Vulnerability Scan vs. Penetration Test: What’s the Difference?

penetration-test-hackWhat is the difference between a penetration test and a vulnerability scan? Is a penetration test a vulnerability assessment? Is a vulnerability scan a penetration test? Which one does my organization need?

As organizations prepare to meet their security needs, determining which service your organization requires depends on the purpose of each project.

Vulnerability Scan

A vulnerability scan or a vulnerability assessment, consists of running an automated program that looks for vulnerabilities within your system and documents the potential exposures. Vulnerabilities could potentially include unpatched or misconfigured systems or default accounts and passwords.  Vulnerability scans can often be completed through software that open source, or through licensed software.

Vulnerability scans should be conducted on a regular or at least quarterly basis. By regularly running vulnerability scans, your organization has a baseline in which to test against in order to identify new vulnerabilities. Once vulnerabilities are identified, the necessary steps can be taken for remediation.

Penetration Test

When an organization has a penetration test conducted, they are also receiving a vulnerability scan. This is because the initial phase of penetration testing requires that a full vulnerability assessment be conducted so that penetration testers are able to learn the IP addresses, device types, operating systems and any vulnerabilities that are present on the system.

Read more: What Penetration Tests Reveal: The Top 3 Findings

From there, the penetration tester attempts to exploit vulnerabilities in a variety of  ways. This can include utilizing automated tools to exploit vulnerabilities in servers, firewalls, and routers   or to exploit web applications for common vulnerabilities, and also can include social engineering in an attempt to extract information or gain physical access to a location through the end user. Penetration testers also attempt to manually exploit the system, which at times can expose vulnerabilities that a vulnerability scanner would not be able to identify.  This include writing custom exploit scripts and injection strings.

Two Types of Penetration Tests

  1. White Hat Penetration Tests: A white hat penetration test is performed under full knowledge of your organization’s IT department, and information such as network diagrams, IP addresses and system configurations are shared with the tester prior to them attempting to gain access to the system.
  1. Black Hat Penetration Tests: Black hat penetration testers try to gain access of your network and accomplish a network compromise without knowledge from your organization’s IT department.

Black hat penetration tests most closely mimic the process of a legitimate hacking incident, because it assumes that the individual does not have knowledge of your organization’s systems.  However, this method increases the time it takes to conduct the test since the tester has to learn the environment.

Choosing the Right Assessment

Vulnerability scans are necessary in order to maintain the security of your organization’s information and should be performed regularly. One of the advantages of  conducting vulnerability scans is to create a baseline, so that when there are changes made to the environment, organizations are alerted to the change and can look deeper into why they are being notified.

Penetration tests should be conducted at least annually or when there have been changes to your system, to ensure the security of the modified system.

While each assessment has different objectives, both have the goal of improving the overall security of the information system. As a best practice, both penetration tests and vulnerability scans should be conducted in conjunction with one another to ensure the security of your organization’s system.