Key Differences Between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing

Key Differences Between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing

What is the difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing? What problems can be solved by carrying out these procedures? How often should it be done? Do these tests have common features or are they completely different processes? This is one of the main questions that people get confused about. In this article, we will take a closer look at them, and talk about other, no less important things related to a given topic.

In short, vulnerability scanning is carried out to assess the vulnerability of a system or its individual elements. Penetration tests are designed to take a deep dive into the architecture of your information network and determine the extent to which hackers can gain access to assets. There is an apt analogy: scanning is like walking up to the door and seeing if it is locked and walking away. Pentest is more difficult: you open the door and see what happens inside. However, let’s take a closer look anyway.

Vulnerability scanning: key features

Vulnerability scanning is a process during which potential vulnerabilities are identified in network devices, firewalls, routers, switches, servers and applications. Special software is used for scanning. Usually such programs are called vulnerability scanners. The principle of their work is to look for security holes through which attackers can gain access to important information. The scanner collects information from the entire infrastructure: active processes, running applications, running ports and devices, services, etc. Some scanners can simulate an attack to confirm or deny the existence of a vulnerability. In addition, scanning can solve the following tasks:

  • checking the security of the system against brute attack by trial-and-error;
  • search for viruses and malicious code;
  • checking the quality of passwords and usernames;
  • inventory of software and other resources;
  • creation of reports on vulnerabilities and ways to eliminate them.

However, since the scanning process is automated, it is inflexible, may give false results, and is not context-sensitive. Therefore, in order to correctly assess the risks, the results of such testing should always be analyzed by a specialist.

How often should a vulnerability scan be done?

Both tests are frequently referenced in the requirements of major industry regulations such as PCI DSS, HIPAA, ISO 27001 and others. On average, it is recommended to do a vulnerability scan at least once a quarter. And also after any changes in the infrastructure.

Penetration testing: what is it?

A penetration test is a method for assessing the security of an information system. It is carried out manually by a team of specialists — pentesters. These people imitate the work of a real attacker, testing the organization for the possibility of penetration, and can detect any subtle vulnerabilities, flaws or anomalous behavior in the network and determine their causes. During testing, a wide range of software, as well as hardware and devices are used. Typically, a pentester team works according to a pre-planned scenario, and can target both a specific section of the network, and the entire infrastructure and applications.  Examples of penetration testing that apply to different scenarios. Specifically, pentest scenarios include:

  • conducting an “external” penetration test, which includes running scanners, network mapping, searching for vulnerabilities and other procedures that are selected taking into account the specifics of a particular customer;
  • test of protection by proxy servers of traffic in the site’s network, hacking of the customer’s website;
  • calling the customer’s employees, sending menacing emails with malicious attachments, etc. Sometimes testers may leave flash drives and put up posters at the customer’s premises;
  • “internal” pentest — specialists come to the customer and look for vulnerabilities inside the system;
  •  working with various equipment, attacking wireless local networks, etc.

In some cases, quality checks of passwords, usernames, and other procedures may also be performed. Depending on the complexity of the work, the pentest can take from several days to several weeks.

How often should a penetration test be done?

Many pentest experts recommend annual or half-annual penetration tests for most organizations. Again, if your company is involved in risky activities, or is particularly attractive to attackers, it is advisable to do pentests once a quarter, or at least twice a year. In addition, you should know exactly what regulations require you to conduct penetration testing, and how often.

Main differences between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing

These two procedures are often confused, although there are significant differences between them. As is already clear, vulnerability scanning is a fully automated process. At the same time, the scanner has a limited effect and cannot be used for in-depth scanning. The participation of an engineer in scanning consists in setting up and launching the scanner program, as well as analyzing the final result and preparing a report.

In turn, penetration testing is carried out by a group of people — a team of pentesters. This is a very flexible procedure, during which any vulnerabilities in a particular section of the information system, or the entire infrastructure, are determined. At the same time, during the pentest, specialists, in particular, remove all false positives, identify potential flaws in the system, and weaknesses in the logic.

As for the cost, of course, vulnerability scanning is a much cheaper procedure, and often carried out at a fixed cost. While the cost of a pentest can vary tens and hundreds of times, depending on the conditions and tasks.

In general, the differences between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning can be grouped as follows:

  1. Area of ​​testing. Vulnerability scanning only looks at the surface of the system, identifying possible loopholes through which an attacker can penetrate. Pentest is a much deeper procedure, specialists can literally disassemble your system piece by piece, give a detailed assessment of security in general, and recommendations for improving it.  
  2. Methods. Vulnerability scanning can be: 

a.      Authenticated — expert has access to all systems;

b.      Unauthenticated — expert works with the service through the same interfaces as users.

Penetration testing is carried out:

a.      Black box testing — work exclusively with the external interfaces of the system, experts imitate the work of hackers;

b.      Gray box testing — part of the structure is known to pentesters, but the testing itself is carried out using the black box method;

c.       White box testing — all structures, their architecture and implementation are known to experts. Such a method can be used to simulate an attack from within the system, for example, by one of the key employees

        3. Qualification of specialists. Vulnerability scanning is not so demanding on knowledge. Therefore, in general, any modern engineer can handle it. At the same time, a penetration test requires in-depth knowledge and experience, and is usually carried out by a team of subject matter experts who can outmaneuver hackers.

       4. Periodicity of testing. It is highly desirable that the scan be performed after any changes to the infrastructure. Penetration testing is performed less frequently and most often due to cost, on average 1–2 times per year.

       5. Time. Vulnerability scanning is a fully automated process that takes, on average, several hours. Pentest is a complex and multifaceted procedure, requires preparation and takes from several days to several weeks.

       6. Expenses. The cost is directly proportional to the time spent on preparation and work. Thus, the price of a scan can be considered moderate, while the cost of a penetration test can range from a few thousand to tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

       7. Report. After both procedures, experts issue a report on the work done, and depending on the agreements, this report, in addition to the test results, may contain recommendations for eliminating vulnerabilities and many other specific information.

It is quite obvious that each test has different goals and gives different results. These two procedures are not interchangeable but complement each other. Vulnerability scanning is a quick scan that is great for quickly assessing the security of your system. At the same time, a penetration test is a deep procedure, during which experts can look into every nook and cranny of your business, and carefully check all cybersecurity, up to work with employees and equipment.

Both tests work together. For example, you can conduct a vulnerability assessment once a month to know for sure in which condition networks and applications are in. In doing so, you can provide a penetration test once a year. Thus, you will be able to provide your business with a certain level of security in the information field, analyze cyber risks, identify controls, and give appropriate guarantees to your partners and customers. Ultimately, all the details of testing will depend on the specific conditions: the size of your company, business industry, risks, legal regulations and other factors.

Also you should not forget about studying of employees. By providing the appropriate tools to your security team, you do not guarantee that all of them will be used correctly. Lack of knowledge regarding working with cybersecurity-related tools poses a serious threat. Therefore, along with updating systems, your employees should also refresh their knowledge and skills. Think of it as an investment in the security of the organization and the performance of the relevant employees.

If you have any questions, please contact us and we will discuss security issues with your company. During the consultation, you will receive a comprehensive assessment and recommendations so that you can consciously make the right decision for you. We exist to ensure that your cybersecurity is reliable, agile and meets all modern standards.