Penetration Testing Vs Vulnerability Scanning

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Despite common misconception, penetration testing and vulnerability testing are two quite different cyber security practices. However, they both share the same goal: to identify a vulnerability before a threat actor identifies and exploits it. In this blog, we’ll explore some of the defining features of these two kinds of tests.

What are the main differences between a penetration test and a vulnerability test?

Vulnerabilities can occur from a broad range of sources, from misconfigurations to software bugs. For security and IT leaders, one of their primary goals is to ensure their external attack surface is as secure as possible. To achieve this, many use penetration testing and vulnerability scanners to understand any weak spots that an attacker could identify and exploit. 

Penetration testing

Penetration testing, also known as pentesting, is a form of ethical hacking in which an expert security professional attempts to infiltrate designated IT networks, systems, or software applications by actively exploiting a specific vulnerability. This type of security testing is a simulated cyber attack to identify security risks in your digital environment. 

To gain the most value from a penetration test the engagement should be thoroughly scoped to ensure both sides are clear on the target systems, include all the relevant risk owners and technical stakeholders for streamlined communication. The objective is to report what vulnerabilities are present, the severity of the vulnerabilities, and understand what remediation steps are required to reduce your attack surface and risk posture. 

The core value of a penetration test is utilising the manual expertise and experience of a skilled and qualified pen tester. In their armoury will be a broad range of tools and techniques which are applied to industry testing methodologies such as the OWASP Top 10.  The human element of a penetration test differentiates it from a vulnerability scanning by combining both human and machine intelligence. 

Once the engagement has concluded your report will detail any discovered vulnerabilities with a risk rating often using the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS). Alongside this remediation guidance and advice should be provided to help you mitigate identified risks.  

To learn more about penetration testing, head to the NCSC guidance page.

Vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scanning, on the other hand, provides an automated approach to evaluating your risk posture. This systematic review detects potential risks using a variety of scanning tools to assess your digital infrastructure or network for any known vulnerabilities from a large data pool. 

Vulnerability scanning offers more coverage by assessing a larger scope (or breadth) than penetration testing alone. So, this method will assess how susceptible you are to a potential cyber attack, offering valuable insight into your overall digital health. Unlike penetration testing, vulnerability scanning is immediate and can collect large volumes of data white locating vulnerabilities in real-time. 

Vulnerability scanning also improves your organization’s reputation by helping you build trust with both current and prospective clients. If they know you are running continuous security checks, they are more likely to trust you with their data. So, it provides a competitive advantage

Why both penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are important 

Although penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are distinct from each other, they are still equally important as they both support the same goal to provide assurance your security controls are providing adequate protection from attackers. Clearly, the main contrast in these approaches is the breadth and depth of the procedure, with vulnerability scanning covering a wider breadth and penetration testing a more in-depth and manual exercise. 

Nearly  80% of senior security and IT leaders lack confidence in their cyber security posture, and increasing dependence on cloud infrastructure inevitably invites more opportunities for vulnerabilities to be both created and exploited. 

Attacks can not only be operationally disruptive and damage your reputation, they can be completely fatal for the business. So, cyber security should be considered an essential part of business, no longer a luxury but a necessity. 

Security testing is also important to help organizations adhere to regulations. Many data security standards require regular penetration testing and/or vulnerability scanning (such as HIPAA and The New York Shield Act). In reference to our previous point, we can expect privacy regulations to become more strict as we move to an increasingly digital future. So, cyber security should be prioritized in the boardroom.

Combine the best of both worlds with Informer

Informer adopts an innovative approach to cyber security, changing the game by reforming traditional security testing. Powered by automation, the platform continuously finds infrastructure and application-level vulnerabilities on assets that are both known and unknown to you. Vulnerability discovery ‍can be combined with our expert penetration testing services, providing 24/7 coverage and assurance that your attack surface is constantly monitored for any changes in your digital environment. In addition, automated reports are detailed to provide clear insights, granting access to essential metrics such as the number of assets discovered, vulnerabilities found, and remediations completed.

Get in touch today and book a demo with a member of our friendly team to find out how you can improve your security posture with continuous security monitoring and/or advanced penetration testing.


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