Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are both important in assessing how secure a network, website, or application is. You need to know which type of test you need or whether you should use both. They serve different purposes and use different techniques. It’s common for network managers to think they need one type of security testing when the other would better serve them. To avoid this, you need a good understanding of each one’s role and purpose in managing security risks.
If you decide penetration testing should be part of your strategy, you should schedule a free consultation with our cybersecurity experts. We can help to protect all aspects of your information systems with our expert pen testing services. Contact us online or call us at 612-234-7848 to talk with us about what we offer.
If your organization needs to comply with standards such as HIPAA, ISO 27001, and Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), both types of tests are highly beneficial.
Understanding Penetration Testing
Penetration testers discover and harmlessly exploit vulnerabilities in your installation before criminals can. The practice is also known as “ethical hacking.” They try to break in using specially crafted queries, abnormal URLs, or scanning for exposed information. The attempts aren’t limited to technological methods; they may try phishing or social engineering to trick employees.
Some pen testing is based on published lists of common vulnerabilities, and the testers may use automated tools to check if the vulnerabilities are present and exploitable. A large part of the tester’s work depends on the customer’s configuration. Experienced pen testers develop an intuition for the weaknesses which a system might have, and they craft special tests to verify their suspicions.
Some vulnerabilities are just hypothetical. If certain features aren’t enabled or if other protections exist, a nominal vulnerability could present no risk. Penetration testers find out if an exploit is possible. If it is, they report it to you. For instance, the tester might try to install and run a harmless piece of code on a target system. If that’s possible, someone else could install malware.
You need to understand what the pen tester is doing. Tests could look like actual threats to IT people. Sometimes, though, management will deliberately leave the IT department in the dark to see how they react to intrusion attempts.
Understanding Vulnerability Scanning
Scanning for vulnerabilities is a matter of checking for known defects in the security of a web application or network. Evidence for them may include a version number, a behavioral characteristic, or open ports. Software developers and security sites publish lists of known vulnerabilities for this purpose. Each one is marked with a severity level. The published information allows the creation of a test to detect the vulnerability.
Companies that run these scans compile the tests into suites. They determine which ones apply to your configuration and run them. The test results become part of a report telling you what was detected and the severity of each finding.
A reported vulnerability isn’t always an actual, exploitable one. The way your systems are set up may make the issue moot, or at least unlikely to come up. You should start by addressing the most serious vulnerabilities and work your way down, weeding out the false positives. How far you need to go depends on your resources and your required security level.
Software developers regularly discover bugs in their code. After they have made a patch available, they report the issue so customers can check for it. Scanning your systems is a straightforward process, and running scans on a regular basis will help to catch any new vulnerabilities.
Comparing These Cybersecurity Tests
The main difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing is what they seek to accomplish. One just observes the systems it tests; the other challenges them. It’s the difference between reporting that a door is unlocked and walking in. Walking into private space is the more definitive test, but it’s not always appropriate, and it takes more time to check each door that way. Sometimes it sets off an alarm.
Another way to put it is that vulnerability testing is a maintenance operation, while pen testing is a way to discover immediate problems. A security issue may or may not be important; one that a pentester can use to gain access to internal network components almost certainly is.
Breadth Vs. Depth
Scanning for vulnerabilities is an automated process, so it can be thorough. It looks for every known kind of security weakness in a short time. Every firewall, public service, and externally facing system can and should be checked. The report will provide a lot of information, but what it tells you about the actual level of risk is limited.
Pen testing is more focused. It isn’t practical to try to exploit every hypothetical vulnerability, so testers have to identify the likeliest trouble areas and try to use them. Their report will give you a good idea of the real-world dangers you face.
Automation Vs. Manual Processes
Vulnerability scanners use a mostly automated process. The tests have to be configured to your systems, but the rest is a matter of running them and reporting the results.
Penetration testing uses some automation, but it’s much more tailored to the customer. Testers apply their experience to create exploitation scenarios. They use non-technological techniques, such as email messages and phone calls, to test your business processes and uncover human error. The strategy for testing your network will be unique.
Level Of Cybersecurity Expertise
Whichever type of test you use, the people running it should be experienced, security professionals. Penetration testing, though, makes the greatest demands on their knowledge, ingenuity, and imagination. A vulnerability assessment looks for well-known flaws, but pen testers look for the unexpected, for the way in that no one thought to prevent.
Pen testing is more time-consuming, expensive, and disruptive than scanning systems for weaknesses. However, it gives you critical information which is hard to get in other ways. It lets you prioritize weaknesses that can demonstrably let attackers in and greatly improve your security posture.
Use The Tests That Meet Your Needs
Vulnerability scans are valuable to most organizations. You can run them without a large amount of trouble and catch any problems in outdated software or unintentionally exposed services. However, it won’t do as thorough a job of finding live risks as penetration testing. If you have serious network security requirements and need high confidence that you can hold attacks off, you should seriously consider penetration testing.
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