18 Oct Penetration Test vs. Vulnerability Assessment
Making the right choice for you at any given time
There is much confusion in the cybersecurity community about the terms “penetration test” (pentests) and “vulnerability assessment”, with both oftentimes being used interchangeably. This may sound like a trivial thing, however, in the world of security, where we leave nothing to chance, it could prove to be catastrophic. When there is a miscommunication of defining security-related terms, there could be a gap between expectation and result, proving to be devastating for your security operations and compliance status.
But what are the differences?
First, let’s begin my defining the penetration test. A penetration test is, simply put, a simulation of real-world hacking. In other words, it is an ethical hacking exercise, during which authorized specialists emulate threat actors’ techniques in near-real scenarios, with the aim of identifying vulnerabilities and configuration weaknesses in your organization’s systems, applications, networks, processes and people.
Once such vulnerabilities and weaknesses are identified, pentesters attempt, in a controlled manner, to verify them. This is done in order to understand the potential impact of those vulnerabilities and weaknesses on your organization’s viability, if they are to be exploited by threat-actors. Vulnerability assessments don’t go that far. A vulnerability assessment is simply anautomated scan and detection of security gaps and vulnerabilities found in your cyber defenses and security controls at the specific time of assessment. A Pentest, on the other hand, goes well beyond simple identification of such vulnerabilities by proceeding to exploit them and verify them.
It is worth mentioning that Top-of-the-range pentest providers offer expert, up-to-date and relevant recommendations, not only for the flaws identified during the penetration testing process, but also on how to reform your Risk Management strategy to avoid them in the future.
Confusion both in Scope and Practical Application
Unfortunately, many IT professionals still confuse vulnerability assessments with penetration tests with regards to their scope, as well as their practical application. Even though both services help provide situational awareness over the security posture of your organization, as well as achieve compliance with relevant regulatory frameworks, there are fundamental difference to their approach, methodology, scope of work and deliverables. In essence, their usefulness and practical application of results differ.
The main differences between vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are as follows:
Depth: While vulnerability assessments aim to discover as many weaknesses and vulnerabilities as possible, penetration tests explore their depth in exploiting them using real-world attack scenarios.
Automation: Vulnerability assessments are usually mostly automated methods of scanning for vulnerabilities. Penetration tests combine automated methods with manual ones for more comprehensive results.
Expertise: Because of the automated nature of vulnerability assessments, non-specialized IT professionals with minimal security knowledge may be the ones providing them. Penetration tests are mostly implemented by highly specialized security experts with the accumulated know-how to identify even the most elusive vulnerabilities, to exploit them as much as possible, and to provide recommendations to address them using industry best practices.
To sum it all up, both vulnerability assessments and penetration tests provide value to your organization, depending on your compliance needs as well as your individual circumstances at a specific point in time. Since now you know the differences between the too services, you can now make the best choice for your organization whenever the need for a penetration test or a vulnerability assessment arises.
- Read the 7 reasons why you need a Pentest, in the Odyssey’s Blog.