Our clients frequently ask us questions about their cybersecurity risk management strategy: What should I incorporate into my cybersecurity risk management strategy? Penetration testing or vulnerability assessments? Penetration testing vs. vulnerability assessment – what is the difference between each option?

In a nutshell, when it comes to penetration testing vs vulnerability assessments, there are distinct differences. A penetration test is a simulated attack against a software system checking for exploitable vulnerabilities. A vulnerability assessment is a systematic review of security weaknesses in an information system. A penetration test discovers weaknesses in your organization’s cybersecurity as a whole, while vulnerability assessments seek to maintain a security baseline for vulnerability management. Choosing the right vendor, one who understands your system’s needs and relays back to you the best road for your organization, is essential to ensure your cybersecurity is up to par. 

An analogy that can help make this distinction clearer is envisioning the software system as a store. A vulnerability assessment would be someone testing the store’s security by seeing if the doors and windows are unlocked. A penetration test would involve finding a way inside the store and determining how vulnerable the money and inventory inside is.

In one of our earlier blogs, we wrote about the differences between penetration testing and vulnerability assessment, focusing on purpose. Here are some additions to that:

Purpose

One aspect in which the two tests differ is their purpose. A vulnerability scan looks for known vulnerabilities in your systems and reports potential exposures that, if exploited, could compromise the system, the organization, or the organization’s customers. The scan ranks and reports each vulnerability. An external vulnerability scan is conducted from outside the organization. An internal vulnerability scan is conducted from inside the organization. A penetration test is a simulated attack against your network infrastructure or information system that attempts to evade or overthrow the security features of the system’s components. Penetration testing may also be used to test an organization’s security policy, adherence to compliance requirements, employee security awareness and an organization’s ability to identify and respond to security incidents. It is designed to exploit discovered weaknesses and determine your level of risk. It can also be performed both internally or externally.

Testing service provider

Another difference is who provides the testing. A vulnerability scan is performed using a combination of automated tools. A Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP) or qualified technician then manually reviews and confirms the results. To achieve PCI DSS compliance validation, an external vulnerability scan must be conducted by an Approved Scanning Vendor (ASV), and you and your ASV must attest to the scan results. A penetration test should be performed by an ethical hacker skilled at accessing systems and networks using various tools and techniques. An ethical hacker may utilize vulnerability scanning to find potential attack vectors, but in a broader way than penetration testing.

Timelines and Costs

Though both vulnerability assessments and penetration testing have their own purpose, they are both necessary for good cybersecurity. When it comes to timelines, vulnerability scans should be conducted continuously, or at least quarterly, especially after installing new equipment or making any other significant changes to the system or software. Penetration tests can be performed less regularly,  though they are no less important. They should be performed at least once or twice a year, especially after installing new equipment or software. The costs for both differ, with vulnerability assessments being relatively cheaper than penetration testing, because it has a lower scope and is generally less thorough. It usually doesn’t involve any social engineering that is designed to breach security but instead focuses on uncovering many weaknesses in the system’s security. The actual cost of a vulnerability assessment and a pen test will vary depending on your organization’s infrastructure and systems, your industry, and the reputation and experience of the security professionals you hire for the job. Packetlabs has a stronghold in this field because of our consultant’s expertise and their adherence to the highest industry standards. 

Output

The output for both tests is also different. For a vulnerability assessment, the output is a report that outlines any vulnerabilities that exist and may be exploited (software, expired patches, etc.). For a penetration test, the report provides the level of risk and potential exposure by ranking vulnerabilities high, medium or low. It identifies what high vulnerabilities could be exploited and how, and what data can be compromised. 

Outcomes

Along with the differences in how the tests are conducted, there are also differences in how they operate and their outcomes. Vulnerability assessments can produce false positives, for example, because automated scans can prove faulty or inaccurate since they’re just running off a set framework. Vulnerability scans can also be automated, whereas pen tests should be manual tests performed by professionals. That’s why organizations need assistance from professionals who are expertly trained to perform reliable vulnerability assessments and penetration tests, which should be used in unison for a holistic understanding of cybersecurity gaps. They offer a customized approach, hyper-targeted on your company.

Conclusion: Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Assessment?

Conducting business in today’s online world and safeguarding your company’s systems simultaneously has its challenges. It’s important to note that at Packetlabs, our methodology is not penetration testing vs. vulnerability assessment. We conduct a vulnerability assessment as part of our penetration testing as a first step to identify those obvious vulnerabilities. A vulnerability assessment is conducted within the penetration testing and is a smalll subset of the work executed within a penetration test. We find that some organizations opt for only conducting a vulnerability assessment scan, and we do not recommend this. A vulnerability scan only scratches the surface of how a hacker can access your data. To truly uncover gaps and weaknesses a penetration test that includes a vulnerability assessment is always recommended.Your company’s applications and data, the management, the IT and cybersecurity business functions should all be considered when determining a security risk management strategy that fits your company. Call us for more information on vulnerability assessments and penetration testing.