Vulnerability Assessment vs Penetration Testing: Key Differences

While similar in some ways, the often interchangeably used vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are two different beasts. Throw vulnerability scans into the mix and, suddenly, most companies are confused.

What’s a vulnerability assessment and how is it different from a scan? And where do penetration tests fall into the mix?

From the basics of what these security measures are to the difference in frequency and cost, we’ll cover it all. Here are the big differences between security tests vs. assessments:


The Basics: Vulnerability Scans, Assessment, & Pentests

These three terms are often used interchangeably — as often required for compliance purposes —  but when looking at automated scans vs. vulnerability assessments vs penetration testing, they’re quite different.


What Is a Vulnerability Scan?

Many programs exist to check for vulnerabilities, often called Network Security Assessment Software (NSAS). Within minutes, this software can often produce an easily downloadable report, catching any glaring gaps in your security. Due to their automated process, these scans are commonly called automated scans.

A vulnerability scan is only one step performed in the process of conducting a vulnerability assessment — and here’s why. While these vulnerability scans can be quite helpful for some organizations to get a quick glimpse into their weaknesses, these auto-generated reports usually only detect surface level vulnerabilities. The scans are not the end-all-be-all of your security weaknesses and should only be used as a starting point for a full assessment.


What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?

A vulnerability assessment is often slightly less thorough than a penetration test — whereas, it doesn’t involve simulated attacks or exploits designed to breach your security infrastructure. 

Scanners are an important initial step in locating weaknesses in your defenses, but only during an assessment will the scan results be viewed and validated by a cybersecurity expert. Often, assessors use additional tools to support the data acquired from an automated scan. 

At Mitnick Security, we often detect security weaknesses during evaluation that the scanners outwardly missed — confirming the importance of the assessment beyond the scan. All details will be carefully documented in your vulnerability assessment report.


What Is a Penetration Test?

The most thorough of the two described is definitely the penetration test (or pentest, for short). It’s hard to describe a catch-all definition for penetration testing, since there are six main types of pentests. However, in its simplest form, a pentest is a series of simulated attacks on your corporation, conducted by ethical hackers who mimic the steps a real hack could take to compromise your systems. Often, social engineering is a prime technique used to manipulate a company’s employees and management into sharing the keys to the kingdom.

At the end of the attack period, the pentesters compile their findings into a comprehensive report, detailing what they did to gain access and what data or information they managed to acquire.




Key Differences Between a Vulnerability Assessment and Pentesting

You may have noticed that a big differing factor between these two types of security tests is whether they are automated or customized with the help of real human evaluators.


False Positives

Automated scans can prove faulty or inaccurate since they’re just running off a set framework. They may flag a vulnerability that doesn’t exist (AKA, a false positive). Technology and threats are ever-evolving, which is why a scan and assessment should always be done in addition to a pentest, not instead of. A comprehensive look into your unique security infrastructure is the only way to rule out false positives with complete certainty.


Vulnerability Assessment vs Penetration Testing: Procedural Differences

While automatic scans are a good starting place to get a broad scope of your security weaknesses, most scans only reveal 15% of cyber security vulnerabilities. These scans don’t dig deep into your individual weaknesses, often spewing back generic stats that could apply to any company.

That’s why organizations need assistance from professionals who are expertly trained to perform reliable vulnerability assessments and penetration tests — which should be used in unison for a holistic understanding of your security gaps. Together, these insider looks offer a customized approach, hyper-targeted on your company.


Time Table and Thoroughness of the Process


An automated vulnerability scan can be completed in minutes or hours, and may identify surface-level vulnerabilities. If these scans are reviewed by a professional during an assessment, it could take a few weeks to receive a detailed report and suggestions for remediation.

The typical time span for a well-done penetration test is anywhere from three to five weeks, but can last up to a couple months. This is because there are four phases to any pentest. Plus, the detailed, customized reporting you’ll receive after the engagement takes longer to compile than a vulnerability assessment report.


The Recommended Frequency of Pentests & Vulnerability Assessments


One major difference between penetration tests vs. vulnerability assessment is how often it’s recommended they are conducted. Because pentests are more extensive, they are often run once per year. 

In contrast, vulnerability assessments are recommended quarterly. These deep-but-not-too-deep assessments help you to find new vulnerabilities as they are released. You’ll also be able to quantify and prioritize technological weaknesses in your systems much more frequently and realistically than extensive pentesting allows for with the typical time and budget of most corporations.


Cost of a Vulnerability Assessment vs a Penetration Test

The true cost of a vulnerability assessment and a pentest will vary depending on your organization's infrastructure and systems, your industry, and the reputation and experience of the security professionals you hire for the job. Generally speaking, a pentest will cost more than a vulnerability assessment simply because of the depth and testing length. If a vendor tells you both are the same price, they're not truly pentesting.


Does Your Organization Need Penetration Testing or a Vulnerability Assessment?


Although both cybersecurity defense procedures are crucial to the security of your organization, you may need one test sooner than the other.

You should prioritize a vulnerability assessment if:

  • You’re uncertain of your network’s security posture.
  • Your organization is starting to develop its cybersecurity program.
  • You’ve done automated scans but have yet to get an assessment.


You should prioritize penetration testing if:

  • You’ve suffered a data breach and been remediated.
  • You’ve added any new applications, programs, or employees.
  • It’s been a year or longer since you’ve had any penetration testing done.


Depending on the current status of your organization’s cybersecurity, you’ll want to consider the difference between a pentest and a vulnerability assessment and how to add the necessary testing to your cybersecurity plan.


Quality Testing, at Its Finest

In summary, both vulnerability assessments and penetration tests should be routine tactics to maintain a strong defense. 

Here at Mitnick Security, we use some of the best in the business — with a 100% success rate of breaching systems, when employing the use of social engineering. Can the security company you’re looking into say the same? Request pentesting information.



Topics: Global Ghost Team, penetration testing

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