The Difference Between Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing

Over the years, we have had many businesses inquire about vulnerability assessment and penetration testing services. Quite often, these business owners, upper-level executives and other important decision-makers, ask for one service when they actually require the other.

This confusion is quite common, as many people and even providers in the industry sometimes use both these terms interchangeably. Because of this, companies are often misinformed about the difference between a vulnerability assessment and a penetration test (or pen test).

In this article, we will explain the differences in scope between these two security services to assist you and your organization to understand what makes the most sense for your needs and requirements.

Vulnerability Assessment

A vulnerability assessment is a procedure used to identify or discover threats and vulnerabilities in a network environment. Furthermore, it can diagnose other potential weaknesses and provides measures to mitigate the removal of these risks.

This process will generally involve using automated network security scanning tools, but may also include a range of tests with manual tools to verify the discoveries by the scanners or to further evaluate the security of the network or applications.

Penetration Testing

In comparison, a penetration test is a manual process that involves not only identifying vulnerabilities in the network but attempting to exploit them.

The objective is to penetrate the system by gaining unauthorized access (hacking) through the identified weakness, which is used to emulate the malicious intents of cyber criminals.

Using advanced tools and techniques, a pen tester (also referred to as an ethical hacker) will attempt to attack the network or security system by installing malicious malware, taking down servers, etc.

Vulnerability Assessment vs Penetration Testing

Both of these methods have their own function and approach, but the key difference in scope between these two services is that in a vulnerability assessment, it will focus on finding as many security weaknesses on your network as possible. Whereas, in a penetration test, the focus is to determine whether or not the network security defences are hack-proof.

The second difference is the extent of testing automation used. Vulnerability assessments are usually automated (without disruption to your network or system), used to discover as many potential issues as they can. Penetration testing is usually a combination of both automated and manual techniques to dive deeper into each discovered flaw in the system.

Because of the automated nature of a vulnerability assessment, larger companies with bigger security budgets can sometimes have an in-house IT or security department perform their own assessments.

However, they may not have the specific, required skills or training to find all the vulnerabilities or know which ones are patch-able. Or they may be unable to see from an external perspective, being so familiar with their own system that tunnel-vision sets in. In this case, a third-party cyber forensics investigator or team may help discover additional flaws and offer solutions they may not be aware of.

On the flip side, penetration testing requires more manual work that isn’t easily automated. Even though some of the same vulnerability scans may take place initially, the next steps involve exploring and poking at the network to find holes to attempt exploits on. Depending on the size of the network and the reporting that is required, a test could be very labor-intensive and time-consuming to perform and takes a tremendous amount of knowledge, skill and precision for the job to be done properly.

There are currently some automated pen testing frameworks available, but they have not proven to be as effective or successful as a highly-trained white-hat or ethical hacker. Having a team of pen testers at your disposal is a much better option as the human element, approaching testing with curiosity, ingenuity and problem-solving (or in this case, problem-creating) cannot be matched by automation tools.

Vulnerability Assessments:

  • Creates a report of all of your network or system assets and resources
  • Comprehensive analysis and review of the system environment, including operating systems and applications, websites & web applications, e-commerce solutions, physical security (access points, cameras, alarms, etc.) and security policies & enforcement and monitoring
  • Creates a comprehensive list of identified vulnerabilities
  • Helps to mitigate or eliminate the potential vulnerabilities found in the system

Penetration Testing:

  • Identifies and determines the scope and risk of exploitable weaknesses
  • Tests your important and sensitive collection of data
  • Creates a complete list of vulnerabilities and emerging threats
  • Concise descriptions of how deficiencies were exploited to infiltrate the system
  • Step-by-step remediation steps for addressing each vulnerability

When to Use Each Option?

Timing, frequency and objectives should be a factor when considering whether to have a vulnerability assessment compared to a penetration test performed on your network. Both are of vital importance to be implemented somewhat regularly to ensure your network security is safeguarded from the numerous cyber threats that organizations face today.

Vulnerability Assessments are a more proactive approach to discover possible vulnerabilities and they should be performed more frequently and continually to monitor and identify new weaknesses that might be exploited in a cyber attack.

Often times, new assessments to the system are made whenever there is a new exploit released, a network or application change is made within the organization, part of an internal vulnerability management program that runs on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis, and after a data breach has occurred.

A penetration test can be initiated by many factors by an organization, but most often they only run one after a security breach from a targeted attack. However, there are many scenarios where a company may run a penetration test on their system.

This includes some of the same reasons why one would perform a vulnerability assessment, such as a network or application update, or an internal vulnerability management program. But there are also other reasons, such as when a new application is launched or there are certain regulations that an organization has to meet to become or to stay compliant.

So, how often should your organization be performing for each service?

It is recommended for companies with highly sensitive data to have a vulnerability assessment monthly or at least quarterly, plus additional testing whenever there is a major change to the network.

For penetration testing, companies should have one at least once per year.

In Conclusion

Vulnerability assessments and penetration testing are different components of network security services, but both are vitally important to implement regularly to keep your organizational network and systems cyber-secured.

In a nutshell, a vulnerability assessment is good for the maintenance of your organization’s network security while a penetration test helps discover real security weaknesses in your system and help prevent targeted, cyber threats before they become serious data breaches.

Now that you have a solid understanding of the differences between these two services, you can make an informed decision at the right time and better determine the scope of the engagement.

TCS Forensics is a high-quality provider of both vulnerability assessment and penetration testing. Give us a call at (604) 370-4336 or book a consultation with us to find out more about these or our other forensic services.