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Penetration tests vs. vulnerability scans

As the digital landscape evolves, so too does the sophistication of cyber threats. Today, organizations are not just fighting against human hackers; they're up against AI-driven attacks that can learn, adapt, and exploit vulnerabilities faster than ever before. In this context, the importance of rigorous testing to challenge and evaluate your security defenses cannot be overstated. Regularly conducting penetration testing and vulnerability scanning to uncover and rectify potential security gaps is essential. 

These security assessments are more than just routine checks. They are essential components in a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy designed to withstand the relentless progression of cyber threats. By simulating real-world attacks (pen testing) and scanning for known vulnerabilities (vulnerability scanning), organizations can gain invaluable insights into the effectiveness of their security measures. This dual-layered approach ensures not only the identification of weaknesses but also provides a roadmap for reinforcing defenses before attackers can exploit them.

Read on to learn more about what pen testing and vulnerability scanning look like in the real world, how they differ, and when you should use each type of testing.

What is pen testing?

Penetration testing, commonly known as pen testing, is a critical cybersecurity practice aimed at evaluating the security of a system by simulating cyberattacks. It's a proactive approach to uncover vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and potential entry points that a malicious attacker could exploit. Pen testing is more than just an automated scan. It involves a series of methodical steps designed to mimic the actions of an attacker as closely as possible. This process helps identify not only the vulnerabilities but also the potential consequences of an exploit in a controlled environment​​.

The process

The pen testing process typically follows a structured approach, beginning with planning and reconnaissance to gather as much information as possible about the target system. This phase is crucial for understanding how the system operates and identifying potential vulnerabilities. The next steps involve gaining access, maintaining presence, and analyzing the data to understand the impact of the vulnerabilities. The final step is reporting, where the findings, including the vulnerabilities, the methods used to exploit them, and recommendations for remediation, are documented. The detailed nature of this process ensures that organizations can understand and mitigate risks effectively​​.

Types and methodologies

Pen tests are categorized into different types based on the information provided to the testers and the scope of the test. These include black box testing, where the tester has no prior knowledge of the system; white box testing, where they have full knowledge; and grey box testing, which is a mix of the two. Each type offers different insights and is chosen based on the specific goals of the assessment.

Pen testing can also target various specific aspects of an organization's IT infrastructure, ranging from network services, web application testing, client-side testing, wireless security, and social engineering attacks. The diversity in testing types reflects the comprehensive approach required to fully evaluate a system's security posture. 

Advanced methodologies and tools are employed during these tests, including both automated and manual techniques, to ensure a thorough examination. The choice of methodology and type of pen test depends on the organization's specific security needs and the aspects of the infrastructure they wish to evaluate.

Read morePen test FAQs

When to use pen testing

Now that you understand what pen testing is and how it works, when should you use it? Here are a few scenarios when pen testing would be appropriate:

To simulate real-world attack scenarios: Pen testing is essential when you want to understand how an attacker could exploit vulnerabilities in your systems. This testing is best conducted periodically, such as annually or biannually, or after significant changes to your IT environment, to mimic the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) of real-world attackers​​​​.

Before launching new services or applications: Before rolling out new applications or services, pen testing can help identify potential security issues that could be exploited once the service is live. This is crucial for avoiding data breaches and ensuring the security of new technologies before they are accessible to users or customers.

To meet compliance and regulatory requirements: Many industries have regulations that require pen testing to ensure compliance. For instance, organizations handling credit card information must adhere to the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), which mandates regular pen testing​​.

After security upgrades or significant system changes: Following significant updates or changes to your network or applications, conducting a pen test helps verify that new vulnerabilities have not been introduced and that the changes have not weakened your security posture.

What is vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is a critical component of an organization's cybersecurity defense mechanisms. It involves the use of automated tools to systematically scan networks, applications, and other systems for known vulnerabilities. These tools generate reports that list and prioritize the vulnerabilities based on the level of risk they pose. 

Unlike pen testing, vulnerability scanning is designed to be a broad and rapid assessment tool, capable of scanning large networks to identify potential vulnerabilities before they can be exploited​​.

The scanning process

The process of vulnerability scanning is straightforward yet powerful. It begins with the scanner conducting a comprehensive sweep of the targeted systems, looking for vulnerabilities based on industry lists of known vulnerabilities. This includes checking for outdated software versions, missing patches, and configurations that could be exploited by attackers. The results are then compiled into a report that details each vulnerability and, often, provides recommendations for mitigation. Regularly scheduled scans are a best practice, allowing organizations to continually assess their exposure to risks and address vulnerabilities in a timely manner​​.

Vulnerability scanners utilize databases of known vulnerabilities, such as the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) list, to compare against the scanned systems. This approach ensures that the scanning process can identify a wide range of potential security issues, from software bugs to misconfigurations.

Read more6 types of vulnerability scanning

Importance and limitations

Vulnerability scanning is an indispensable tool for maintaining cybersecurity hygiene. It provides organizations with the ability to proactively identify and address vulnerabilities at a large scale. This form of scanning is particularly valuable as it can be automated and run frequently, ensuring continuous security monitoring. However, its limitations lie in its inability to provide the depth of analysis found in pen testing. While vulnerability Scans are efficient for identifying known vulnerabilities, they cannot simulate an attacker's actions or determine the practical exploitability of the vulnerabilities identified.

When to use vulnerability scanning

You have a good idea now of what vulnerability is and how it works, but when should you turn to it? Here are a few cases where vulnerability would be appropriate:

For regular security assessments: Vulnerability scanning should be performed much more frequently than pen testing, ideally on a regular basis. This allows organizations to maintain a continuous assessment of their systems for new vulnerabilities, especially given the rapid development and discovery of new threats​​.

After installing new hardware or software: Any time new software or hardware is added to your network, it's wise to run a vulnerability scan. This helps ensure that new additions do not introduce vulnerabilities into your environment.

To prioritize security remediations: Since vulnerability scanning can identify a wide range of potential vulnerabilities, it's invaluable for prioritizing which vulnerabilities to address first based on their potential impact and exploitability​​.

Compliance monitoring: As with pen testing, many compliance frameworks also require regular vulnerability scans to ensure ongoing adherence to standards. These scans provide a baseline of your security posture that can be monitored over time for deviations or improvements.

Differences and similarities

The primary difference between pen testing and vulnerability scanning lies in their execution and depth of analysis. Pen testing is an in-depth process that not only identifies vulnerabilities but also attempts to exploit them to understand the potential impact. It requires a higher level of expertise and is more time-consuming and costly, but it provides a comprehensive assessment of an organization's security posture​​.

Vulnerability scanning, being automated, is quicker and less expensive. It's ideal for regular assessments and provides a broad overview of potential vulnerabilities. However, it may result in false positives and does not assess the exploitability or impact of the identified vulnerabilities​​.

Both methods have their place in a cybersecurity strategy. Vulnerability scanning offers a first layer of defense by identifying vulnerabilities, while pen testing provides a deeper analysis by simulating an actual attack.

Strike Graph’s integrated approach

Strike Graph’s all-in-one compliance and certification platform streamlines both pen testing and vulnerability testing. Vulnerability scanning is included, offering businesses a foundational layer of protection. Additionally, Strike Graph provides pen testing services to further enhance cybersecurity measures. This combination ensures that organizations can not only identify vulnerabilities but also understand their potential impact and how they can be exploited by attackers. 

Ready to make your company attack-proof? Schedule a demo with one of our assessment specialists or get started with a free account

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