Understanding the difference between a penetration test and a vulnerability assessment is critical to understanding security posture and managing risk. Vulnerability assessments and Penetration tests (pen test for short) are very different from each other in objectives, processes, and outcomes. However, sometimes the terms are incorrectly used interchangeably. In this article, we will explore the differences between the two as well as how they relate to each other.
First, what do we mean by objectives, processes, and outcomes? Put simply, objectives are specific and measurable goals which are desired to be achieved. Processes are the steps required to achieve an outcome and accomplish an objective. An outcome is the benefit gained from achieving said objective.
The first way vulnerability assessments and pen tests differ are their objectives.
The objective of a vulnerability assessment is to identify, rank, and report vulnerabilities or potential vulnerabilities that, if exploited, may result in system compromise. This is a broad stroke kind of assessment. You want to discover any and all vulnerabilities.
With penetration testing, there can be numerous objectives because there are various types of pen tests. Organizations that have never had a pen test performed or ones that are focused on compliance should start with a conventional pen test. This is typically designed to discover and exploit vulnerabilities that could allow access to sensitive information or resources.
For organizations that have established security programs there is another type of pen test that provides additional value above and beyond simply finding and exploiting vulnerabilities. This is called Assumed Breach. Assumed Breach pen tests are internal penetration tests that are typically designed to blend real attacks with pen testing techniques. It’s common on Assumed Breach pen tests to use the same tools and techniques used by actual attackers. This type of penetration test, depending on the organization’s goals, may also include defeating or bypassing security controls and may even include attempts to evade detection.
Another major difference between the two is in the process. Penetration testing requires the use of varying toolsets and an experienced, skilled security professional to conduct the test. During the engagement, the pen tester may modify tools or change parameters of an attack in order to customize the use of an exploit for the environment. Penetration testing is a more hands-on process, one that’s tailored to the company and the environment, in comparison to a vulnerability assessment.
The SecurIT360 Offensive Security Team uses a combination of industry standard penetration testing methodologies such as the OWASPv4 Web Testing Methodology and the Penetration Testing Execution Standard as well as internally developed playbooks to perform highly comprehensive and effective penetration tests.
A vulnerability assessment, on the other hand, includes more automated processes that do not require real-time management. The vulnerability scan itself is automated and is generally conducted using a single tool. Vulnerability scans can be scheduled to run automatically without manual intervention or manipulation. It does, however, require specific knowledge of the products/systems and the environment being scanned. Interpreting the results can also be difficult for those who are not familiar with the output of a vulnerability scanner or have experience evaluating vulnerabilities as a whole. Here, vulnerability assessments and pen tests are similar in that an experienced, skilled analyst is required to assist in the assessment.
While both are point in time assessments there are various reasons for an organization to conduct vulnerability assessments and pen tests. The outcomes identified below are of course not exhaustive but are meant to describe some of the more common reasons for each.
Vulnerability assessments may assist in satisfying compliance standards, defining security posture, and identifying known vulnerabilities against a system or number of systems. Like I said earlier, the purpose is broad strokes, to find all the vulnerabilities we can.
With a penetration test, we are still looking for all of the vulnerabilities that we can with the intention of exploiting that vulnerability to compromise an account, a system, a domain, gain access to sensitive data, etc. A properly performed pen test may help determine the effectiveness of security controls, identify how long a threat may be able to remain in the system undetected, or test an incident response program, for example.
Even though they are accomplished using different toolsets, processes or even people, both pen tests and vulnerability assessments serve important functions for protecting your environment and reducing risk.
I hope this article has been helpful to you in learning the difference between vulnerability assessments and penetration tests. If you got value from this blog post, consider subscribing to our blog. We are regularly publishing new blog posts and sharing new information from all across the security landscape, with the goal of keeping you up-to-date on the latest security news.
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