Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Test: What They Are and Why You Need Both

So here's the main difference between vulnerability assessments and penetration tests, put as simply and briefly as possible:

Vulnerability assessment = wide

Penetration test = deep

Okay, that helps a little, but not much, right? Here’s a more in-depth discussion of the difference between these two cybersecurity services.

Vulnerability Assessments

A vulnerability assessment – or vulnerability scan – identifies risks throughout your company’s environment via a scanning appliance that is deployed, configured, and controlled by a cybersecurity team, like Avalon Cyber. Since this service takes a “wide” approach, it will reveal security weaknesses across your entire network such as insecure default configurations (like easy-to-guess admin passwords) and missing critical application patches.

You should have a vulnerability assessment performed regularly, say, every three months, and whenever new equipment or services are added or new ports are opened, to ensure that these new technology assets are strong and secure.

A vulnerability assessment includes four steps:

  1. Identification: The scanning appliance is deployed and tests the health of all applications, servers, and systems in the network by searching for security flaws (which are based on information found on vulnerability databases, vendor vulnerability announcements, and other threat intelligence). A list of all weaknesses is created.

  2. Analysis: By analyzing each weakness on the list – determining what caused the vulnerability, which component it resided in, etc. – cyber experts can determine what the course of action will be to remedy the situation.

  3. Risk Assessment: Now, each vulnerability is ranked by its potential impact on the system and the overall impact to the organization. An effective risk assessment doesn’t just evaluate the criticality of the specific vulnerability; it also takes into account the business criticality of the asset that is being evaluated. By determining which weaknesses need to be addressed first, the security team can develop a remediation plan.

  4. Remediation: The plan is put into action: products are updated/patched, new security procedures and tools are incorporated, and security gaps are closed by level of urgency.

Penetration Tests

Penetration tests are performed when a company has developed a mature security program, but wants to be sure there are no gaps in the network. A penetration test targets anything in your company with a live IP address, including servers, desktops, laptops, firewalls, web servers, and web applications. Penetration testing, typically performed on an annual basis, validates the efficiency of your currently deployed security resources and determines how well your employees are following existing security policies.

A key difference between penetration tests and vulnerability assessments is that in penetration tests, cyber professionals – actual people (who are also known as “white hat hackers”) rather than software – safely simulate the actions of an adversary targeting your network by attempting to exploit critical systems and access sensitive data. Once weaknesses have been located, you can develop solutions and strengthen security controls within your company.

There are three types of penetration tests:

  • Black box – The tester tries to infiltrate the system as an outsider with no previous knowledge of the network and no access credentials.
  • Gray box – The tester has some information about the network, for example, lower-level credentials.
  • White box – The tester attempts to access the system as an insider, i.e., someone who already has full access to the network.

Here’s how a penetration test works:

  1. Information Gathering: The tester studies the target network’s strengths and weaknesses by collecting intel from both public and private sources (internet searches, social engineering, etc.).

  2. Vulnerability Assessment: This provides even more intelligence to develop the attack.

  3. Gain Access: The tester evaluates all the collected information and decides which tools and techniques – malware, social engineering, SQL injection (a vulnerability that allows an attacker to access or delete data) – to use to infiltrate the network.

  4. Exploitation and Post Exploitation: The tester utilizes the appropriate tools and techniques to infiltrate the network. In the event of successful exploitation, a tester will engage in post-exploitation activities to simulate how far a potential adversary could infiltrate your organization’s network. Then, a report is developed with all the findings, and respective remediation recommendations are created and shared with the appropriate business stakeholders. The stakeholders from the business then develop a plan to remediate the findings from the test.

When it comes to your network in the 21st century, it’s paramount that your company go wide and deep in defense of your data on a regular basis. Both vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are proactive cybersecurity services that organizations large and small should strongly consider as part of their data security strategy. Because, as the adage goes, “the best defense is a good offense.”

To talk to an Avalon Cyber expert about penetration testing and vulnerability assessments, contact us today.

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