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Vulnerability Scanning vs. Pen Testing: What's the Difference?

September 14, 2023 - Cybersecurity & Compliance, Business IT

Vulnerability Scanning vs. Pen Testing: What's the Difference?
Matt Weber

Posted by Matt Weber

In the ever-evolving battle against cyber threats, two key strategies emerge as the critical shield for your business’s IT defenses — vulnerability scanning and penetration testing. While they might seem similar at first glance, these two distinct cybersecurity strategies provide unique insights into the current state of your system.

Let’s delve into the differences and similarities between these two cybersecurity defense processes and learn how organizations use them to identify threats and mitigate possible attacks.

Understanding Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanning assesses IT infrastructure for potential weaknesses. It’s an essential tool that helps businesses identify possible vulnerabilities that cybercriminals might exploit.
A vulnerability scan takes place through software tools. These tools inspect various system details, often including:

  • Open ports
  • Ineffective security configurations
  • Outdated software

The vulnerability scanning software will help security professionals compare these details against a comprehensive database of known vulnerabilities. The types of vulnerability scans can also be quite diverse, each designed to assess certain infrastructure weaknesses. Here are a few examples:

  • Network-based scans
  • Host-based scans
  • Application-based scans

High-quality vulnerability scans can be quite effective, often searching for over 50,000 plus vulnerabilities — depending on the database size. These scans can be manually run or done on a scheduled and regular basis. These types of scans are often required by certain cybersecurity and industry mandates, like the Payment Card Industry Security Standard (PCI DSS) or the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA). 

Vulnerability scanning is considered a passive approach to vulnerability management because this assessment rarely goes beyond reporting. It’s up to an organization’s IT team to patch any weaknesses.

Understanding Penetration Testing

Penetration testing, also known as pen testing, is a simulated cyberattack against a business’s computer system performed to evaluate the system's security. The goal is to simulate an actual hacking attempt where white hat, or ethical, hackers search for vulnerabilities and try to find weaknesses to exploit.

These white hat hackers will use various techniques to try and gain access to a system. Here are a few common methods:

  • Password cracking
  • Buffer overflow
  • SQL injection

The process starts with reconnaissance planning. In this phase, the tester gathers information about the target system. From here, the tester will employ some of the techniques above, among others, to exploit identified vulnerabilities. These exploits can range from social engineering attacks on staff like phishing to more technical attacks such as firewall breaching.

In addition to the methods and techniques testers use, there are also different types of pen testing environments that the ethical hackers may be working within. These include:

  • White Box - All background system information is provided to the attackers
  • Black Box - No background information is available
  • Grey Box - Partial information is provided

Penetration tests are very detailed and effective at finding and remedying vulnerabilities. Because of the level of detail provided due to pen testing, security standards like PCI DSS or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) often require them.

Key Differences Between Vulnerability Scanning and Pen Testing

While penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are key components of a well-rounded cybersecurity approach, they serve different purposes. The main difference is that pen testing encompasses a live human element. 

There is no such thing as an automated penetration test. A technically competent and experienced cybersecurity professional is a necessary component of each pen test. Vulnerability scans, on the other hand, are often automated and high-level processes — with the end goal of providing a broad overview of possible security holes in a system.

While the difference in methodology separates vulnerability scanning and pen testing, you’ll find key distinctions in the depth and scope of each examination. Here is what you need to know:

  • Vulnerability scans offer a broad overview of known system weaknesses. Think of them as a general medical check-up that can identify possible health issues in IT infrastructure.
  • Pen tests, however, are more like a deep dive or specialist examination. It’s a focused and thorough investigation into specific areas of concern identified during vulnerability scans or other assessments.

When a business or IT team can fully understand the differences and benefits of vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, they can better strategize and build effective cybersecurity efforts, using each process to fortify their internal and external defenses. 

How Vulnerability Scanning and Pen Testing Compliment Each Other

Both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are parts of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. While they serve different purposes and use differing methodologies, they are often most effective when an organization uses them in tandem. Like two sides of the same coin, they offer your organization a comprehensive view of your system’s security. 

Here is how they might work together. First, consider a scenario where an organization conducts regular vulnerability scans. These scans may flag potential issues in their web application.

With this information in hand, the organization decides to conduct a penetration test focused on the vulnerabilities found in the report. The penetration test may then reveal that while these vulnerabilities were flagged, the current security controls in the system were effective in mitigating the testers' attack attempts.

Conversely, the penetration test may reveal that these vulnerabilities could have a bigger impact than the vulnerability scan initially estimated. This information could guide the organization toward more resource allocation toward the security weakness.

When an organization leverages both processes, it can create dynamic and robust approaches to cybersecurity to identify possible threats and assess their possible impact — helping prioritize remediation efforts.

Deciding Between Pen Testing and Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are invaluable tools in maintaining safe and compliant IT infrastructure. While they both offer unique approaches to threat identification, organizations often use them in tandem to develop robust and comprehensive approaches to cybersecurity.

While vulnerability scanning offers a broad sweep to identify potential weak points, penetration testing dives deeper to evaluate your system's resilience against a real-world attack. 

A comprehensive approach to cybersecurity is mission-critical. When organizations combine the power of these two processes, they can stay ahead of threats and mitigate possible attacks — saving time, upholding reputation, and cutting-costs related to security breaches. 

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complete guide to cyber security for business
Matt Weber

about the author

Matt Weber

Matt Weber is SymQuest's Security Services Manager. Drawing on over 17 years of experience within the IT sector, Weber is passionate about partnering with businesses the necessary services and solutions to stay ahead of the curve in their security posture to keep the bad actors at bay and their businesses thriving.