Learn the Key Differences Between Vulnerability Scans and Penetration Tests

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Are you 100 percent sure you understand the difference between vulnerability scans and penetration tests?

If you are uncertain about the differences between the two, you are far from alone. However, it really is important that everyone does learn the important differences between the two to stay on top of security and compliance. Otherwise, you will learn through difficult lessons that you are missing a big and important part of your network security profile.

One basic at-a-glance description of the differences between the two processes comes courtesy of TripWire:

“Vulnerability scanning cannot replace the importance of penetration testing, and penetration testing on its own cannot secure the entire network.”

As you can see, both processes have value, but there is much more that you need to understand about vulnerability scans and penetration tests to make sure you use both to your full advantage.

What Are the Common Features of Penetration Tests and Vulnerability Scans That Contribute to the Confusion?

There are some key traits, features and results of each process that make both valuable to organizations like yours.

Perhaps the most important commonality is that both processes are useful for any company that must perform cyber risk analysis to comply with certain standards and regulations. A few of the most common and crucial regulations and standards that dictate the need for both vulnerability scans and penetration tests include:

  • ISO 27001
  • GDPR

They both also rely on their own respective scope and set of associated costs, and they can work well in tandem. Essentially, both processes serve to assess the controls and safeguards you have in place to protect your organization’s information management systems. With the assistance of your auditing team, you can determine any vulnerabilities and technology flaws that may otherwise go undetected in your computer system.

Now that you have some idea of what the two have in common, it may help to explore what each one specifically does to better see their differences.

Get a Better View of Vulnerability Scans

Sometimes referred to as “vulnerability assessments,” vulnerability scans feature a variety of functions, features and goals that differ from penetration tests, such as:

  • Automated process so it is a less intrusive assessment of a live computer system.
  • No active exploitation of the computing system.
  • Searches through systems to uncover any known vulnerabilities and issues reports regarding potential exposures to risk.
  • Covers network devices like routers, servers, switches, firewalls and applications.
  • Automated timing of scans, according to the business’s approach to security.
  • All new devices and applications acquired and deployed should undergo an immediate vulnerability scan, followed by another scan after one month. With this strategy, companies create a baseline standard they can reference in future scans to measure against any anomalies.
  • Detective measure versus penetration testing’s status as preventive measure.
  • Vulnerability scanners—such as GFI LANGuard, Rapid 7, Nessus, Retina and Qualys—perform scans and provide alerts to staff when authorized changes are made to the system.
  • The cost is usually lower than penetration tests.
  • Allows team to detect reasons for alterations to change-control records, which are often a malware infection or an employee violating change-control policies.
  • An auditing firm can help the organization decipher scan results to determine whether the current system is sufficiently protected. The auditing team may also make recommendations for improvements.

Dig Deeper into Penetration Tests

A key component to PCI DSS is its goal to protect credit card holder data. To that end, the PCI Security Standards Council made penetration testing a key component via the PCI DSS Requirement 11.3 entitled “Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) Requirement 11.3 Penetration Testing.”

Each penetration test actively exploits weaknesses in a business’s computing environment. Additional features, functions, requirements and goals of penetration tests include the following:

  • Penetration tests require a certain degree of expertise for optimal results.
  • Simulation of a hacking scenario or scenarios to exploit weaknesses in the architecture of a computing system.
  • Sets out to expose lax or inadequate security settings, unsecured business processes and other issues that a threat might exploit.
  • Results often uncover issues like old and otherwise unused databases storing still-valid user credentials, reused passwords and unencrypted passwords.
  • Performed based on the scope, which is most often based on risk to a highly valued asset.
  • Sometimes companies reduce the scope of a penetration test by segregating their network via firewalls, for example. Such a reduction in scope can also result in lower overall costs when performing a test with a particular concern in mind.
  • Not performed as frequently as automated vulnerability scans, but should be performed on a regular basis. At a minimum, organizations should schedule one penetration test annually.
  • Companies may invest in a specific program like Metaspolit or Core Impact, write their own code and/or hire an auditing firm to perform the necessary penetration test.
  • Seasoned experts in penetration testing find ways to mix up the parameters or tweak the settings of the tools to make sure they don’t miss anything.

Need More Help Understanding the Differences Between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scans?

Do you feel like you have a firmer grasp of penetration tests, vulnerability scans and the difference between the two? At AWA, our team of experts in both penetration testing and vulnerability scans is here to help you figure it all out and keep your system running safely.

Send us a message to learn more about all of our services and how we can help.

About The Author

CISSP - Certified Information Systems Security Professional
CEH - Certified Ethical Hacker
CISM - Certified Information Security Manager

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