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App Development
6 minutes read

Penetration Testing Vs. Vulnerability Scanning

By Jose Gomez
By Jose Gomez
App Development
6 minutes read

If you are concerned with the security of your IT systems and applications, you likely will want to compare penetration testing vs. vulnerability scanning. Often, penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are confused for the same service. While both of these security tests look to find security weaknesses, they are very different in how they execute testing.

Before you decide to invest in vulnerability scanning over penetration testing or vice versa, you should understand the differences between them and what each security test involves. The security of your mobile app or website depends on rigorous testing. Make sure that your organization takes the necessary precautions to secure its systems and data. 

What Is a Vulnerability Scan? 

Vulnerability scans assess hardware, software, network, and IT systems to find security vulnerabilities. These scans are also called vulnerability assessments. Typically, vulnerability scans are automated tests set to run on a regular schedule. The results generated by vulnerability assessments give organizations an overview of what security weaknesses could potentially be exploited by a cyberattack. 

The best vulnerability scans available can search for over 50,000 known vulnerabilities. In addition, many industries require vulnerability scanning as a part of compliance regulations, including the Payment Card Industry (PCI). Vulnerability assessments can run in as little as a few minutes or as long as a few hours. 

Vulnerability scanning is considered a passive approach to security testing because it only reports found vulnerabilities. Once stakeholders and security staff have the vulnerability report generated by the scan, it is up to them to take the appropriate steps to remedy them. 

The reports generated by a vulnerability scan will often include references on the vulnerabilities to aid additional research or even detailed information on how to fix a specific vulnerability. Unfortunately, these reports sometimes include false positives. 

False positives are highlighted vulnerabilities that are not real or a threat to your systems. It is up to security staff to sift through a vulnerability report to ensure that real vulnerabilities are addressed, and false positives dismissed. Typically, vulnerability scans will rank found weaknesses into risk groups ranging from low to high. 

The Benefits of Vulnerability Scans 

Project management teams like vulnerability scans because they can be completed quickly at low costs. Plus, vulnerability scanning can be automated to provide regular reporting on potential weaknesses. Vulnerability assessments provide a high-level overview of potential vulnerabilities. These reports can help teams prioritize action items and address specific areas of concern. 

The Disadvantages of Vulnerability Scans 

There are several limitations associated with vulnerability scanning. The main issue is false positives. Security teams have to ensure that false-positive results don’t pose real threats to the business. Additionally, while vulnerability scans are completed quickly, every highlighted issue in the report must be checked manually. Finally, vulnerability assessments do not confirm that found vulnerabilities are exploitable. 

What Is a Penetration Test? 

Penetration testing simulates a real-world cyberattack. Actual hackers working for the betterment of security will try to find and actively exploit weaknesses to highlight areas of security concern. Penetration testers, or pentesters, will use actual cyberattacks such as buffer overflow, SQL injection, password cracking, and more as they try to compromise and extract sensitive data.  

While they attempt to exploit weaknesses and compromise data, penetration testers don’t damage your network or systems. Penetration testing is a detailed and time-consuming approach to finding and fixing security issues. Many security standards, including PCI DSS and HIPAA, require penetration tests due to their level of detail. 

Penetration tests cannot be automated. Instead, penetration testing is conducted by highly skilled individuals with technical expertise in hacking and cyber security. After your penetration test, your organization will have a detailed look at the data security of your systems, software, and network. 

The Benefits of Penetration Testing 

The essential benefit of penetration testing is the human element. Manual testing leads to more accurate and thorough test results and security reports. In addition, penetration testers often include remediation of security issues as part of their service, so once problems are identified, you won’t have to worry about fixing them yourself. Since penetration testing is done manually, you won’t have to worry about finding false positives in your results. Penetration testing reports give your organization clear issues to focus on. 

The Disadvantages of Penetration Testing 

The disadvantages associated with penetration tests are related to time and money. Since penetration tests are done manually, they take longer to complete, costing more money. Some penetration tests can cost upwards of 70 thousand dollars, which might cause financial stress for organizations or keep them from investing in this type of security testing. Additionally, businesses looking for quick results will have to wait days or weeks for the full results of penetration testing. 

The Main Difference Between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scanning 

Penetration tests are done manually, and most vulnerability scans are done automatically, but the main difference between these two security tests is how rigorous they are. Here is a good analogy for you to think about. Imagine your IT systems, applications, network, etc., are a house. Vulnerability scans check to make sure the doors and windows are locked. Penetration tests not only check to make sure the doors and windows are locked, but they also try to actively break-in by any means necessary. 

Yes, penetration testing costs more and will take more time to complete, but these tests aim to exploit vulnerabilities the way a real-world attacker would. While penetration tests are more rigorous, vulnerability scans are still valuable to organizations. The truth is security-minded organizations should be using both types of tests in tandem. 

If you have any questions about security or Quality Assurance, reach out to an app development partner. An experienced development partner will guide you through all of the security decisions your organization has to make. While comparing penetration testing vs. vulnerability scanning is engaging, your organization should be investing in both tests.

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