Vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing: Which is right for you?

October 15, 20194 Minute Read

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Companies invest a lot of time and money in consultants who make sure their systems are usable, compliant, and secure. In a climate where cybersecurity threats are accelerating in sophistication and volume and data is more vulnerable than ever, vulnerability assessments have become a critical part of maintaining security.

When IT teams look into how to assess their companys’ security strengths and weaknesses, one decision they have to make is the pursuit of vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing. The two are often conflated, but they are actually distinct processes that play different, but equally important, roles. It’s important for organizations to understand what each has to offer to best protect themselves from attack.

Vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing

The core distinction between the two is that vulnerability assessments search systems for known vulnerabilities while penetration testing discovers vulnerabilities by exploiting them. The terms should not be used interchangeably.

A vulnerability assessment is defined as “the process of defining, identifying, classifying and prioritizing vulnerabilities in computer systems, applications, and network infrastructures.” Using automated vulnerability assessment tools, along with some manual testing, organizations look for weaknesses so they can respond accordingly. These tools can detect issues such as missing patches, firewalls gaps, and outdated software versions. In addition, there are different types of vulnerability assessments out there, including network-based scans, host-based scans, application scans, database scans, wireless network scans, and more.

In a penetration test, an ethical “white hat” hacker tries to identify weak security settings, holes, or processes that a malicious “black hat” hacker could exploit, such as weak passwords or unsecured endpoints. It’s essentially a reconnaissance mission with the goal of finding weak spots before a real hacker does and figuring out just how damaging that security flaw could be.

Choosing a process? Try both

Regular vulnerability scanning enables organizations to stay on top of weaknesses. They also help to establish a baseline so IT teams can immediately know if there’s a problem or if an unauthorized change was made. There are a number of affordable out-of-the-box vulnerability assessment tools (such as Nessus, Qualys, Rapid7 and OpenVas) that companies can use. These should be part of an ongoing effort to monitor and manage vulnerabilities. Doing so at least once per quarter and anytime there’s a significant change to your equipment or network is advised.

As you evaluate the question of whether to invoke a vulnerability assessment or a penetration test, keep in mind that vulnerability assessment tools only determine existing weaknesses—not whether those weaknesses can cause damage. That’s where penetration testing comes in. Penetration testing is more goal-oriented and targeted, but it’s also more expensive and labor-intensive because it requires a significant amount of time and effort from a highly experienced professional. It’s something organizations do less often—perhaps once a year—rather than on a frequent basis. Because of the expense, it’s better suited to evaluating high-risk assets that justify the investment. Since a professional is actually trying to break your environment, penetration tests do have the potential to cause outages, which is also something to be aware of.

All things considered, the vulnerability assessments vs penetration testing debate is immaterial, as these two processes go hand-in-hand to create a holistic approach to network security.

Ace your test

There are a number of best practices you should keep in mind to earn a passing grade on a vulnerability assessment or keep pen-testers away from their target. To start, maintain high security standards and protocols for the entire organization. There should be a password policy that requires employees to use secure passwords and change them regularly, and applications and appliances should never operate with default passwords. It’s also important to patch and update software regularly, keep security protocols current, and limit privileges to the minimum for each role to remain productive. Even straightforward steps like employee security training can go a long way toward preventing phishing attacks that install malware.

It’s also important to secure endpoints like mobile devices and printers, which hackers tend to go after because they know they are overlooked. Passing vulnerability assessments and penetration tests is much easier when an organization invests in technology that also does its part to identify threats. HP’s secure printers come with embedded security features that provide real-time threat detection, automated monitoring, and software validation. These kinds of features can help to ensure that your devices are never the problem that your vulnerability assessment tool or pen-test discovers.

Constant vigilance is required in the current threat environment. Consistent and rigorous assessments of vulnerabilities can help organizations to address weaknesses before they become problems and stay one step ahead.

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