Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Analysis


While both penetration testing and vulnerability assessment are meant for cybercrime prevention, when people mistake either penetration testing for vulnerability assessment (sometimes referred to as vulnerability scanning) or vice versa, they’re usually missing a very critical element in their network security profile. Although both processes/techniques/measures are related and are compulsory under various infosec regulations such as PCI DSS, they are not interchangeable. In contrast, penetration testing is designed to exploit vulnerabilities in the system architecture, vulnerability assessment scans/checks for familiar vulnerabilities and produces a report regarding risk exposure. In simple terms, penetration testing seeks to exploit flaws, insecure business processes, and/or lax security settings in an information security environment while vulnerability assessments search for known vulnerabilities in the system. So what are the differences between the two infosec measures?


Difference 1: degree of automation

While vulnerability scanning is often automated allowing for a broader vulnerability coverage, penetration testing involves an amalgamation of manual and automated processes that aid in digging deeper into the flaws. In penetration testing, a human factor (trained/experienced cybersecurity pundit) is always involved and the process requires the application of tools. The seasoned penetration tester, or cybersecurity expert, at some point during the testing script, modifies the attack parameters or twists settings to achieve a desirable outcome. The process can sometimes be costly as it requires highly-skilled labour to exploit absolutely new and unknown vulnerabilities. Besides, the penetration testing process can take several days to a couple of weeks to execute.

Vulnerability assessment is an automated process/technique that focuses on detecting known vulnerabilities in network systems like servers, applications, switches, routers, and firewalls. The technique involves the use of vulnerability scanners that only identify (without exploiting) known vulnerabilities. Its scope is business-wide that requires automated equipment to handle a huge number of assets. Vulnerability assessments (scans) should be done frequently on all assets to ensure all known vulnerabilities are identified and patched.


Difference 2: Breadth versus depth 

Vulnerability coverage, measured in breadth and depth is perhaps the main difference between penetration testing and vulnerability assessment. Vulnerability assessment is designed to uncover an immense number of security flaws – breadth over depth approach. Besides, it should be executed regularly to maintain a secure network status, especially where/when there are network modifications, for example, new equipment is installed, more services are added, or ports are opened. It’s suitable for businesses that lack mature cybersecurity systems and that would want to identify all potential security flaws in their networks. On the other hand, penetration testing is best suited when/where the business owner, user, or data pundit is assured that the system security defenses are sturdy, but only wants to test if they’re actually hack-proof – depth over breadth approach. A penetration test is best when conducted by an external service provider as it offers a better objective view of the information security environment and avoids dissensions.


Difference 3: professionals

The choice of cybersecurity pundits to perform the distinct security assurance processes is a key difference. Automated scanning, which is broadly applied in vulnerability scanning does not require too much skill, it can easily be performed by one of the members of the security department. Nevertheless, sometimes things may not be as rosy as expected for the organization’s security team; they may encounter some vulnerabilities that they are unable to patch. Should this occur, the company may be forced to outsource vulnerability scanning services from third-party service providers. On the other hand, penetration testing requires a substantially higher level of prowess (since it’s manually intensive). In most cases, businesses outsource penetration testing services from third-party service providers. The training, experience, and competence of the tester is directly associated with the quality of the outcome.


When to use Penetration testing or Vulnerability Assessment

Whereas both processes/techniques are valuable elements of the vulnerability management process, there are certain instances where the services/functions of one technique may be more suitable than the other. For instance, vulnerability scans may detect the location of security faults in the network and give a detailed report on how to fix them. To conduct regular testing and sanity checks where modifications are made to the network, vulnerability assessment is the most appropriate technique. Also, a more specific (targeted) vulnerability scanning is conducted when a new vulnerability is reported in a bid to determine the exposure of the organization to the new threat. In contrast, penetration testing tells you whether an attacker can exploit your flaws and intrude into your system, and if so, to what extent and what kind of information they can access. Penetration testing is suited for businesses that’re compliance-driven, have seasoned and integrated information security programs, and are high-value targets. Penetration tests should be conducted at least once a year and any time crucial modifications are made to the network.

Both penetration testing and vulnerability assessments are valuable techniques/processes used in cyber risk analyses to determine appropriate measures to curb cyber threats and related activities. They are robust tools for monitoring and enhancing a company’s network environment.