15 May 2020

Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning

Lauren Newman

Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are commonly conflated. While they are related, understanding the difference between penetration and vulnerability testing is crucial for cybercrime prevention and maintaining your organization’s security posture. Oftentimes, confusion arises because organizations will be sold what is called a “penetration test,” but in reality, they are being sold a simple vulnerability scan assessment packaged into a report and sold at a higher cost. In this article, we’ll address the differences in purpose, process and outcome of penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning.

Purpose: Penetration Tests vs Vulnerability Scanning

While some aspects may overlap, the primary difference between a pen test and a vulnerability scan lies in the purpose. The purpose of vulnerability scan is to systematically identify gaps in security controls and find security loopholes in a network or software systems, with the ultimate goal that none are missed. They are optimized for breadth. Vulnerability scans alert organizations to the pre-existing flaws in their code. They are useful for revealing what needs to be patched, fixed, and remediated – but do not provide the full picture of the vulnerability. The technique is used to estimate how susceptible the network is to different vulnerabilities. The core difference between vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing is that penetration tests actively exploit weaknesses in environments. The purpose is to find exploitable flaws and measure the severity of each by manually exploring and exploiting vulns. They are meant to demonstrate how severe, and damaging a flaw could be in a real-world scenario.

What is the process of vulnerability scanning?

When comparing vulnerability testing vs penetration testing it is best to understand how its cyber-services function to help a business. Vulnerability scans leverage software that can detect vulns within a network, system, or application. Due to automation, the scans can be executed without disrupting the IT infrastructure or application’s operations. Depending on which vulnerabilities need to be assessed, a wide range of tools and solutions are available in the marketplace. The most common are web application vulnerability scanners, network vulnerability scanners, attack surface identification, and focused scanners. Depending on the type of scan, the process can take anywhere from a quick 20 minutes to a few hours to complete.

This does not, however, include the time it takes to identify and prioritize the hundreds, sometimes thousands of results the scan will yield. Further, it does not include the time it takes to address the exposures. This process involves conducting communication with internal security teams to coordinate patching, upgrades, system configuration changes, etc. This can include system impact, downtime, and planning. Even so, the scans themselves are highly scalable and can be done monthly, weekly, or even daily on high-value assets and external internet-connected networks.

What is the process of a penetration test?

In contrast to a vulnerability scan, penetration tests are performed manually by humans who often have mixed skill sets and various expertise. Oftentimes, pen testers, or ethical hackers will leverage automated scans to filter out potentially exploitable vulnerabilities and proceed with an attack. They attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities in a system to determine whether unauthorized access or malicious activity is indeed possible – and then prove it with action. For example, a pen tester or ethical hacker might attempt to become a user in an email system, hack into a database, or exfiltrate proprietary client data. In this way, it simulates a real-life attack by testing defenses, mapping out paths a real attacker could take to accomplish real-life, malicious goals.

Standard vulnerability penetration testing requires a few pen testers to physically set up in your office and can take up to two weeks. Synack’s crowdsourced penetration tests, on the other hand, are performed remotely and leverage the creative minds of a crowd of 1,000+ of the world’s most elite ethical hackers and can be completed in 3-5 days. In general, there are three types of pen tests: Black Box, Grey Box, and White Box. In a Black Box test, testers do not have any prior knowledge of the testing target and use their unique skill-sets to perform testing. In a Grey Box, testers have partial knowledge of the network, including basic information of network and system configuration, and possibly limited credentials and application configurations. White Box implies testers have complete knowledge of the target. They require an in-depth understanding of the testing network or system and often yield better results.

Penetration Tests vs Vulnerability Scanning: How do the outcomes differ?

The results of a pen test vs vulnerability test also provide different insights into the weaknesses of an enterprise’s system. Vulnerability scans produce a list of vulnerabilities present in a network, system, or application. It is a baseline process for identifying gaps in security controls that are helpful for triage. Typically, at a minimum, in order to satisfy PCI compliance requirements, organizations have to run quarterly scans. Penetration tests yield real-life evidence, most often in the form of a screenshot or a log that substantiates findings and gives clarity into the path that was taken to exploit the vulnerabilities. In doing so, organizations can better understand the severity of each vulnerability and where to focus remediation efforts. In fact, in the crowdsourced approach, the Synack Red Team is incentivized financially based on how severe the findings are so clients are alerted to the most serious and destructive vulnerabilities.

Overall, vulnerability scans and penetration tests work in tandem, but have drastically different goals, processes, and outcomes. Scanners find known vulnerabilities, meaning they are already known to the security community, hackers, and software vendors. Scanners do not find unknown vulnerabilities, where penetration tests do. Vulnerability scans are optimized for breadth and completeness, while penetration tests are optimized for depth and thoroughness.

The most robust security programs harness a combination of vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, on both a time-boxed and continuous basis. As digital attack surfaces grow and continuous delivery cycles put pressure on security teams for continuous testing, traditional manual penetration testing service cannot scale. Today’s organizations are using a combination of crowdsourcing and augmented intelligence, and penetration and vulnerability scanning, to scale up their security testing operations.

Interested in learning more about the value of Crowdsourced Penetration testing? Click here.