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From Identification to Exploitation: Unveiling the Distinctions Between Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing

There are many aspects to consider when it comes to protecting the operations, assets, and overall interest in your organization. One of these layers of protection is vulnerability assessments and penetration testing, which are two types of vulnerability testing processes. While they are both considered vulnerability testing and are within the same area of focus, they perform their own tasks, have their own strengths, offer different types of results, and often are used combined for a more complete vulnerability analysis.

Performing these vulnerability testing processes not only detects and classifies potential security explorations in your organization’s network, devices, systems, and data stores but also brings other benefits including:

  • Assess your organization’s security risk level
  • Protects assets
  • Increases operation efficiency
  • Enhance credibility with partners, stakeholders, and customers
  • Protects the integrity of your business
  • Helps improve compliance
  • Acknowledge system strengths

Let us take a quick look at some differences between vulnerability assessments and penetration testing.

Vulnerability Assessment

  • The focus is the detection and categorization of vulnerabilities in the system
  • An automated process
  • Impossible to achieve zero false positives
  • Potentially can miss larger, more complex vulnerabilities
  • A fast, cost-effective test

Penetration Testing

  • The focus is exploiting vulnerabilities to be able to draw insights into them
  • A manual intervention
  • Ensures zero false positives
  • While the human element can help better detect business logic errors but can also increase the risk of human errors
  • A more time-consuming, costly procedure

Vulnerability Assessment

A vulnerability assessment is a systematic review of weaknesses in your business’ system by detecting and assessing the vulnerabilities in your network, devices, applications, etc. This system is an automated system that will scan your systems for common vulnerabilities and exposures, assign severity levels to known vulnerabilities, and recommend either remediation or mitigation if needed. There are a variety of types of vulnerability assessments including:

  • Host Assessment – an assessment of critical services to ensure they are not vulnerable to attacks.
  • Network and Wireless Assessment – an assessment of your organization’s policies and practices to prevent any unauthorized access to private or public networks.
  • Database Assessment – an assessment of the database for any vulnerabilities, identifying any rogue databases, and insecure dev environments, and classifying sensitive data in the infrastructure.
  • Application Scans – an automated scan to identify any vulnerabilities in web applications and their source codes.

Tools for these types of assessments can include web applications scanners that can test and simulate known attack patterns, protocol scanners that search for vulnerable protocols, and network scanners that help visualize networks and discover warning signals.

There are typically four steps in a successful vulnerability assessment security scanning process. These steps include:

  1. Testing aka Vulnerability Identification – the main objective of this step is to compile a list of any found vulnerabilities by testing the security health of applications, servers, and other systems.
  2. Vulnerability Analysis – the main objective of this step is to identify the source of the vulnerabilities found in testing by identifying the root cause of the vulnerability.
  3. Risk Assessment – the main objective of this step is to prioritize vulnerabilities based on factors including which systems are affected, what data is at risk, what daily business functions are at risk, ease and severity of an attack, and potential damage as a result.
  4. Vulnerability Risk Remediation – the main objective of this step is to close those security gaps identified before by introducing new security procedures or tools, upgrading operational or configuration changes, or developing a vulnerability patch.
Light blue laptop wiht warning signal displaying on screen on dark blue background

Penetration Testing

Penetration testing, also known as a pen test, is a cybersecurity test that is used to identify, test, and highlight vulnerabilities in an organization’s security posture by launching a mock cyberattack against networks, apps, and other assets. These proactive mock cyberattacks are often carried out by ethical hackers leading to penetration testing to also be known as ethical hacking.

With pen testing, organizations can uncover critical security vulnerabilities, evaluate their adherence to compliance regulations, and improve overall security. These tests can provide malware analysis, risk assessments, and other services. There are three common types of pen testing strategies including:

  • White Box Testing – also referred to as open glass, code-based testing, this test provides details about an organization’s system or network and checks the code and internal structure.
  • Black Box Testing – this type of test is behavioral and functional where ethical hackers are not given any knowledge of the system to really mimic how a real-world attack would be carried out.
  • Gray Box Testing – this test is a combination of the above testing; the ethical hackers are given partial knowledge of the system (low-level credentials or network maps) with the intention of finding potential code of functional issues.
Illustration about concept of Penetration Testing person sitting at a desk wiht 5 large monitors in front of them

Tests should be conducted based on a few different factors including company size, budget, and regulations, and should typically be conducted if a new network infrastructure is added to the network, upgrades are performed, patches are installed, new office locations are built or if end-user policies have been modified. Penetration testing is broken down into six stages:

  1. Planning – this is when testers gather the information related to the targeted system from either public or private sources. This information is critical for the tests to accurately provide clues to the targeted system’s attack surface and any open vulnerabilities.
  2. Scanning – based on the results of the planning stage, testers commonly use various canning tools to explore the system and weaknesses further.
  3. Obtaining Entry – this stage is when the testers exploit found vulnerabilities and make connection with the targeted system.
  4. Maintaining Access – the goal of this stage is for the testers to stay connected to the targeted system as long as possible to exploit vulnerabilities for maximum data infiltration.
  5. Analysis – this is when tests analyze the results gathered from the above steps, a detailed report is presented that includes vulnerabilities the testers exploited, the type of data that they were able to access, and the amount of time they were able to stay connected to the targeted system.
  6. Remediation – once the first five stages are completed, the tests will remove all traces of their tools and processes to prevent a real-world threat from utilizing them and organizations should move forward with remediating any issues the testers brought forward.

In Conclusion

While they have their differences, both vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are key components of any comprehensive security program. Your business security needs will determine which test, if not both, would be the most valuable for getting an extensive view of any security risk that could impact systems and provide proactive steps you need to remediate the found vulnerabilities. At AIS, we can help you decide which assessments are right for your business. If you have any questions, or concerns or are ready to bring your security to a new level contact us today.