprises four distinct components: scanning, analyzing, categorizing, and remediating.
Scans are used to determine which vulnerabilities exist in your system, while analysis determines the impact of each exposure. Categorization is necessary to prioritize the vulnerabilities that an attacker could exploit, and remediating these vulnerabilities will help you address them.
There are two types of scans during a vulnerability assessment (or VAB): passive and active scans. A passive scan does not impact the target because the system only gathers information without ever taking any action.
An active scan includes steps that could potentially affect or change your system. For example, if you are assessing a web application, an active scan may include attempting to upload a file using the web application interface. It could also be in the form of manual inspection methods such as reviewing logs to find security holes in your system(s).
P.S. A vulnerability assessment will not actually fix any problems, but it’ll give all the insight you need to shore up your defense. By assessing your system and its security, you can fix problems before they become a real threat.
Benefits of a vulnerability assessment
Identifies Security Loopholes:
It helps to identify security loopholes in an IT infrastructure that can compromise the operations of an organization before they can be exploited by attackers. This goes a long way in mitigating potential cyber threats to an organization’s network.
Regular vulnerability scans assure an organization of the safety of its systems and network. The customers of such businesses are likewise assured of the organization’s capacity in protecting their data.
Vulnerability testing can be automatically executed to run on a periodic basis as well (i.e. can be automated to run weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.)
It helps organizations create an inventory of the relevant information of the devices on their network, further enabling them to detect the different vulnerabilities associated with these devices.
Vulnerability testing serves as a baseline
Having a baseline for comparison when using penetration testing is one of the biggest benefits of a vulnerability assessment. During penetration testing, if any issues are identified, you’ll be able to make more secure decisions on how to resolve the problem because you have already completed an initial vulnerability assessment.
What is a penetration test?
A Penetration Test examines the cyber-defense of network infrastructure by exploring its vulnerabilities, but in a more robust, comprehensive manner to vulnerability tests. Gauging the security strength, a penetration test simulates a cyberattack by attempting to compromise and extract sensitive data in a non-damaging way.
A penetration test is an in-depth probe into the data security of an IT system as it attempts to identify lax security protocols and business processes that can be exploited by an outside source.
Due to the technical process involved in penetration testing, it requires a long list of technical skills, an ability to think abstractly, as well as the creativity to anticipate threat actor behaviors. A successful penetration test helps to map out the various hacking techniques and the entire attack lifecycle that a network is vulnerable to.
A quality penetration test is usually conducted by an objective third-party tester, to ensure an excellent job and to avoid conflict of interests. Conducting a proper penetration test requires written permission from the leadership of your organizational hierarchy since it entails steps like attempting to identify valid login credentials or finding ways to compromise the system.
Once valid credentials are identified, a penetration tester will attempt to gain access by using those credentials.
Benefits of a Penetration Test
It’s proactive, not reactive:
While exploiting the identified vulnerabilities of a network, a penetration test shows the degree of harm that a potential cyberattack can inflict. It also analyzes the nature of risks that a network is susceptible to, thus informing organizations about the necessary security measures against potential attacks.
Shows how effective your Cyber-defense is:
A penetration test stretches the strength of your cyber-defense to ensure that it can deflect potential attacks without getting compromised. It helps to identify and analyze the security weaknesses in a network that can be exploited by an outside source. With this, an organization can gauge its security investment.
Compliance with Legal Requirements:
Some regulated industries are legally required to conduct periodic penetration testing, per industry regulations like the PCI, ISO 27001, FISMA, etc.
A penetration test, therefore, helps your organization demonstrate compliance to these obligations, avoid the heavy fines that may be associated with non-compliance, and also preserve your brand reputation.
The thorough, rigorous process of penetration testing means that the live, professionally vetted, manual tests would always bear more accurate results. This reduces the probability of false positives to drastically low levels, or ruling them out altogether.
Penetration testing (like vulnerability testing) also has 4 stages namely: scanning, analyzing, categorizing, and remediating. After remediation of the cyber breach, a re-testing is often performed to close out any probability of a recurrence.
How is vulnerability assessment different from penetration testing?
One core (and by far most apparent) difference between both tests is that a Vulnerability Test merely checks for known loopholes and weaknesses in an IT system. A Penetration Test, on the other hand, goes a little further by exploiting those loopholes (Hello! ethical hacking) to fail-proof the system’s security.
A Vulnerability Scan is conducted within the security perimeter of a network. Penetration Testing meanwhile extends its examination outside of the mapped-out security perimeters.
The test conducted by a Vulnerability Scan is limited in scope because it only checks for known vulnerabilities. On the other hand, penetration testing is broader in scope since it discovers unknown and exploitable vulnerabilities.
To perform penetration tests, an ethical hacker will try various exploits against your defenses to compromise them. Penetration testing is far more hands-on than vulnerability assessments, but it’s also more effective at identifying significant problems that an organization should address.
Which is Better? A Vulnerability Scan or Penetration Test
Vulnerability scans and Penetration tests are different approaches to the prevention of cyberattacks. Consequently, they’re adopted under different circumstances.
A vulnerability scan is ideal for new organizations desiring to have a basic understanding of the level of risk and vulnerabilities their network is exposed to. It’s also ideal for quick security checks when changes are made to a system.
In contrast, a Penetration test is more suited for running when there are significant changes to a network. It’s also ideal for organizations that are high-value targets and have a mature cybersecurity program.
Which test should you run?
Like a snappily done X-ray, Vulnerability scans are great for weekly, monthly insights on your network security. On the other hand, penetration tests provide a much thorough examination through what we call an ‘attacker’s POV’ to spot possible vulnerabilities to compromise business data files like customer records, etc.
Penetration testers take more time and cost more than just doing regular old ‘scans.’ That said, they’re worth every penny if done right by professionals (ethical hackers) with experience analyzing networks from both ends—as someone attempting to break into systems; and then also somebody trying not to get hacked themselves!
Prevent cyberattacks before they even happen!
Here at Hermes Security, our team of cyber security ninjas is armed with the know-how to comprehensively mount blockades between cybercriminals & your organization’s data. Our ethical hackers will help spotlight these cyberattack attempts and any other anomalies, protecting your brand image and ensuring business continuity.