What’s the Difference Between Vulnerability Testing and Penetration Testing?

vulnerability testingAll networks, regardless of their size, are at risk from many cyber security threats.

To successfully protect your organization from these threats, you can’t rely on a single line of defense. For example, your cybercrime protection strategy should include both vulnerability testing and penetration testing. These terms are often confused with each other, but they are quite different. As Tripwire recently reports, “It amazes me how many people confuse the importance of vulnerability scanning with penetration testing. Vulnerability scanning cannot replace the importance of penetration testing, and penetration testing on its own cannot secure the entire network.”

Vulnerability Testing, Explained

Vulnerability testing is the act of identifying known vulnerabilities in your network devices including firewalls, routers, switches, servers and applications. It’s usually performed by specific software, often set to run automatically and continually (antivirus software is a form of vulnerability testing). Because the scanners rely on published and regularly updated lists of known cyberthreats, vulnerability testing will only red flag vulnerabilities that are known, and that can be fixed. As you might imagine, there are many cyberthreats that aren’t known, or have no known fix. The latter is called a “zero-day vulnerability”—a vulnerability that is discovered but does not yet have a patch (It’s called “zero day” because developers have “zero days” to fix the problem since it could immediately be exploited by hackers). Google is just one of many companies who have recently reported a “zero day” issue (they reported a vulnerability in their Chrome web browser).

Due to the scope of organizational networks, vulnerability testing may require many different automated tools to manage a company’s assets, and many of those tests will need to be product-specific. For this reason, these tests are usually installed and managed by administrators or the IT team.

Penetration Testing, Explained

While vulnerability testing looks for known network vulnerabilities, penetration testing goes beyond that, examining sloppy business processes, lax security settings, or other weaknesses that a hacker could exploit. Issues that might be found include the transmission of unencrypted passwords, password reuse and forgotten databases storing valid user credentials.

Often, these tests take the form of authorized attacks, simulated on a computer system. The tests can determine if and how effectively an attack can be stopped. They can involve a script and exploit technology and people (including phishing strategies to trick employees). While they don’t need to be conducted as often as vulnerability testing, they should be done at least once a year.

While a vulnerability scan can be automated, a penetration test requires active participation. This usually means using a third-party vendor who can mimic the actions of an external hacker. While vulnerability testing can be done relatively quickly, penetration testing can take days or even weeks. Due to their more hands-on and involved nature, penetration testing costs can be much higher than that of vulnerability testing.

Security Testing Reports

Both vulnerability testing and penetration testing will produce reports detailing the problems found. Vulnerability testing reports are long but straightforward, listing the source of the problem, a description of the problem, and remedial action, which is usually to install a patch.

The report from a penetration test, on the other hand, will list fewer items and won’t be as straightforward. The report will describe what and how the attack was performed, but exact details may be vague. A remedy will be suggested, and while that fix could be simple, such as limiting team access to certain applications, it also may require a lot of time and effort, including staff training. A strong report will provide detailed recommendations.

A Third Party Vendor You Can Trust

When choosing a third party source for penetration testing, or to set up your vulnerability testing, you will want a team with significant breadth and depth of experience, especially in your organization’s area of business. At Single Path, we work with many organizations in such a capacity, with a particular expertise in small-to-medium sized businesses and schools and school districts. Our security solutions also include security risk assessment, data loss prevention solutions and more. We can help protect your organization in many ways.

Contact us for more information!

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