What’s the difference: vulnerability scanning vs penetration testing

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing should be an essential part of your cybersecurity strategy. This blog discusses the above methods in the context of securing your web applications, including the benefits, drawbacks, and compliance implications.

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are vital pieces of the security puzzle, and it’s important to understand the difference between the two. Both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing can be used to assess the entire IT infrastructure, but in this article, we will limit the scope to web applications.

Vulnerability scanning is an automated process. The tool scans a web application for known weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Vulnerability scanners generate a list of the issues detected, listing the severity of each issue and its potential implications. What to do with this information is up to you.

Penetration testing, on the other hand, is not a tool but an approach. A penetration tester uses various methods to penetrate a web application from the outside in. Penetration testers often use automated tools, but the real value comes from their expertise and expert understanding of the threat landscape. This type of testing is comprehensive and looks beyond known vulnerabilities, helping organizations identify zero-day exploits.

What is a vulnerability scan?

A vulnerability scan compares its findings against a database of known security threats. Vulnerability scanning focuses on common issues like SQL injection or cross-site scripting attacks, and provides an overall picture of the application’s security posture.

Vulnerability scans are an important part of maintaining security and compliance, and help organizations protect themselves against known threats and amateur hackers. However, since scans focus on known vulnerabilities, they are not enough to withstand a targeted attack by an advanced persistent threat.

There are several benefits of vulnerability scanning for business applications, including:

  • Identifying vulnerabilities: Discover known vulnerabilities in an organization’s applications.
  • Prioritizing remediation efforts: Identify the severity of identified vulnerabilities, enabling them to focus on high-risk areas first.
  • Automating scans: Vulnerability scanning can be automated and conducted on a regular basis to provide ongoing monitoring of security vulnerabilities, ensuring that any new vulnerabilities are detected as soon as possible.
  • Integration with other tools: Vulnerability scanners can be integrated with other security tools to provide a complete picture of an organization’s security posture.

Overall, vulnerability scanning is an important component of any business’s cybersecurity strategy. This is especially important for business applications that handle sensitive information, such as personal or financial data. A breach of this information can lead to significant financial losses, damage to reputation, and legal liabilities.

Outpost24 offers a comprehensive vulnerability management solution, with risk-based prioritization, that focuses on the likelihood of an actual attack, to help business better focus their remediation efforts.

What is a penetration test?

There are many different types of penetration tests, including network penetration tests, external penetration tests, internal penetration tests, social engineering penetration tests, and wireless penetration tests, and of course web application penetration tests, which is the primary example for this blog.

In the traditional approach, penetration tests are conducted annually by trained professionals who use various tools and techniques, such as exploiting known vulnerabilities, social engineering, and password cracking, to gain access. Pen testers attempt to mimic the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) of threat actors to imitate real attacks to identify potential vulnerabilities and misconfigurations and provide actionable insights on how to remediate identified issues.

There are several benefits of penetration testing for business applications. It can help organizations identify potential vulnerabilities and misconfigurations, demonstrate compliance with various regulations and requirements, and maintain their security posture. Additionally, penetration testing can also provide organizations with peace of mind that their web applications are secure and help them develop a better understanding of potential threats and how to respond to them in the event of an attack.

What are the drawbacks of the traditional pen testing model?

The major drawback of traditional penetration testing is that it is time-consuming and costly. It also requires skilled and highly specialized resources to conduct the tests and produce reports, which can be difficult for some organizations to use.

Penetration Testing as a Service (PTaaS) is an alternative approach to traditional penetration testing that offers several advantages. Here are some reasons PTaaS may be a better fit for today’s threat landscape:

  • Continuous testing: With PTaaS, organizations can conduct continuous testing of their web applications rather than relying on point-in-time assessments. This allows for ongoing monitoring of security vulnerabilities and faster detection and remediation of any issues.
  • Scalability: PTaaS can easily scale to meet the needs of organizations when multiple applications require testing.
  • Flexibility: PTaaS can be customized to meet the specific needs of each organization, including the scope of the test, frequency of testing, and level of reporting.
  • Cost-effectiveness: By offering a subscription-based model, PTaaS can be more cost-effective than traditional penetration testing, particularly for small or mid-sized businesses that may not have the budget for regular assessments.
  • Expertise: With PTaaS, organizations have access to a team of experienced security professionals who can provide guidance and support throughout the testing process.

Should I only do pen tests, vulnerability scans, or both?

Both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are essential tools in assessing and improving the security of your web applications and reducing the chance of incidents. They help identify potential vulnerabilities and misconfigurations that could be exploited by malicious actors, enabling organizations to address them before they become a problem.

Vulnerability ScanningPenetration Testing
Identifies known vulnerabilities in an application.Simulates an attack against an organization’s applications to identify potential weaknesses that could be exploited by attackers.
Can be automated and conducted regularly to provide ongoing monitoring of security vulnerabilities.A more targeted approach that involves manual testing techniques and can take longer to complete than vulnerability scanning.
Identifies low-hanging fruit vulnerabilities that can be easily remediated.Provides a more comprehensive view of an organization’s security posture by identifying potential weaknesses that may not have been identified through vulnerability scanning alone.
Helps organizations prioritize their remediation efforts based on the severity of the identified vulnerabilities.Helps organizations understand how attackers could potentially exploit their applications, providing valuable insights into specific areas that require attention.
May produce false positives or miss certain types of vulnerabilities depending on the scanning tool used.Can identify both technical and business logic flaws in web applications, providing a more holistic view of an organization’s security posture.

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning help organizations maintain their security posture by identifying areas for improvement, and providing actionable insights on how to remediate any potential threats.

What compliance regulations require vulnerability scanning or penetration testing?

Several mandates and regulations require vulnerability scanning and/or penetration testing as a part of their compliance requirements. Regular scans and pen testing provide organizations with evidence of a strong security posture, which can be used to demonstrate compliance with various regulations:

Vulnerability ScanningPenetration Testing
PCI DSSRequires quarterly external and internal vulnerability scans for compliance.Requires annual penetration testing by an authorized third-party provider or an internal team qualified to perform the testing.
HIPPARegular vulnerability assessments to identify potential risks or vulnerabilities to electronically protected health information.Recommends conducting periodic penetration testing to assess the effectiveness of security controls in place, although it is not explicitly required.
ISO 27001Requires regular vulnerability assessments as part of its risk management process.Recommends conducting periodic penetration tests as part of a risk management process, although it is not explicitly required.

The bottom line: combine vulnerability scanning and penetration testing

Both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are important components of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, and each serve a different purpose.

Vulnerability scanning helps to identify known vulnerabilities in web applications, such as outdated software or configuration errors. Regular scanning can ensure that known vulnerabilities are identified and remediated quickly before they can be exploited by attackers.

Penetration testing takes a more targeted approach, simulating an attack against the web application to identify potential weaknesses that could not have been detected through vulnerability scanning alone. This provides a deeper understanding of the organization’s security posture and can help identify specific areas that require attention. Penetration testing is the only defense against zero-day exploits, and advanced targeted attacks.

Outpost24 offers continuous monitoring and automated testing to ensure that organizations are always aware of any potential vulnerabilities or weaknesses in their web applications. Our team of experienced security professionals works closely with your team to provide customized testing and reporting based on your specific needs. We also support you throughout the remediation process, helping you address any issues that are identified during testing.

By combining penetration testing and vulnerability scanning with Outpost24, you will gain a comprehensive view of your organization’s security posture, helping protect it from any potential threats or exploits.