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Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Assessments: The 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

While these three terms are often used interchangeably— as often required for Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), HIPPA, ISO 27001, and other compliance systems— vulnerability scans/assessments and penetration tests are very different things.

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. 

A vulnerability scan is only a 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.

Even when using the best software, vulnerability scans are known to produce false positives. Plus, if evaluated by an untrained eye, you won’t know what the findings mean, how to mitigate your risks, etc. Like any machine-operated scan, you still need a real human to verify for validity and apply the results to actionable steps for improving your security. 

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 unauthorized access and what data or information they managed to acquire.

What is a vulnerability assessment?

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

Like we mentioned in the vulnerability scanning section above, scanners are an important initial step in locating weaknesses in your defenses, but real people always review the results during their complete assessment. This type of security check involves a fair share of manual evaluation by a professional assessor, using additional tools to support the data acquired from an automated scan. 

At Mitnick Security, for instance, we start by running one or more automated scanners against in-scope targets. Afterward, the real work begins. Our team reviews the results and verifies any identified vulnerabilities through active exploration. Oftentimes during our follow-up, we detect security weaknesses the scanners outwardly missed— confirming the importance of the assessment beyond the scan.

The Core Difference: Automation vs. Manual Review

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

Vulnerability tests can produce false positives.

Automated scans can prove faulty or inaccurate since they’re just running off a set framework. Technology and threats are ever-evolving, which is why a scan and assessment should always be done in addition to 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 scans can be automated, whereas pentests are always manual tests performed by professionals.

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.

Pentests take longer than vulnerability assessments, because they do a more thorough job.

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. Why? There are four phases to any pentest and the more detailed, customized reporting you receive takes longer to compile. In comparison, an automated vulnerability scan or assessment can be completed in minutes or hours.

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. 

By contact, 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.

The Cost Difference Between Pentests vs. Vulnerability Assessments

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.

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?

Learn more about our vulnerability assessments and penetration testing services here.

Topics: penetration testing, penetration tests, pentest team

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