Vulnerability Assessments vs. Penetration Tests: What’s the Difference?

penetration test vs vulnerability assessment

Reducing risk and identifying threats are key principles in cybersecurity. Organizations pursue these objectives using many tools, techniques, and strategies. Two of the most common and effective ways to do this include vulnerability assessments and penetration tests. While they are similar and have some overlap, there are differences. In this post, we’ll review vulnerability assessments vs. penetration tests.

What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?

Vulnerability assessments are a cybersecurity testing process that evaluates every asset in a network to find any missing patches or configurations. Gaps here provide ways for cybercriminals to exploit weaknesses and gain access. A vulnerability can be a bug or code flaw, a gap in security procedures, or a lack of internal controls.

The collective industry definition, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is an exercise focused on uncovering security weaknesses in a system either manually and/or with automated tools or scanners.

There are also different kinds of vulnerability assessments that target different layers of cybersecurity.

Vulnerability Assessment Types

There are three main types of vulnerability assessments:

  • Network-based: This exercise surveys geographically distributed applications and machines to determine if any security gaps are present in networks or communication systems. This test also analyzes devices on the network, searching for compromised passwords, and evaluates a system’s ability to withstand common attacks.
  • Application-based: This test looks at the application layer to identify misconfigurations or vulnerabilities. The question to answer is, “How secure is the application?” Many companies conduct these after major updates.
  • Host-based: In this process, analysis of the weaknesses of machines is the target. The test assesses workstations, servers, and network hosts. In most cases, it uses a manager/agent structure to determine if the system follows business-wide security standards and protocols.

After completing these assessments, the output is a report that classifies each vulnerability into four categories.

The Four Categories of Vulnerability Assessments

A vulnerability assessment report categorizes each finding as critical, high, medium, or low/informational. Here’s what each level means:

  • Critical: This classification is the most urgent vulnerability requiring immediate attention.
  • High: This label indicates urgency and should be addressed after critical.
  • Medium: These vulnerabilities have less risk exposure but are still important to remediate.
  • Low/informational: This set of vulnerabilities is cautionary or informational.

So, how do vulnerability assessment testers decide which rating the weakness receives? It’s based on these three things:

  • How likely is a hacker to exploit it
  • The severity of the issue
  • What the weakness provides to a cybercriminal

The critical thing to remember about vulnerability assessments is that you conduct them to find weaknesses, but there’s no exploitation of them. That does happen in pen tests.

What Are Penetration Tests?

penetration test is a simulated cyberattack activated by ethical hackers. Its purpose is to identify vulnerabilities, just as a vulnerability assessment. However, pen testers typically carry out the exploitation. These teams use the same tools, mechanisms, and approaches that cybercriminals do.

Pen tests have various access levels, methods, and types. What you choose depends on your cybersecurity goals and requirements.

Pen Test Access Levels

The first thing to consider in these evaluations is the level of access. It correlates to what an ethical hacker will have and know before the test.

  • Black Box Penetration Testing (or Opaque Box): Testers do not have any information regarding the internal structure of the target system. They operate just as cybercriminals would, scanning for weaknesses.
  • Gray Box Penetration Testing (or Semi-Opaque Box): Those performing the test have some knowledge of the target system, which could be its data structure, code, or algorithms. The testers may also have credentials, and the objective is to penetrate by use case relating to the architectural diagram of the system.
  • White Box Penetration Testing (or Transparent Box): Pen testers have access to systems and artifacts, such as source code and containers. They can often enter servers running the system as well.

Pen Test Methods

The next area of pen tests to know about is the method that testers will use. These correlate to what part of your ecosystem you want to test.

  • External testing: Ethical hackers target visible assets of an organization (e.g., web applications, company website, email, and domain name servers) with the intent to gain access and extract data.
  • Internal testing: This pen test method occurs behind the firewall to mimic what could happen after a human error incident, like credentials stolen through phishing.
  • Blind testing: A blind test is one where the conductor only has the name of the company. As a result, it provides a real-time scenario of what an application assault would look like.
  • Double-blind testing: A double-blind test describes a situation where internal cyber teams are unaware of the exercise. Thus, the team would need to respond to the threat immediately.
  • Targeted testing: Ethical hackers and technical teams collaborate in this simulation. It serves as a good way to train employees and receive feedback from testers.

Pen Test Types

The third component of pen tests is the type. The type corresponds to what area of IT infrastructure you want to evaluate.

  • Web application pen testingThis type assesses overall security and potential risks, focusing on broken authentication, code errors, and injections.
  • Network security pen tests: In this test, ethical hackers find exploitable issues on your networks relating to switches, routers, or network hosts, using weak or misconfigured assets to cause a breach.
  • Cloud security pen testing: Testers attempt to validate that cloud deployment security is accurate and determine the risk possibilities for an infiltration. Firms can conduct these on public, private, or hybrid clouds.
  • IoT security pen testing: Organizations with many IoT devices on their networks choose this option to analyze them and their interactions. These assets have long been a preferred breach method for hackers, so it’s crucial to test them.
  • Social engineering pen testingIn this exercise, tests leverage phishing to determine how equipped the network is to defend, respond, and react. It can also provide insights on whether your security training is working.

As you can see, there are many synergies between vulnerability assessments and pen tests. So, what are the main differences?

Vulnerability Assessments vs. Penetration Tests

As noted, the most significant difference between vulnerability assessments and penetration tests is exploitation. Assessments only find them, whereas pen tests imitate an actual real-world cyberattack. Here are some other key differences.

Organizations perform the two for different reasons.

There are several reasons to conduct vulnerability assessments, including as part of your risk management program. They can profoundly impact this by strengthening your cyber resilience and enabling a more proactive stance.

They are also essential for compliance requirements and complement other activities like a HIPAA Security Risk Analysis. Another reason would be to do them as part of a patch management or planned upgrade strategy. They also are a great way to keep inventory of devices current.

The reasons behind performing pen tests are similar. Most often, organizations use them to:

  • Evaluate controls in place to thwart attacks.
  • Ensure compliance with data privacy and security requirements.
  • Find gaps in security assurance practices.
  • Locate unknown security flaws that could lead to a data breach.
  • Test the security of public-facing digital assets.

Vulnerability assessments and pen tests are both proactive cybersecurity measures. What makes them unique is objectivity vs. subjectivity. An assessment is more objective than a pen test. Even though weaknesses receive a classification, which requires some subjectivity, it’s a very rigid framework.

Pen tests are much more subjective in the output because you’re introducing more variables with the type, method, and approach. Ethical hackers act just like real ones, using creative means to penetrate. It’s not a set list of tasks to follow.

Vulnerability Assessments or Pen Tests? Use Both for a Strong Cyber Posture

In considering what tests to conduct, the simple answer is to use them both. In fact, most cybersecurity firms will perform the assessment first as a guide to what type of pen test to use. They find the weaknesses and then attempt to exploit them to understand the complete risk landscape.

Being proactive is at the core of an efficient and effective cybersecurity posture, which both of these exercises support. However, be aware that not every firm offers the same solutions. When reviewing your options, seek out these qualities in a partner:

  • They use both manual and automated scanning techniques in assessments: Many companies only use automation, which won’t find all the weaknesses or gaps, so it’s less valuable.
  • Testers should have extensive experience and credentials: Work with a group with specific expertise in assessments and pen tests with credentials in CISSP, CSSLP, OSCP, ECSA, LPT (Master), and CEH.
  • Firms should have methodology expertise: There are many different pen test applications, and you’ll want a team with experience with the method you select.
  • Post evaluation, the company should also include a remediation validation test (RVT): After you enable all the fixes that are urgent, an RVT verifies that they were successful.
  • Reporting that is easy to understand and concise is another way to evaluate testers: Request samples of reports to ensure they are actionable.

With the Blue Goat Cyber team running your assessments and tests, you’ll realize all the benefits and more. We’re experts in both and deliver results. Get started by scheduling a discovery session.

Vulnerability Assessments Vs. Penetration Tests: What’s The Difference?

Blog Search

Social Media