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How Penetration Testing is Different from Ethical Hacking?

Posted DateSeptember 15, 2020
Posted Time 4   min Read

Is there a difference between penetration testing and ethical hacking?  Aren’t these the same?

The two concepts have similarities and are often interchangeably used, sometimes even by security professionals. However, there is a clear difference between penetration testing and ethical hacking, howsoever thin this line of difference may be. Let us delve into these differences.

Differences between Penetration Testing and Ethical Hacking

Differences between Penetration Testing and Ethical Hacking

Penetration Testing

Penetration Testing or pen-testing is the formal/official process of assessing the maturity and strength of the security systems in place. Regular penetration testing enables businesses to find emerging security threats and vulnerabilities, gain critical insights into the exploitability of security vulnerabilities, and assess the security risks facing them.

By mimicking real-life attack scenarios under secure conditions, web application pen-testing, and other types of pen-testing are helpful, not harmful processes. Pen-testing empowers businesses to get the first-mover advantage in terms of security.

Conducted by trustworthy and certified security experts, pen-testing is a very planned process. It is done after obtaining all necessary permissions from the management/ business and without interrupting the regular flow of work.

Learn more about different types of security Penetration Testing

Ethical Hacking

Ethical hacking is a broad, umbrella term that includes all hacking and cyberattack methodologies and techniques. These are longer-term assessments conducted by the ethical hacker with the necessary permissions to explore the IT infrastructure more widely. Ethical hacking helps unearth security vulnerabilities and flaws by intruding the system using a wide range of attack vectors and attack types.

The professionals conducting ethical hacking must be differentiated from black-hat hackers who have malicious intent. Ethical hackers, with their understanding of the system, will not just locate vulnerabilities, but also study and suggest security-related methodologies to implement.

You can also learn about what is Black-box testing, here.

Ethical Hacking Vs Penetration Testing

Ethical Hacking Vs Penetration Testing


Pen-testing seeks to find security vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the targeted IT system. It is usually not conducted on the entire application or IT infrastructure. It seeks to tell the business how their security systems respond to real-time attacks and suggest measures to strengthen the same.

Ethical hacking seeks to find as many vulnerabilities and security flaws as possible in the IT environment using wide-ranging techniques and attack vectors. It seeks to provide a holistic evaluation of cybersecurity. More remediation and risk mitigation assistance are provided by ethical hackers in comparison to pen-testers who submit a report with suggestions on the completion of the testing.


Given the budgetary and time constraints, penetration testing is often conducted on specific aspects/ parts of the IT system defined for testing, not the entire environment. The assessment provided by pen-testing is targeted and point-in-time. As a result, security flaws and weaknesses are identified only in the targeted systems at a given point in time.

Ethical hacking has a broader scope and assesses the IT environment holistically over longer periods of time. So, there is scope to find as many security flaws and vulnerabilities as possible in the environment. Penetration testing is a subset/ function of ethical hacking.

Permissions Required

Since web application pen-testing and other types of pen-testing are targeted, the testers require access and permissions only for those targeted systems/ areas they are testing. While in ethical hacking, the tester needs access and permissions to a whole range of systems and areas, based on the defined scope.

Who Conducts It?

This is one of the main points of difference between penetration testing and ethical hacking.

  • Penetration testing can be conducted by someone with knowledge and expertise in the specific area of testing. Ethical hackers must have comprehensive knowledge of software, programming techniques, hardware, and the IT environment to be effective.
  • Knowledge of hacking and attack methodologies in the targeted areas is adequate for pen-testers while ethical hackers must have a broader knowledge of attack methodologies and attack vectors.
  • While detailed reporting is necessary for pen-testing, ethical hackers must be experts in report writing and be capable of producing in-depth reports with recommended solutions.
  • Ethical hackers must be certified. Even though it is recommended to have certification, it is not compulsory for pen-testers if they have enough experience.
  • It is believed that the best pen-testers have ethical hacking knowledge and certification as it better equips them to conduct effective tests and produce detailed reports and actionable insights.

Ethical Hacking Vs Penetration Testing – Which should you choose?

Overall, PenTesting can be argued to be a subset of ethical hacking.  Ethical hacking in its extreme can be a process to hack the system just like a hacker will do, but with full permission from the business and key stakeholders to do so.

A Pen testing focus is on identifying risks.  An ethical hacking focus is not just on identifying risk but to show and demonstrate the exploitation.  A bug bounty program is an ethical hacking exercise.

Not all businesses can set up systems where exploitation can be done and hence a Pen testing and getting visibility and an understanding of the exploitable risks without the exploits carried out is an effective way to get visibility and fix them.

The Closure

Both ethical hacking and pen-testing have their place in cybersecurity and in identifying security threats and vulnerabilities. Understanding the difference between two and choosing the right kind of experts to conduct these is critical for the effective identification of security threats and vulnerabilities and building a strong security strategy.

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