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Vulnerability scans and penetration tests are often used interchangeably. Unfortunately, it is improper to use that creates confusion, sometimes around security decisions too. This article shall help the reader with these terms: penetration testing vs vulnerability scan, their project inputs, outputs, security health indicators and decision making factors. These are the important processes in any organisation requiring solid defences against cyber attacks in the modern world.
Let’s first look at why this subject of cyber risk that sits at the centre of board room requires these exercises. Additionally, you shall find information on how to make an informed choice around either or both assessments.
You can also watch the condensed version of this article discussing the topic penetration test vs vulnerability scan here:
Whether it is a penetration test or a vulnerability scan, keep the following three factors in mind that influence an informed decision.
- Assets criticality
- Target scope
What is the meaning of vulnerability assessment?
Vulnerability assessment is a method to identify and classify threats affecting an asset, i.e. a server, a workstation or a device. This service helps businesses to identify vulnerabilities with a vulnerability scanner and to quantify and categorise cybersecurity risks with ongoing support and guidance for their remediation.
What does a vulnerability scan do?
A vulnerability scan identifies and reports security vulnerabilities (in terms of high risk, medium risk, low risk) using vulnerability scanner software.
A vulnerability scanner is no more than an automated approach to identify vulnerabilities and classify threats based on set cybersecurity risk scoring methods such as industry-standard CVSS or vulnerability database records. Vulnerability scans provide data about the risks and it may lack context and may contain false positives, that’s why the need to analyse and quantify risks. Vulnerability scans are typically conducted based on the chosen frequency of a customer/threat exposure, it could be weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly. If a new vulnerability is identified, this is reflected along with change in attack surface through the agreed communication methods i.e. reports, portal, ticketing system.
Vulnerability scan vs Vulnerability Assessment
Don’t make the mistake of buying a vulnerability scan disguised as a vulnerability assessment. The vulnerability assessment process aims to perform vulnerability scans and provide a list of vulnerabilities affecting your network, added with security expertise in removing false positives and explaining the attack impacts and likelihood of exploitation. This accuracy makes it a practical risk assessment for a business when fed into the risk remediation process.
How many types of vulnerability assessment are there?
Vulnerability assessments are of three types and these may take anywhere from several minutes to several hours based on the scope size. These are internal scans, external scans and host scans that identify potential vulnerabilities in the respective threat scenarios.
- Internal scans are aimed at identifying vulnerabilities within an internal network of an organisation. It could be a cloud network, network segment, a corporate network, or the entire organisation consisting of multiple networks (production, staging, corporate).
- External scans include the scope of internet-facing components that may consist of email, web applications, firewalls, applications/portals and websites.
- Host scans include vulnerability assessment aimed explicitly at a single or multiple hosts that serve as a database, web server, server, workstation or another function.
What is penetration testing?
A pentest is an ethical hacking exercise conducted to identify and exploit security vulnerabilities found within the agreed scope of networks, applications or devices. Penetration testers or ethical hackers perform this exercise in a controlled manner to safely exploit weaknesses without adverse effects on the environment. Should you wish, a detailed read is penetration testing, its types, methodologies, engagement life cycle and costs. Risks identified during this exercise are assessed by security professionals including if the customer has a detective control against the assets in scope, the environmental metrics and context of the asset functionality. These are the key differences against vulnerability scan tasks.
Like vulnerability testing types, multiple penetration testing assessments are conducted to assess various asset categories. These include:
- Web applications and services/API pen testing
- External and Internal penetration testing
- Cloud Pen testing such as Azure, AWS, GCP or SaaS Security testing
- Mobile penetration testing
And so on…
Penetration testing methodologies
Penetration testing assessments are carried out in the following forms based on the customer’s level of knowledge and access.
- Black box penetration test: A black box pentest starts with no prior knowledge and access to the target. An example of such a test involves a website security assessment with no information and user access closer to a real world scenario.
- Grey box penetration test: A grey box pentest involves knowledge and access to the target. An example of such a test consists of a website security assessment with low-level user access.
- White box penetration test: A white box pentest is granted with the highest information and access level. An example of such a test involves website security testing where multiple user levels, including CMS admin and information such as security architecture, design document and/or source code access, is supplied to the ethical hackers or a security consultant.
Penetration testing tools differ based on the threat scenarios, testing methodology and the type of testing involved.
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Vulnerability assessment vs Penetration testing
What is the main difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing?
Vulnerability scanning takes an automated approach to identify common issues such as missing patches, misconfigurations and other common vulnerabilities. It does not cover the in-depth reviews such as actively exploiting weaknesses to determine the extent of cyber risk exposure. Vulnerability assessment results may contain false positives, often considered a downside. Cost-wise this is the cheaper option amongst the two. Output format is generally a report output consisting of automated tests and result exports from the vulnerability scanner software.
A pen test goes a step further by utilising a manual approach to actively exploit weaknesses, established if they are false positives and uncovers flaws such as businesses logic and lateral movements. It simulates real-world test cases aimed at assessing the technical risk exposures in their entirety. Pen testing costs are higher than vulnerability assessment, with black box pen tests often the costliest part. Output format is often a carefully crafted report citing finding details, supplemental data, risk impact and probability along with risk remediation guidance. You can read What does a penetration testing report look like?.
Should you have more queries, a dedicated FAQ on pen testing is worth a read.
What are the benefits of a vulnerability assessment?
- Understand your risks: By identifying vulnerabilities, misconfiguration and other security issues across entire network or networks and applications, this exercise provides an understanding of the attack surface and its exposures.
- Audit changes: Vulnerability scans help to audit patching and configuration changes that are a vital input for the risk remediation process.
- Incident Management Input: Although not directly helpful in responding to incidents, vulnerability scan provides rich data around vulnerabilities and misconfigurations to help incident teams with investigations.
Usually, medium to large businesses opts for managed vulnerability scanning to leverage experience, minimise costs and maximise their limited security resources on priority tasks. A lifecycle of managed vulnerability scanning process involves different stages, as shown below.
59% of respondents have no set schedule or don’t scan for vulnerabilities
Independent study published by Ponemon Insitute, Dec 2018
What are the benefits of penetration testing?
- Proactive Approach: A proactive mindset towards measuring accurate risk exposure is imperative to have effective results on your investments. Pentesting is the perfect approach to identify vulnerabilities and actively exploit weaknesses before threat actors.
- Threat Protection: New threats are always on the horizon. It is critical to regularly assess everything in raw form – the penetration testing approach provides this data from the ground.
- Develop your cybersecurity strategy: Cybersecurity risk can no longer be an afterthought. Cyber security strategy requires input information from technical security audits. The data gathered via penetration testing informs your strategy and acts as the foundation for shaping IT and IT security plans.
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What is the concept of scanning in penetration testing?
The vulnerability scanning phase in penetration tests includes identifying and analysing security vulnerabilities using vulnerability scanning software. This exercise is scheduled in an automated fashion unless explicitly agreed to limited timescales with a customer. Pen tests are generally considered after significant changes to the infrastructure/components in use or once a year annually, whichever is sooner.
Vulnerabilities identified during the scanning phase are analysed and adopted as a base for attack layout preparation. This is critical to the exploitation phase because performing exploitation on all the identified vulnerabilities without any vulnerability analysis may lead to crashes or other potential disruptions to the client environment.
Why is a penetration test considered to be more thorough than a vulnerability scan? Penetration test vs vulnerability scan
A penetration test goes one step further than a vulnerability scan by analysing and exploiting vulnerabilities to demonstrate the extent of an attack as an attacker. It also includes exploiting other systems within the assessment scope using lateral movements and pivoting into restricted systems infiltrating across the networks, compromising the entire estate.
Vulnerability assessment vs risk assessment
A vulnerability assessment involves identifying, analysing and quantifying the cyber risks and vulnerabilities in a system.
A cybersecurity risk assessment is carried to identify threats and the likelihood of attack leading towards information exposure or data loss.
Is vulnerability assessment part of a penetration test?
Yes. Vulnerability assessment identifies known security vulnerabilities in the systems. A penetration test is an extension of vulnerability scans where known vulnerabilities are exploited in a controller manner to demonstrate the degree to which a threat actor can gain unauthorised access to data.
Is penetration testing part of vulnerability management?
Yes, a vulnerability management program includes the identification and remediation of known vulnerabilities affecting an environment. Penetration testing within a vulnerability management program is conducted to validate that security issues have been addressed and the environment is safe from any known threats.
Regulatory requirements and data security standards mandate the importance of conducting regular vulnerability scanning and penetration testing.
CIS Control 3 includes critical control ‘Continuous vulnerability management’ to identify, remediate and minimise the window of opportunity for attackers. ISO 27001 penetration tests, GDPR Pen test and PCI DSS penetration tests are often performed once a year to help
Regular assessments are required as critical controls mandated by PCI DSS to protect CDE systems and data. PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) state the penetration testing requirements as:
- PCI Requirement 6.6 states protecting internet-facing applications from new threats and vulnerabilities on an ongoing basis.
- PCI Requirement 11 outlines ‘regularly test security systems and processes’.
Conclusion: Vulnerability scan vs penetration test
While you have read about the differences between pen testing and vulnerability scanning, both forms of assessments are essential to improve an organisation’s security posture. Vulnerability assessments and penetration testing are used within the same environment in different formats and scopes to add value to the vulnerability management program. For instance, vulnerability assessments may be a better choice while scanning the mass networks and applications to identify common vulnerabilities at scale. It saves cost and time by not utilising penetration testing that is costly and time-intensive. Third-party penetration testing is the best approach while considering internal environments such as corporate networks, active directory environments to be aware of the unknown risks and plan a security roadmap for internal hygiene. It helps to know the severity of risks affecting your environment from inside and outside (internet facing).
Get in touch to discuss your primary security concerns or third-party security validation requirements. We offer a free consultation to help you make informed choices about your environment while providing flexibility and transparency around deliverables, costs and time frames.