Many cyber threats lurk in the shadows of today’s digital landscape, requiring organizations to stay alert and on top of their game when it comes to safeguarding sensitive data. Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are efficient methods to identify weak spots in an organization’s system that cyber criminals aim to abuse in order to steal or damage a company’s assets.

This article explores the differences between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, their unique traits, subtypes, and the benefits companies get by implementing these strategies to protect their data.

What Is Vulnerability Scanning?

Vulnerability scanning assesses company networks, systems, and devices for potential vulnerabilities that cyber criminals could abuse. These scans are either automated and set up to run on a regular basis or they can be triggered manually when necessary.

Vulnerability scanning is a high-level test that only identifies and reports on vulnerabilities detected – it does not remediate them. Patching the detected vulnerabilities to ensure complete protection across company systems is left for the organization’s IT staff to perform.

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Vulnerability scanning

Types of Vulnerability Scanning

There are several types of vulnerability scanning your business benefits from:

  1. Network vulnerability scanning: It utilizes vulnerability assessment tools to identify potential weak points in network devices such as firewalls, routers, and other network components that cyber criminals attempt to exploit.
  2. Wireless network vulnerability scanning: It checks for vulnerabilities in WiFi networks, such as weak encryption and default passwords.
  3. Application vulnerability scanning: It tests web applications for vulnerabilities, such as SQL injection or authentication flaws.
  4. Social engineering vulnerability scanning: It tests human behavior and how people respond to and recognize social engineering attacks.
  5. Database vulnerability scanning: It scans for vulnerabilities in databases, such as misconfigurations or access controls.
  6. Container vulnerability scanning: It tests vulnerabilities in container images and their configurations.
  7. Physical vulnerability scanning: It checks for physical weaknesses at company facilities and in confidential spaces, such as surveillance systems blind spots, access control deficiencies, and physical security weak points.
  8. Cloud-based vulnerability scanning: It scans the cloud infrastructure for weak spots in cloud-based applications and services.
  9. API-based vulnerability scanning: It checks for vulnerabilities in APIs, such as in their design, implementation, or deployment.
  10. Host-based vulnerability scanning: It tests host systems, such as servers, laptops, and workstations to identify weaknesses, such as deficient security patches or outdated software.

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Types of penetration tests

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing (sometimes referred to as ethical hacking) simulates a cyber attack on the company system to discover vulnerabilities that could be exploited and the potential impact of attacks on data and assets. Penetration testing requires a higher level of expertise since the attacks are triggered manually by skilled professionals dubbed “ethical hackers”. Based on their insights, companies can effectively work on improving their cyber security solutions to protect their assets.

Types of Penetration Testing

Here is a list of common penetration testing methods:

  1. Network penetration testing: It simulates cyber attacks to determine weaknesses in an organization’s network.
  2. Wireless penetration testing: It checks for wireless network weaknesses that could be exploited for unauthorized data extraction.
  3. Application penetration testing: It identifies and prioritizes threats to web application security and functionality.
  4. Social engineering penetration testing: It tests human response by simulating common social engineering attacks such as phishing, pretexting, scareware, etc.
  5. Physical penetration testing: It simulates an attempt to gain access to facilities (data centers, server rooms, etc.) to determine the effectiveness of physical security measures.
  6. Client-side penetration testing: It tests for weak points in the software clients use, such as web browsers, media players, document readers, email clients, etc.
  7. Red team penetration testing: It allows organizations to challenge their security policies, plans, and solutions through a series of simulated cyber attacks. The goal of this testing method is to learn how the organization’s components work when an incident occurs to understand their potential weak spots.
  8. IoT penetration testing: It tests for weak spots in connected software, servers, and applications organizations link to their systems.
Penetration testing stages

Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing: What Are the Differences?

Here is an overview of the main differences between vulnerability testing and penetration scanning.

Point of ComparisonVulnerability ScanningPenetration Testing
GoalTo discover potential vulnerabilities in systems, networks, and applicationsTo identify the potential impact of mock cyberattacks
MethodologyAutomated scanningManual attacks
AccuracyPotential for false positives in automated attacksZero false positives in manual attacks
Depth or researchSurface-levelIn-depth
FrequencyDaily or weeklyAnnually or after implementing new security measures
ScopeWider; across the entire systemNarrower; specific networks, systems, and applications
ResultsA list of vulnerabilities ranked by severityA detailed report on vulnerabilities and the impact of their exploitation
RemediationIdentifies vulnerabilities but does not remediate themIdentifies vulnerabilities and proposes solutions to remediate them
CostLess expensive than penetration testing due to automationMore expensive than vulnerability scanning due to the high level of expertise required from testers

Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing: Benefits

There are many benefits to vulnerability scanning:

  • Cost-effective: The cost-effectiveness of vulnerability scanning is due to it being largely automated and proactive in nature, finding risks before they are exploited.
  • Compliant: Vulnerability scanning is a valuable tool that helps companies achieve compliance with industry standards, such as PCI-DSS, HIPAA, and GDPR.
  • Prioritization: Vulnerability scanning prioritizes detected vulnerabilities in order of severity, allowing organizations to address critical issues first.
  • Frequency: Vulnerability scanning tools support automation, allowing organizations to perform tests frequently to ensure they are up to date with their security protocols.
  • Integration: Vulnerability scanning is easily integrated into the existing IT infrastructure to complement it and make it more efficient.
  • Historical tracking: Vulnerability scanning creates records that can be used to track an organization’s progress over time and analyze changes and trends in cyber security.
  • Validation and verification: Vulnerability scanning validates the effectiveness of existing security systems and protocols by providing tangible data.
  • Broad coverage: Vulnerability scanning tests a wide range of systems, applications, and devices quickly and regularly, providing a comprehensive overview of an organization’s security posture.

On the other hand, here are the benefits of penetration testing:

  • Accuracy: Penetration testing is triggered manually, addresses specific weak points, and does not produce false positives.
  • In-depth results: Penetration testers simulate sophisticated, real-world attacks and are able to uncover vulnerabilities that automated scanning might miss.
  • Addresses the human factor: Penetration testing focuses on human behavior and our susceptibility to social engineering attacks.
  • Holistic approach: Penetration testing focuses on a broader range of security aspects and protocols, including both external and internal security threats.
  • Customizable testing: Penetration testing can be customized to fit specific environments, systems, and protocols assessed.
  • Detailed reporting: Penetration testing lists vulnerabilities and proposes solutions on how to remediate them, helping organizations improve their incident response.
  • Supports regulatory compliance: Penetration testing helps organizations achieve compliance with industry-specific regulations.
Vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing benefits.

Which One Is Better: Vulnerability Scanning or Penetration Testing?

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are both crucial tools for organizations to reinforce their security posture.

Because it is frequently automated, vulnerability scanning is a cost-effective method of consistently and frequently scanning for vulnerabilities, making it a viable option for businesses of all sizes. As a deeper and more involved method of examining weaknesses, penetration testing demands more time and resources. Based on their specific needs and resources, businesses can choose either method or, ideally, combine them for the most comprehensive results.

Bridging the Security Gap

In the digital era with constantly evolving security threats, companies must ensure their sensitive data and assets are protected. Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are effective ways of finding weak spots and mitigating the potential damage cyber criminals can cause to business operations.