What’s the Difference Between Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing?

Publication date: Apr 16, 2021

Last Published: May 06, 2021

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What’s the Difference Between Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing?

Since the last year alone, the number of cybersecurity threats organizations of all sizes are exposed to has increased dramatically. The global shift to remote work has created a wealth of new opportunities for cybercriminals to steal sensitive information and sell it on the dark web for their own personal gain.

Scrambling to improve their defenses, many organizations are now considering paying for a vulnerability assessment or penetration testing, but they are often not sure which one they should choose.

In this article, we explain the difference between vulnerability assessments and penetration testing, so that you can make the right decision for your organization.

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What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?

The purpose of a vulnerability assessment is to crawl and scan your assets, to reveal known vulnerabilities, so they can be fixed before they result in a costly data breach.

Most vulnerabilities that can lead to data breaches are well known and can be relatively easily fixed.

Unfortunately, organizations often become aware of them only when it’s already too late to fix the issue.

Vulnerability assessments are performed using various software tools that automatically crawl and scan your assets, looking for weak points within the network, system, or applications. Such tools then generate customizable reports to clearly display all found vulnerabilities and rank them according to their severity.

Depending on your industry, regular vulnerability assessments may also be a regulatory requirement that you can’t afford to ignore, unless you want to risk steep financial penalties. Of course, a vulnerability assessment itself is basically useless unless the discovered vulnerabilities are promptly confirmed and fixed, which is where many organizations fail. Contact us to get more information on a vulnerability assessment.

Benefits of Vulnerability Assessments

  • Are very affordable
  • Don’t take much time to perform
  • Can quickly discover many known vulnerabilities
  • May be needed for achieving compliance with certain regulations

Limitations of Vulnerability Assessments

  • Can lead to false positives
  • Each discovered vulnerability must be manually confirmed and fixed

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing tests whether discovered vulnerabilities and other gaps in cybersecurity defenses could be successfully exploited by attackers and therefore goes a step further than vulnerability assessments.

Penetration testing is typically performed by the so-called white hat hackers, who are basically computer experts with the same skills malicious hackers (also called black hat hackers) have.

The only difference is that white hat hackers use their skills to help organizations protect themselves, whereas black hat hackers use their skills for selfish purposes.

During a typical penetration test, a white hat hacker will use methods such as password cracking, SQL injection, and phishing to circumvent cybersecurity defenses and obtain access to sensitive information and business-critical systems.

Because the process is almost completely manual, penetration testing is far more time-consuming and expensive than vulnerability assessments. It can, however, provide much deeper insights into gaps in IT security that could be exploited by outside attackers as well as insiders, making it a great investment.

Benefits of Penetration Testing

  • Provides deep insights into the organization’s cybersecurity posture
  • Doesn’t produce false positives
  • Demonstrates commitment to cybersecurity  

Limitations of Penetration Testing

  • Takes a lot of time to perform
  • Is much more expensive than vulnerability assessments

Should Organizations Pay for Both Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Testing?

Both vulnerability assessments and penetration testing have their merits. Vulnerability assessments don’t take much effort, time, or money to perform, making them a great one-size-fits-all method for picking up common vulnerabilities. On the other hand, penetration tests can test any organization’s cybersecurity defenses the same way a real hacker would test them to find any exploitable gaps.

If we were to compare vulnerability assessments and penetration testing to car inspections, then we could say that vulnerability assessments are sort of like regular safety inspections required by most state laws, while penetration testing is kind of like a premium inspection performed by a highly experienced mechanic who takes the time to inspect the condition of each important component and proactively recommends the replacement of worn-out parts. 

Depending on your industry, it’s possible that you’re already required to perform regular vulnerability assessments as part of complying with regulatory requirements, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). If that’s the case, then penetration testing can be a great way for you to go beyond ticking a box, helping you keep your and your customers’ data well protected.

If you’re not required to perform vulnerability assessments, then you should still consider paying for them because they can reveal critical vulnerabilities without disrupting your operations or costing you too much money.

Regardless of whether you decide to perform a vulnerability assessment or penetration test, you can contact us at OSIbeyond and let us guide you through plans to keep your organization safe.

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