The critical differences between a penetration test and a vulnerability scan are often misunderstood. While both processes work to protect and improve the security of your business, each one plays a vital yet contrasting role in safeguarding against criminal threats.
What are the key differences between the two?
A vulnerability scan is an automated test that searches your systems, assets, and networks business-wide, highlighting and reporting on any detected risks. Vulnerability scanning can be manually triggered or scheduled to run at set times.
A penetration test is a highly targeted procedure. It involves experienced ‘pentesters’ using automated and manual techniques to identify insecurities an automated scan might miss.
Upon finding any weaknesses, pentesters will attempt to exploit these to ethically infiltrate a network, system, application, or physical premises, depending on the brief. In other words, it’s a simulated attack.
The house survey analogy
A good way of looking at the difference between penetration tests and vulnerability scans is to think of them as if you would a house survey.
A basic house survey is called a condition report. It provides an overview of a property’s state and highlights any serious, visible defects, but it’s ‘non-intrusive’ - no furniture is moved, no floorboards are lifted.
Likewise, a vulnerability scan only involves a surface-level check of your business infrastructure, followed by the production of a report that details any potential risks.
In contrast, during a building survey, an inspector will take a hands-on approach - searching beneath floorboards, moving furniture, and more. The result is a detailed analysis of the structure and condition of the property.
This thorough approach is comparable to that taken in a penetration test, during which specialists actively research your business infrastructure and look for vulnerabilities - evident and hidden. After examining these weak spots in-depth, they will provide you with detailed solutions to remedy them and also give a better detail of the 'impact' of the issue.
Vulnerability scanning: basic security hygiene
A vulnerability scan should be seen as a useful automated tool that provides a bird’s-eye appraisal of your network security.
Vulnerability scanning will only flag potential system insecurities - it will not work to exploit them itself. It will assess elements of your network, such as servers, firewalls, routers, and applications.
These scans don’t require a high level of skill and are generally carried out in-house by trained staff. They can take anything from a few minutes to several hours to complete.
The limitations of a vulnerability scan
Vulnerability scans are a passive form of risk assessment: they’re restricted to outlining risks and do not account for the human decision-making process present in sustained criminal attacks on organisations.
After you’ve received the results of your vulnerability scan, it’s left to you or your IT support team to sort through complex data manually and patch weak spots. You’ll then need to rerun the entire test. Crucially, you have no way of knowing whether more complex risks remain undetected.
In addition to this, vulnerability scans sometimes report false positives. A false positive is a non-existent threat the scan mistakes for a real risk, creating additional work for your team.
Penetration testing: the human factor
Often referred to as ‘pentesting’, a penetration test is the gold standard of security testing. It provides a forensic appraisal of your existing security measures and can stretch from a day to several weeks in length, depending on the nature of your organisation’s needs.
OnSecurity’s penetration testers have a highly developed understanding of information technology, security systems, internal and external testing, remote access hacks, network technologies, and web application vulnerabilities. They perform a deep dive to locate and exploit weaknesses in your system - just as a criminal would - as part of a simulated attack.
After this, they will create a report providing detailed solutions to rectify vulnerabilities, improve your security measures, and fortify your business against future risks.
OnSecurity offers a wide range of penetration tests. We cover areas such as:
- Social engineering
- Internal network
- External network
- Cloud infrastructure
- Mobile applications
- Web applications
- Physical pentesting
The benefits of a penetration test
In comparison to vulnerability scanning, pentesting takes a significantly more in-depth look at your organisation’s security systems. It can identify complex threats concealed within your business infrastructure. By simulating a real-life attack on your organisation and actively testing vulnerabilities, you gain critical insights into the current state of your security measures, along with the solutions needed to improve them.
Which is superior? A penetration test or vulnerability scan?
There is huge value in both vulnerability scans and pentesting. Vulnerability scanning facilitates a quick and inexpensive overview of your network security, but it is no substitute for a penetration test’s forensic security analysis.
Pentesting is an investment in the future security of your business and can help you avoid costly damage - financial and reputational - down the line.
If you’re interested in using one of our comprehensive penetration testing services, please get in touch to arrange a security consultation with us - you can rest assured you’re in safe hands with the OnSecurity team.