Home Did you know ? The Difference Between a Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing

The Difference Between a Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing

by Mic Johnson

Perhaps one of the most common questions that cyber security clients ask is the difference between a “vulnerability assessment” and a “penetration test”.

What Does Vulnerability Assessment Mean?

A vulnerability assessment is largely automated and will scan a client’s infrastructure/web applications with the aim of finding known vulnerabilities that can potentially be exploited.

The output provided will be in the form of a report illustrating a list of issues in order of severity with the most serious appearing first. Furthermore, the report will present each vulnerability with its impact, the likelihood of exploitation, and how it can be remedied.

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing (or pen testing) does utilize similar scanning techniques, however with the addition of manual-based identification techniques that a scanner may otherwise miss.

Usually, a white-hat or ethical hacker performs penetration testing using the same or similar tools for exploits as an adversary. This attack simulation plays a crucial role in determining the actual severity of a vulnerability in a real-time scenario.

Difference Between Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing

Alongside knowing the definitions, it is also pertinent for businesses to understand how vulnerability assessments and penetration tests differ from each other to decide whether they need either or both for their networks. Here’s how the two strategies are unique:

1. Objective

Vulnerability assessments can be frequently to allow for common vulnerabilities to be highlighted within a network or web application, companies such as Indusface can help with this.

Depending on the type of assessment penetration testing takes it a step further, for example during a red teaming engagement once an exploitable vulnerability is discovered the team may exploit the flaw with the aim of moving laterally within the network and/or elevating their privileges to that of a domain admin level.

2. Automation

Numerous vulnerability scanning tools are available to help businesses in conducting internal scans more quickly. In contrast, penetration testing, despite the availability of many tools, is predominantly a manual activity.

3. Skill levels

As explained above, a vulnerability assessment is more automated and allows for a user to run the pre-developed tool at the click of a button, therefore anyone with basic IT and cybersecurity knowledge can perform vulnerability scans.

Penetration testing requires proficiency, experience, and an understanding of an adversarial mindset. A pen tester not only detects and exploits a vulnerability but thinks out of the box to decipher how a cybercriminal could exploit a given vulnerability, and how it would risk the overall security.

4. Results

Another difference between a vulnerability assessment and penetration testing lies in the output and outcome. Both procedures end up producing a report for further action. But the difference lies in the content of that report.

For vulnerability assessments, the report is a list of all detected vulnerabilities including misconfigurations, expired patches, and false positives. Many of those vulnerabilities may not really be a threat from a real-world perspective.

Penetration test reporting is similar to the above, however may have additional features such as an attack narrative showing exploit paths.

5. Frequency

As the digital world is ever-changing, organizations need to conduct vulnerability scans more frequently. Such scans should occur at least after developing or changing an existing service.

Penetration testing, on the other hand, can be conducted less frequently. It doesn’t mean that the process is unimportant. In fact, pen testing is crucial in today’s scenario given the rising incidents of vulnerability exploits by criminal hackers. Nonetheless, since it is a costly and time-consuming process, performing it at intervals will still help in ensuring robust security.

Vulnerability Assessment Vs Penetration Testing – Which One Do You Need?

Given the difference between vulnerability assessment and penetration testing, it’s clear that the two are not interchangeable. Hence, for any organization that aims at developing high-security standards, it is crucial to adopt both strategies. Indusface WAS, for example a comprehensive solution that combines both automated vulnerability scanning and manual pen-testing to ensure none of the vulnerabilities go unnoticed.

Considering the cost incurred and the need for technical expertise, businesses can decide on the frequency of these procedures. If an organization has a skilled IT team, develops a reliable vulnerability management program, and performs regular scans, it can then choose to perform pen-testing less frequently. Alternatively, businesses can hire professional security service providers to manage both vulnerability assessment and pen testing accordingly so as to ease the burden on their own security team.

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