Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are both important practices that protect the network of a business. However, the two are very different from each other in the way they test the security and vulnerabilities of a network. Penetration testing is an attempt to discover and eliminate vulnerabilities throughout your network by simulating a cyber attack against your network and can help prioritize remediation efforts. A vulnerability scan is a test that scans your network to search for any known vulnerabilities and is a faster security testing method that can be integrated into the development process. Keep reading to learn more about the differences and how to decide whether one or both would best suit your needs.
Definition of Penetration Testing
Penetration testing, or “pen testing,” involves security experts actively attempting to exploit vulnerabilities in your network to assess just how far a malicious actor could get if they wanted to. In essence, it is a simulated attack designed to see which assets are at risk. The security professionals who perform penetration testing are sometimes referred to as white hat or ethical hackers because they hack your system to identify weaknesses, not to cause harm.
While pen testing is primarily a manual process, it also makes use of a variety of tools and techniques including automation. Any strategy or tool a real hacker might use to gain access is something a penetration tester needs to have in their toolkit as well so that the simulated attack is comprehensive.
What are the benefits of penetration testing?
Because it goes beyond scanning, patching, or updating, penetration testing can potentially identify risks that would otherwise be overlooked. In other words, it is extremely thorough.
Imagine your important data and applications are inside a locked box that represents your existing network security. A simple scan will tell you if the box is locked or if the lock is broken. A penetration test is going to use the latest locksmith tools to see if it’s possible to get inside without the key. The results of a penetration test will not only let you know if your lock was unlocked or broken, but it will also let you know how good of a lock it is in the first place and whether you’d be better served by replacing it with something harder to pick.
What are the challenges of penetration testing?
Penetration testing requires the manual labor of an ethical hacker. It can be time-consuming and expensive when compared to a simple scan. The decision to perform a penetration test requires weighing the time and cost against the value of the assets in question and how likely a target they may be for cybercriminals.
Definition of vulnerability scanning
A vulnerability scan is an automated test that scans your network and systems in search of known vulnerabilities. The results are then ranked according to relative risk and potential exposure and are also often reviewed by your service provider or a security specialist to ensure they are valid. Vulnerability scanning relies primarily on automation and may be performed regularly to ensure your network is continuously monitored.
What are the benefits of vulnerability scanning?
Vulnerability scans can be performed relatively quickly and frequently via an automated process. They are generally less expensive and easier to implement than a penetration test and are a great way to get a high-level view of potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
What are the challenges of vulnerability scanning?
Because of their relative simplicity compared to pen testing, vulnerability scans aren’t always able to identify ways that a cybercriminal might access your data. They simply aren’t as in-depth as a penetration test. They may also produce false positives, suggesting there are problems where there are not. One of the biggest issues with false positives is potential alert fatigue: when there are too many alerts, security team members may end up overlooking actual positives.
Penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning
Pen testing is a deeper, more expensive, and more involved method that is capable of really assessing targeted risks while vulnerability scanning is easier to perform more frequently to identify a broad range of potential exploits on a surface level.
Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning have their roles in keeping your network data and applications safe from cyberattack. Both are required to remain compliant with certain standards. For example, PCI, HIPAA, FFIEC, GLBA, and ISO 27001 each specify how frequently penetration tests and vulnerability scans should be performed under different circumstances and outline what requirements these tests and scans should meet.
Is penetration testing or vulnerability scanning better for your business?
Often, it isn’t a matter of choosing between the two, but rather, deciding which assets to target and how frequently to perform each test. In certain industries, you may be required to perform each at regular intervals to remain compliant.
Outside of compliance, however, it’s generally advisable to implement either continuous or frequent vulnerability scanning across your entire network. These scans are fairly inexpensive and can be completed within a few minutes or a few hours. In contrast, penetration testing is best reserved for critical assets that are more likely to be targeted by cybercriminals. This type of testing is best done yearly or bi-annually due to the cost, time, and intensity involved.
How SecurityScorecard can help
SecurityScorecard offers penetration testing that not only assesses the effectiveness of your current security but helps you achieve compliance. Our simulated cyberattack strategies identify problems and exploits before an attacker can, validating your defenses and helping you achieve cyber resilience. SecurityScorecard also offers a variety of surveying and scanning capabilities to help you assess and quantify your risk as well as the risk associated with third-party vendors.
Request a free demo today and get a holistic view of your security posture.