Penetration Testing

Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing: Similarities and Differences

Today's modern cybersecurity threat landscape requires all organizations to have a comprehensive vulnerability management plan that provides a safe perimeter to keep out unwanted activity. To accomplish this, companies turn to cybersecurity tools and processes like vulnerability scanning and penetration testing. Unfortunately, most people don't fully understand how these tools and methods work. The terms penetration testing (pen testing) and vulnerability scans are often used interchangeably. Sometimes, they are addressed as competing practices that accomplish the same objective. Although both practices target potential vulnerabilities within a network, they are drastically different tests that yield different results.

When you consider the advanced cyberattacks that disrupt major companies and make headlines, you may think security efforts that address your network's accessibility are an outdated practice. This can't be further from the truth. In fact, the most successful modern attacks begin by breaching your network's perimeter by the path of least resistance. Cybercriminals can penetrate 93% of all company networks. Even as cyberattacks become increasingly sophisticated, threat actors continue to fall back on known vulnerabilities as a means of reaching their objectives. For example, there were more than 13,000 WannaCry attacks reported in March 2021. This might seem like a single drop in a sea of eye-opening statistics in the world of cybersecurity. Yet, it's significant because the patch to eliminate the vulnerability that makes these attacks possible was released by Microsoft over 4 years ago. As cybercrime products and services become more widely available on the dark web, cybercriminals don't need to be highly skilled to carry out a successful attack. Today, more cybercriminals are active than ever before. As a result, stronger cybersecurity regulations are on the horizon in many industries. Eliminating network vulnerabilities might not only be your most effective defense, it might be a requirement in your industry.  

As you seek strong perimeter defenses to eliminate vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attackers, it can be challenging to find the right tools. When both pen testing and vulnerability scanning work to address vulnerabilities, how do you know what you need for your organization? This guide will help you understand the differences between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing and how each can help you address potential network vulnerabilities.

What is Vulnerability Scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is the act of identifying potential vulnerabilities in network devices like firewalls, switches, applications, servers, and routers. Scans can be deployed manually or automated to run on a schedule. A vulnerability scan is a high-level automated test that searches for known vulnerabilities within your system and reports them. For best results, vulnerability scans should be performed both internally and externally to address all types of flaws that could be exploited for a successful attack. External scans are used to identify vulnerabilities that can be accessed from the internet, while internal scans can detect vulnerabilities that hackers use to move laterally through a network. 

Vulnerability scanners must be configured to scan certain interfaces for vulnerabilities. A wide variety of vulnerability scanners are available to target different features of your network. Vulnerability scans may be performed by in-house personnel or by an impartial third party. The scans are designed to be non-intrusive and can last from several minutes to several hours depending on the scan's depth.

It's generally recommended that both internal and external vulnerability scans be performed quarterly as well as to address network changes and to rescan after patches or updates are applied. A vulnerability scan checks specified parts of your network for known vulnerabilities without interrupting workflow or performance. The completed scan provides a report of all alerts to be investigated.

Who Uses Vulnerability Scans?

Vulnerability scanning is a process that can be customized for organizational networks in all industries. Companies seeking a way to avoid breaches use vulnerability scans to identify known flaws that are likely to be exploited by attackers. Many organizations are required to complete routine vulnerability scans as part of regulatory compliance. Vulnerability scans are useful for any organization with the intention of strengthening cybersecurity efforts to maintain a safe and secure network

The Benefits of a Vulnerability Scan

Hundreds of thousands of known vulnerabilities exist, making it impossible for IT teams and security experts to stay up to date with potential vulnerabilities within a complex network. Vulnerability scans search for known vulnerabilities within the network areas during optimization. When the scan is complete, it creates a scheduled log of identified vulnerabilities that could pose a threat to your system. It also tells you the severity of vulnerabilities and provides remediation suggestions. Vulnerability scans offer these important benefits.

  • Quick, high-level tests with a broad scope
  • Can detect thousands of known vulnerabilities
  • Can be automated to run weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.
  • Provides an inventoried list of all devices on your network and their purpose
  • Creates an established security record 
  • Provides a roadmap for improved cybersecurity posture
  • Affordable

The Limitations of a Vulnerability Scan

While vulnerability scanning offers vital insight into the known vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers to access your network, it is not designed to be a complete cybersecurity solution. Vulnerability scanning is a single process to identify existing weaknesses. To avoid false confidence in your level of security, it's important to understand the limitations of vulnerability scans.

  • Limited to known vulnerabilities, so other vulnerabilities may still exist
  • Is designed solely for reporting, which means scans are only as useful as the follow-up actions taken by professionals
  • Only offers a current outlook of your vulnerability posture, emerging threats could be exploited during scan gaps
  • Results of the scan are dependent on the quality of the scanner and proper optimization
  • Scan reports may need to be reviewed by security analysts
  • Results are limited to reporting vulnerabilities that exist without offering insight into how they can be exploited

What is Achieved with a Vulnerability Scan?

In most cases, a cyberattack isn't limited to a system breach. Hackers gain access to organizational networks in an effort to carry out malicious acts for various reasons. In an effort to accomplish these objectives, threat actors depend on easy points of entry like known vulnerabilities. When you fail to apply updates or patches to apps, devices, endpoints, etc., you leave a door open that allows threat actors into your network.

A vulnerability scan provides a non-intrusive test that can identify existing vulnerabilities and the steps needed to eliminate them. By automating scans to be performed frequently, organizations can continually be alerted to vulnerabilities that arise. By taking steps to eliminate these flaws, companies can build a stronger network perimeter and reduce successful attacks.

What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is the process of finding new network vulnerabilities through a targeted test completed by a security professional. A penetration test simulates a cyberattack against your network. It can involve the attempted breaching of any number of application systems, servers, or devices to uncover vulnerabilities that could be exploited for a successful cyberattack. During the test, the tester will attempt to uncover potential vulnerabilities and exploit them in the same way a hacker breaches computer systems. Like vulnerability scanning, both external pen-testing (targets internet-facing assets) and internal (simulates internal or lateral movement within your network) are frequently used. There are multiple types of penetration tests. Some are performed without the security team's knowledge and look like a real attack. Others require security experts to work in tandem with the tester to identify and address security issues.

An effective penetration test requires a plan with the defined scope and testing methods to be used. Various intrusion types are typically attempted, followed by web application attacks and lateral movement like privilege escalation, data theft, etc. to understand the extent of damage that can be caused. After gaining access, the tester determines how long they can remain in the system to simulate the effects of advanced persistent threats. When the test is complete, the results are compiled into a report that details exploited vulnerabilities, sensitive data that was accessed, and the amount of time the tester was able to remain in the system undetected.

Penetration testing usually takes place once or twice a year. It can be more invasive than vulnerability scanning and is always performed by a human. The timing of the test is based on what happens when the test is in progress and can vary. The results of pen-testing usually offer targeted solutions for specific vulnerabilities.

Who Uses Penetration Testing?

Pen testing is a process that is performed by a cybersecurity specialist for a specific network environment. The customizable nature of pen testing makes it an option for all businesses of any size. Companies hoping to reinforce their security posture use routine pen tests to remediate potential vulnerabilities as they arise. Organizations in some industries follow a schedule of pen tests as required to maintain compliance. Penetration testing is useful for any organization hoping to maintain an effective cybersecurity posture and eliminate real-time vulnerabilities that could lead to an attack.

Benefits of Pen Testing

Hackers are always seeking new ways to breach organizational networks and access sensitive data. Pen testing offers a realistic look into the way hackers behave and how your network would react to a real attack. When a penetration test is complete, you have a clear understanding of the vulnerabilities that exist as well as the ways those flaws can be exploited. Consider how these pen testing benefits can help you create a more secure network.

  • A clear picture of how low risk vulnerabilities can lead to high level attacks
  • Assess the impact of attacks on business operations
  • Identify previously unknown vulnerabilities and take action to remediate them before they're exploited
  • Provides very specific results
  • Typically not required to perform frequently
  • Determine whether more effective cybersecurity measures are needed

Limitations of Pen Testing

Penetration tests are designed to identify weaknesses and exploit them. Since these tests are performed by a human, it's impossible to test every possible scenario that could occur on a network. Pen testing simulates the activity that occurs during a real attack. Depending on the depth of the test and the exploitation level achieved, companies can face downtime during a "successful" attack simulation.

  • A targeted nature that generally has a narrow scope
  • Can be considerably expensive
  • Potentially intrusive to business operations
  • Effectiveness is limited to the skills of the tester
  • Automation is not possible 

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What is Achieved with a Penetration Test?

Hackers don't always depend on known vulnerabilities. Attackers utilize new knowledge and technologies to exploit network environments in unexpected ways. Penetration testing simulates a real attack and offers critical insight into existing vulnerabilities and the ways they can be exploited. Depending on the type of test performed, it can provide insight into how your security team and tools will react to an attack. The results of a pen test provide a detailed report of attacks used, testing methods, vulnerabilities revealed, and suggestions for remediation. 

Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scans

By this point, it's clear that penetration testing and vulnerability scans are quite different in procedure, tactics, and outcome. Both forms of testing are designed to seek out vulnerabilities that can be exploited for a successful cyberattack. However, they identify different types of vulnerabilities and offer distinctive insights into your security posture and readiness for an attack. 

Vulnerability scans are routine tests performed in the background of your network while business operations are typically running as usual. They identify large quantities of known vulnerabilities that could potentially be exploited for malicious activity. These scans are used as a reporting tool only and require active follow-up by security personnel to resolve issues through patches and updates. The basic purpose of vulnerability scans is to reveal known vulnerabilities and provide an actionable roadmap for resolution of the specific weaknesses.

Penetration tests are live manual tests that simulate an actual attack. They cannot be animated and require a professional expert to complete the test. Since the test is designed to include exploitation, business operations may be interrupted during pen testing. Penetration tests are designed to conduct an extremely detailed and effective approach to finding and remediating unknown vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by hackers. Pen tests have a more targeted scope but can include a variety of purposes including the identification of vulnerabilities, a real-time view of cybersecurity response, and the resolution of issues deep within your network.

While pen testing and vulnerability scanning both find vulnerabilities that can be exploited and can detect both internal and external threats, these distinct differences set them apart.

Frequency

Vulnerability scanning is often implemented on a frequent automated schedule to identify vulnerabilities when they arise. Whether used to maintain compliance with specific regulations or to enforce a strong perimeter, it's recommended that internal and external vulnerability scans are performed at least quarterly. Additional tests are also recommended after network changes and to ensure proper remediation after a failed test.

Penetration tests are usually performed once or twice a year and when internet-facing equipment undergoes significant changes. The limited frequency of the tests is important since pen tests can be lengthy and costly as well as interrupt network operations. 

Automation Level

Vulnerability scans are performed by a scanner that requires little human input after optimization. Once the scanner is set up to perform automated tests, scans are completed automatically. Whether conducting a manual or automated scan, most vulnerability scans can be run by in-house cybersecurity teams. Penetration tests are performed by professionals who use both automated tools and hands-on methods. A high level of expertise is required and pen testing is often outsourced to cybersecurity professionals.

Scope

A vulnerability scan is designed to uncover as many weaknesses as possible. It's an automated scan that throws a wide net to test various network components for large numbers of known vulnerabilities. The results of the scan are designed to provide a comprehensive list of flaws that must be remediated through patches or updates.

A penetration test is designed to test the limits of a network's security and determine the most likely ways attackers will exploit specific vulnerabilities. The test is designed to expose how attackers will exploit weaknesses and provide specific solutions to address targeted attacks.

It can be said that vulnerability scans are most effective for breath while pen tests are designed for depth.

Testing Process

Vulnerability scans are designed to be efficient enough to perform frequently. This means the test can be run by in-house security providers and often automated to run with little or no human input. Vulnerability scans are often non-invasive and can be completed without interrupting workflows and other network processes.

Penetration testing is performed by an experienced, highly technical cybersecurity expert. The test is typically outsourced and can take days to complete. Since pen testing is designed to simulate an actual attack, network operations and business operations may be interrupted. Depending on the type of test being performed, the security team may have no prior knowledge of the simulated attack. Such testing is likely to be more invasive but can offer critical insight into the security team's performance.

Results

Both pen testing and vulnerability scans provide a report that can help organizations reinforce their cybersecurity efforts and eliminate vulnerabilities. Vulnerability scans offer a report detailing multiple vulnerabilities that are categorized by potential severity level. However, the scans don't take the relevance of your industry or unique network functions into consideration, limiting the accuracy of the severity rating. While vulnerability scan reports might offer solution input, it's typically limited and doesn't offer a wealth of insight as to how vulnerabilities can be exploited. 

Penetration testing is designed to seek out vulnerabilities and exploit them to get a better understanding of the long-term threat they can pose. The report provided by a pen tester is typically very detailed. It should include the methods used to uncover vulnerabilities, the flaws detected during the test, how vulnerabilities are most likely to be exploited by hackers, and best practices to eliminate threats.

Vulnerability Scans and Penetration Tests as a Part of Your Complete Cybersecurity Solution

Vulnerability scans and penetration tests provide ways for businesses to uncover weaknesses that could allow hackers to gain network access and complete a successful attack. Vulnerability scans are designed to report known vulnerabilities while pen testing is designed to uncover unique system weaknesses and the ways hackers can exploit them. Both tests are useful for improving your cybersecurity posture and reducing successful attacks. 

Depending on your specific needs, one test might be preferred over the other on occasion. For instance, if an organization is uncertain about its security posture, a vulnerability scan can offer a baseline of current vulnerabilities. On the other hand, when a company is confident in its security controls and seeking ways to prove or dis-prove effectiveness, a pen test is the best option. Additionally, one or both tests may be required to maintain compliance with industry security compliance regulations.

Although many companies might be seeking an either/or solution, comparing vulnerability scans and pen tests is an exercise in futility. The two are vastly different tests with different methods and reporting styles. Vulnerability scans can't replace penetration tests, and pen tests can't replace vulnerability scans for long-term security. They both play an important part in strengthening your cyber resilience and keeping your network protected.

For complete and effective network protection, it's critical to partner with a company that offers a layered approach to comprehensive, network-wide security. Both regular vulnerability scans and penetration tests should be a part of your ongoing cybersecurity solution. BitLyft is a cybersecurity company that provides unparalleled vulnerability control and protection for businesses of all sizes by the best people and software to identify and remediate most cyberthreats in seconds. As part of your layered security solution, we provide routine vulnerability scans and penetration testing alongside complete visibility into your network and real-time threat remediation. If you are ready to take your cybersecurity protection to the next level, contact the security experts at BitLyft for a quick needs assessment and learn more about the complete BitLyft offering. 

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