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Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning : What’s the Difference?

Posted DateFebruary 12, 2019
Posted Time 4   min Read

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are both critical and indispensable components that must figure on all strong web application security strategies, plans, and processes of all kinds of organizations. These are often confused, sometimes even by seasoned cybersecurity professionals, to be the one and the same. This is the reason why many businesses think employing one of these will suffice and mostly end up employing only an automated vulnerability scanner.

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning, as mentioned earlier, are both critical components of a security expert’s toolkit. To understand why each of these is important and indispensable, we must first understand the difference between the two.

Difference between Pen-testing and Vulnerability Scanning

Definition and concept

Penetration testing or pen testing is a simulated real-time cyber-attack that is conducted in secure conditions by certified security professionals to detect vulnerabilities, un-sanitized inputs, etc. that are susceptible to malicious code injections, unauthorized entries, attacks, etc. It involves the breaching of frontend and backend servers, APIs, etc. and exploiting vulnerabilities further to understand its characteristics and magnitude. It enables businesses to test and assess the strength of their web application security measures, processes, and infrastructure, find exploitable gaps and loopholes and thereby, strengthen their security measures.

Vulnerability scanning is the process of identifying potential and known vulnerabilities, gaps and loopholes in network devices, systems, etc. and detecting malware and bad traffic by running several thousand security checks on each of the systems connected to the network. Vulnerability scanners are security testing tools that are often automated, and scanning is done on a very regular basis.

Uses and scope

As discussed earlier, vulnerability scanners are used to identify known and potential vulnerabilities and threats, detect malware, website defacements, etc. and monitor bad traffic and malicious requests. It will give you a list of vulnerabilities and if a web application firewall (WAF) is in place, it will use the scanning reports to take appropriate action and fix the findings. It does not go beyond that.

On the other hand, pen-testing goes much beyond scanning. Through penetration testing, security professionals conduct vulnerability assessments of the entire security and IT infrastructure, network, systems, etc. Penetration testing not only points out the weaknesses in the infrastructure but tells the business the magnitude, depth, and scale of the vulnerability.

How is each used?

Vulnerability scanning is done on all systems, networks, connected devices, and so on. Even though it can be done manually, automation is the preferred way for scanning as it is a routine process that can be time-consuming. With cloud-based, automated, and complete scanning tools like AppTrana, businesses can save time, money, and resources and focus on their core activities without compromising on the speed and performance of their web applications and systems.

Penetration testing cannot be automated; it requires human intelligence, expertise, and creativity. It must be done manually and only by trustworthy, skilled, and certified security professionals. If not, it will defeat the purpose of pen testing as the individual may leverage the vulnerabilities for ransom, develop codes for exploitation, or sell it in the black market.

Penetration testing is done by exploiting the list of vulnerabilities, crafting scripts, tweaking rules and logic, and changing parameters and settings to test the strength and performance of the web application. Basically, the ethical hacker or security expert will attempt to break through the network security and access critical assets. Considering the time and cost of penetration testing, it is not possible to perform this on every system and every vulnerability. The testing is often limited delving deep into a small group of target systems.

When is each used?

Cybersecurity is not static and definitely not a one-time thing. As technology develops rapidly, cybercriminals are continuously finding new and innovative ways to orchestrate attacks. So, both penetration testing and vulnerability scanning must be done on a regular basis. The question is how regular.

Vulnerability scanning must be done on a daily basis and after major changes in the systems, networks, applications, or business functions/logic. It is essential to choose a complete vulnerability scanner like AppTrana which is endowed with the Global Threat Intelligence platform (that is continuously updated with feeds from global threats) and augmented with the learnings from past attack history, cyber-attackers’ MO and so on. An updated scanning tool will be more effective in detecting all known and potential threats and vulnerabilities.

Pen testing must be done on a quarterly or at least yearly basis based on the budget constraints, size, priorities, and risk profile of the organization to help businesses understand the status and strength of their security infrastructure and make appropriate changes in strategies and invest in the requisite areas.

Vulnerabilities detected by each

As mentioned earlier, vulnerability scanning exposes known and potential vulnerabilities. If equipped with global threat intelligence, it will be able to detect the latest threats as well. It is not equipped to unearth zero-day threats.

Penetration testing can unearth unknown and unforeseen vulnerabilities, zero-day threats as well as business logic vulnerabilities.

Is one better than the other?

No. Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are equally important components of vulnerability assessments, each with its own benefits and value-additions. It will be detrimental to choose one over the other. They must both find a place in your cybersecurity strategy. Comprehensive, always-on security solutions like AppTrana combine automated vulnerability scanning with manual penetration testing by certified security professionals to help you secure your systems, networks, and applications more effectively and save millions of dollars.

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