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What is the main difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing?
The SRM Blog

What is the main difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing?

Dean Moulden

Written by Dean Moulden

13th July 2020

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Penetration Testing

They are two key tools in the fight against cybersecurity breaches, but what separates vulnerability scanning and penetration testing?

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are two key security services designed to highlight the weaker areas in your business security so that they can be rectified before a cybersecurity incident occurs.

Because of this, penetrating testing and vulnerability scanning are often confused for the same service, with the terms being used interchangeably. This can lead to issues, as businesses may end up investing in one service when they really need the other.

So what exactly is the main difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, and which one is right for your business?

What is vulnerability scanning?

A vulnerability scan is a high-level automated test which seeks out and reports on potential vulnerabilities. These scans look at computers, systems and networks in order to find security weaknesses.

As a largely automated service, vulnerability scans look at the areas of your business that could possibly be exploited. They can search for over 50,000 vulnerabilities and are required by many of the leading cybersecurity certifications, including PCI DSS, FFIEC and GLBA.

Vulnerability scans can be introduced manually or run to a schedule, and can take anywhere from several minutes up to several hours. They offer a passive approach to vulnerability management, reporting on any weaknesses that they detect. From there, it is up to the business owner or IT staff to act on these findings.

The benefits of vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability testing completes a detailed report that offers an extensive list of vulnerabilities found within the business’s various systems. This puts you in a more informed position to act on potential weaknesses and bolster your business security.

If you’re looking for a quick, high-level way to highlight vulnerabilities within your business, then vulnerability scanning is a good option. These scans are often very affordable, are quick to complete, and can be carried out regularly with relatively little manual input.

However, there is a limit to the information offered by a vulnerability scan. It will not confirm whether or not a weakness is exploitable and, although it will advise on how to fix some issues, the remedial work will not be tailored to the specific needs of the organisation.

While vulnerability scans are extremely useful in flagging issues, they do not always determine the true risk of an issue. For example, if anonymous access (no need for credentials) to a file server is possible, this would be diagnosed as a medium risk. However, if the file server hosts sensitive data such as personal information relating to employees or customers, this would be in breach of information security standards and GDPR.

In the hands of a penetration tester this would be immediately classed as a critical risk in need of remedial work.

What is a penetration test?

So how does a penetration test differ from vulnerability scanning? To put it simply, a penetration test is a detailed and hands-on examination carried out by a real person. It aims to detect and exploit weaknesses within your business.

A penetration test simulates a hacker attempting to gain access to your business, as this is one of the more effective ways to highlight exploitable areas. Analysts, or ethical hackers, search for vulnerabilities and then try to prove they can be exploited, using methods like cracking passwords, buffer overflow and SQL injection.

Unlike vulnerability scans, penetration testing is extremely detailed, and will help to pinpoint the risks involved with specific weaknesses within your business security. They offer an unrivalled method of finding and remediating vulnerabilities across software applications and networks.

Understanding the benefits of pen testing

While penetration tests are generally more time-consuming and labour intensive than vulnerability scans, they produce extremely detailed reports offering descriptions of attacks used, testing methodologies and suggestions for remediation.

The use of live, manual tests allows for more accurate and thorough findings to be gained, before remedial work is recommended and implemented. The value of a penetration test lies in the skill of the tester – and their ability to both identify weaknesses and understand the multitude of ways that a vulnerability may be exploited.

Using vulnerability scanning and penetration testing in tandem

While vulnerability tests and penetration tests are often considered to be different service offerings, any business committed to maintaining good risk posture should look to use both in tandem. Together, vulnerability scanning and penetration testing can help an organisation to swiftly identify weaknesses, wherever they may arise, and work towards a solution before attackers can take advantage of the opportunity.

Looking for help to identify weaknesses in your organisation’s information security? Get in touch with our team today to discover how we can support your security needs. Give us a call on 03450 21 21 51 or click here to fill in a contact form.

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