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Vulnerability Testing vs Penetration Testing

By: Ernest Sampera on January 14, 2020

Data security is not something any organization can afford to take for granted. As companies gather more information from more sources than ever before, their ability to manage that data and protect it from unauthorized use or access is absolutely vital for building trust with their customers, vendors, and partners. When security vulnerabilities cause network systems to be compromised, organizations suffer long term consequences that can leave their business in ruin.

Fortunately, network security experts have developed a variety of testing and scanning methodologies that allow companies to identify and address their security issues effectively. When putting a security regime in place, however, the wide range of options available can quickly become confusing. Take, for instance, the distinctions between vulnerability testing and penetration testing. Although both approaches deal with security vulnerabilities, the two approaches are quite different in practice.

What is Vulnerability Testing?

Usually referred to as a “vulnerability scan” or “vulnerability assessment,” this test provides a thorough overview of network systems to identify potential vulnerabilities. Typically automated and conducted according to a regular schedule, vulnerability tests are crucial for maintaining information security. They provide a baseline report for essential systems and should be conducted any time changes are made to a network environment.

Some of the issues typically flagged throughout vulnerability testing include missing patches, unauthorized changes to system settings, and outdated protocols or certifications. A scan can also show whether or not a system has been compromised, which makes it a valuable tool for maintaining good security awareness.

Vulnerability testing should be conducted on a regular schedule, usually quarterly. Since these scans are usually automated, they don’t place a time-intensive burden on IT personnel once they’ve been set up. Each scan produces a vulnerability report that identifies known vulnerabilities that could be exploited in the event of a cyberattack. They also show how human error could turn minor vulnerabilities into costly data breaches.

What is Penetration Testing?

While vulnerability scans are typically automated and scheduled, penetration tests are a much more involved and proactive form of security test. The goal of a penetration test is to determine how known vulnerabilities within a system could be exploited by a hostile actor. Typically conducted by a third-party vendor, these tests can help an organization understand just how far their network weaknesses go. In many ways, a penetration test is a simulated cyberattack. The tester uses insecure data processes, lax security settings, unencrypted credentials, and other vulnerabilities to gain access to a variety of systems throughout the network environment.

If a vulnerability scan provides a look at what could potentially happen in the event of a cyberattack, the penetration test offers a chilling example of exactly how such an attack will go down. The final report will detail the specific methods and techniques used to exploit vulnerabilities, provide a list of what systems and data were compromised, and offer recommendations for how existing security gaps could be addressed.

Since penetration tests are conducted manually, they require a great deal of skill to do well. This makes them more expensive and time-consuming than a vulnerability scan. Most organizations will only conduct them one or two times per year. While penetration tests typically begin by probing a few known vulnerabilities, they often discover previously unknown weaknesses throughout the course of testing.

Vulnerability Testing vs Penetration Testing: Which One Do You Need?

Any organization looking to enhance its security strategy shouldn’t view vulnerability scanning and penetration testing as a binary, “either/or” choice. Both approaches are necessary for establishing and maintaining an effective approach to safeguarding data, applications, and access credentials. Regular vulnerability scanning can keep an organization aware of ongoing security needs and expose potential problem areas. Penetration testing can then follow up on these areas and provide a better idea of how deep the vulnerabilities go. By utilizing both approaches, organizations can maintain a proactive approach to securing their IT infrastructure and network systems.

Vulnerability scans and penetration tests provide a good example of how automated and manual approaches to security can complement one another to create a more robust security regime to safeguard sensitive systems and the data they contain. Given the potential risks that a data breach can pose to any organization, adopting a diverse stance on security practices is an effective means of confronting potential cyberthreats.

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