Penetration testing vs. vulnerability scanning: what's the difference?

In recent years, terms like “penetration testing” and “vulnerability scanning” have come up often and are often used interchangeably. However, they don’t mean the same thing.

Cybersecurity threats have always kept the IT industry on its toes. The last couple of years were challenging as COVID-19 changed the business landscape rapidly. 

Cybercriminals kept up with this shift, adapting and tailoring their tactics to take advantage of a vulnerable reality.

In 2020, ransomware attacks saw a 400% increase compared to the previous years. To give you further perspective, it was reported that more than 65% of companies experienced at least one attack. 

With the increase in the cloud-centric workforce, cyberattacks have evolved to be highly sophisticated. Attackers find weak spots, place targeted malware, and infiltrate the entire network to leverage what they extract.

To combat this increasing threat, cybersecurity professionals have to regularly look for weak points to secure their company's IT systems. Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are two such processes that most companies implement to detect possible attack surfaces.

Though companies use both to strengthen their security, it is important to understand their differences.

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing is a planned, ethically commissioned attack on a computer system. Also known as “pen testing”, it is a controlled simulation to assess security risks in an organization’s IT network.

A penetration test aims to look through the cyberattacker’s lens and find exploitable weaknesses using which they could gain access to sensitive data or business assets. 

Top 5 types of penetration testing

A pen test can vary depending on the organization’s type and scope. According to different focuses and requirements, here are some of the common penetration testing types.

1. Internal or external penetration testing

Used to assess on-premise and cloud infrastructure. It can include firewalls, network hosts, and connected devices – routers and switches. Internal penetration test focuses on corporate network assets, whereas external penetration analyzes internet-facing assets.

2. Wireless penetration testing

Wireless penetration testing targets an organization’s wireless local area network (WLAN). It may include wireless protocols such as Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-wave, LoRa, etc. This penetration test aims to identify vulnerable access points and encryption weaknesses.

3. Web application testing

Websites and web-delivered services are tested for exploitable bugs in coding, and design and development flaws.

4. Mobile application testing

A type of penetration testing to find authentication, authorization, and data leakage in mobile applications on operating systems like iOS and Android.

5. Socially engineered testing

This involves a controlled assessment to gain insight into your system’s or workforce’s ability to detect phishing attacks. Engineers use customized phishing or spear phishing emails and simulate business email compromise (BEC) attacks for this purpose.

Pros of penetration testing

  • Has the potential to identify a wide range of vulnerabilities
  • Can identify high-risk weaknesses caused by combinations of low-risk vulnerabilities
  • The final report will contain specific, detailed advice and rank risks according to the company budget

Cons of penetration testing

  • If not done right, they can crash servers, leak or expose sensitive data, and corrupt important production-related data.
  • Tester has to be trustable, or they could abuse their skills.
  • Results may be unreliable if attacks are not realistic, creative, and genuine.

What is vulnerability scanning?

To ensure protection from data breaches and exposure, organizations should have a vulnerability management program in place. Vulnerability scanning is a vital component of such programs. It is used to identify security readiness and security flaws in IT systems and supplementary software that run on them.

Top 3 types of vulnerability scanning

Similar to pen testing, IT professionals perform different vulnerability scans to cater to different cybersecurity goals.

1. Full vulnerability scanning

A full vulnerability scan looks for all possible vulnerabilities on a computer system including its network. It uses every tool possible to perform the scans, and is often noisy, as cybersecurity professionals probe a network’s nooks and corners.

2. Discovery vulnerability scanning

A discovery vulnerability scan focuses on a specific network area. Professionals define a scan radius, and hence it draws less attention. The aim is not to find all possible exploitable spots but to understand the devices connected to the network and their weaknesses.

3. Compliance vulnerability scanning

Government regulations require organizations to meet certain criteria. Compliance vulnerability scans test computer systems for compliance to avoid penalties and increase security standards.

Pros of vulnerability scans

  • Ideal for a quick and high-level vulnerability audit
  • Can be automated
  • Comparatively affordable

Cons of vulnerability scans

  • Results could contain false positives
  • Need to check vulnerabilities manually before re-testing
  • Hard to confirm a vulnerability’s exploitability

Key differences between penetration testing  and vulnerability scanning

  • Vulnerability scanning can be automated, whereas penetration tests have to be done manually.
  • Vulnerability scanning takes minutes, but pen tests can take days.
  • Vulnerability scans can report false positives, pen tests rule them out. 
  • Vulnerability scanning is programmable, penetration testing is an intuitive process.

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning have their own search area or focal points. They differ in scale and process. However, using both these cybersecurity testing methods can help ensure optimal network security.

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