The Difference Between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scanning

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Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are different services. However, there are also some similarities, leading to the confusion. In this article, we will compare and contrast these services.

Vulnerability scanning is an automated process that utilizes tools to seek known security vulnerabilities in your systems. The scan delivers a lengthy report of potential exposures that may threaten your systems. Penetration testing is a manual process that leverages information found in a scan, or divulged in a social engineering attack, to exploit those vulnerabilities and gain access to sensitive data. A well prepared pen testing report will be concise and contain only pertinent information.

These services are both very important, but they are not the same and should be priced accordingly.

Vulnerability Scanning

Regularly scheduled vulnerability scans help provide a baseline of normal activity for a given information security program. Scans are used to assess your company’s network security health and provide insight into risks that may directly impact your organization. Vulnerability scans are particularly useful for helping to check for proper configuration of new additions or recently updated systems.

As an automated services, vulnerability scanning relies more on the technology used than the individual deploying the scan. However, the scoping phase of the vulnerability scanning process is very important. You will want to work with a knowledgeable consultant to define the appropriate devices that will be targeted and scanned. You will also need to choose between authenticated (scanning as a user on the system) or unauthenticated (scanning as an outsider, without user account information) scans. Each has its advantages, and the one that best fits your organization will be defined in this phase.

Penetration Testing

Penetration testing is much more of an art form than vulnerability scanning. Though pen tests involve scans on targeted systems, ethical hackers take it much further by performing manual testing that provides actionable intelligence regarding exploitable security risks. Penetration testing tools can be helpful, but the truth rests in the mind of the tester, who uses knowledge of targeted systems and technical skills to find ways to exploit discovered vulnerabilities. Like any field of study, the quality of an ethical hacker can range from one end of the spectrum to the other. Fortunately, there are a couple simple ways to find the right tester for your organization.

Objective Penetration Testing

Independence is key. You should work with an individual or company that is not negatively impacted by the results of the test. For example, if your testers are also the developers of the platform being tested, they may be reluctant to share with you any of the findings that reveal exploitable vulnerabilities in their initial development work. It is imperative to ensure that your pen testers are objective in all of the work they perform.

Penetration Testing Certifications

You want a capable tester, right? An easy way to gain immediate insight into the ethical hacker’s capabilities is by reviewing his/her certifications. We have reviewed a number of certifications and find these to be among the best: Certified Ethical Hacker (C|EH), Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP), GIAC Penetration Tester (GPEN), and GIAC Web Application Penetration Tester (GWAPT). You are encouraged to perform your own research, but this is a good start.

Penetration Testing Report Examples

It all boils down to the report. In the end, you need useful information that can help you improve your security posture. A solid report will provide information about data that was compromised and how. This information will enable your organization to fix issues before a criminal has a chance to exploit your vulnerabilities. Ask the penetration testing organization to provide you with a report sample so you can rate the quality before committing to the test.

Different Services with Complementing Features

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are not one in the same, but they do complement each other very well. We encourage every organization to perform periodic vulnerability scanning and at least one yearly penetration test. These two services will provide valuable security insight and help to strengthen your security programs.

If you are considering hiring a vendor or consultant to perform security testing, drill them on the difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing. You might be surprised to find they don't have a clear understanding of the difference, which would be a good reason to move on to the next vendor. Also, don't be surprised when you find vastly different pricing for "testing" services. Not that the most expensive is necessarily better, but pricing may be an indication of quality. Either way, you now have the knowledge to negotiate!

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Olivia Marlow