In modern cybersecurity, vulnerability analysis and penetration testing are two of the most common preventative measures enterprises take to keep their data and digital assets a step ahead of potential threats. Both processes involve examining systems, websites, web apps, mobile apps, wireless networks, internal networks, external networks, and even the entire IT ecosystem of a company.
Considering the alarming rise in risk in 2021, these processes are both very important. A recent report suggests that over 40% of cyber attacks target small businesses but only 14% of these businesses are prepared to mitigate the threat. According to different industry research, 61% of small businesses suffered a minimum of one cyber attack in 2021. It isn’t just major multi-million dollar ransomware attacks that you need to be wary of either. Small-scale phishing attempts, social engineering hacks, and credential theft can lead to significant costs (and downtime) as well.
On the surface, vulnerability analysis and pen testing appear very similar. It’s not uncommon for IT teams, or even cybersecurity professionals, to use the terms interchangeably but there are actually some key differences between the two. Understanding these differences makes it easier to implement the right process at the right time. By extension, this makes it easier to keep your systems and data safe and secure in today’s heightened-risk environment. Before diving into the primary differences, let’s define what we are talking about:
A vulnerability analysis is a multi-step process that involves the identification, classification, and prioritization of the potential security vulnerabilities within an organization’s IT infrastructure. The goal is to understand vulnerabilities and gaps before they are exploited by criminals and other threat actors.
Performed primarily via automated tools, vulnerability testing is designed to be quick but expansive. The process detects and identifies many different security risks and concerns without performing any type of in-depth analysis. It’s used as an early warning system that highlights potential concern areas and shows cybersecurity teams where to take corrective actions and/or allocate their resources. Vulnerability analysis is typically performed on a monthly basis, though some organizations may choose to do this more frequently.
Commonly known as a pen test, penetration testing shares a similar goal to vulnerability analysis but has an entirely different method for getting there. Pen testing is when an organization arranges an authorized and unobtrusive simulated attack on its systems, networks, or other assets. Essentially, this is a mock cyberattack designed to expose existing security gaps and flaws before unauthorized 3rd parties take advantage.
Using a combination of automated tools, manual actions, and specialized techniques, pen testers zero in on specific vulnerabilities or areas of concern to collect as much information as possible. Testing is based on methodologies like OWASP, OSSTMM, and NIST SP 800-15 and should be executed at least once a year.
There are three primary types of pen tests: white box, gray box, and black box. With white box testing, testers are given full access to source code, documentation, and other internal information. Black box pen testing provides the tester with no information to best mimic a real hack. Grey box pen testing falls in the middle, with testers given some knowledge of the system to help speed up the process and lower costs.
Vulnerability management specifically performs scans to detect and remediate security vulnerabilities in a timely manner, which could be identified and exploited by a cybercriminal. While penetration tests are simulated and unobtrusive cyberattacks with an objective in mind, such as identifying weaknesses to violate the security of the company’s data; one of several techniques being scanning and detection of vulnerabilities. Another example would be social engineering techniques, among others.
The primary difference between the two processes is the overall scope. Vulnerability analysis is incredibly broad and provides a more generalized report, while pen testing zeroes in on specific areas of concern. Additionally, vulnerability analysis is almost entirely automated while pen testing requires some human control and insight.
Because a vulnerability analysis requires comparatively fewer resources to execute it can be performed much more frequently than a pen test. In general, organizations perform vulnerability assessments at regular intervals while pen testing is done less frequently (often only once or twice a year). The scope of the pen test (white box, black box, gray box) can further impact this.
Unlike vulnerability analysis, which does not follow a set methodology, pen tests must be executed based on OWASP, OSSTMM, NIST SP 800-15, or something similar. Both vulnerability analysis and pen testing need to be kept in strict compliance with SOC2, ISO27001, GDPR, and other safety standards and regulations.
Vulnerability analysis and penetration testing share the same preventative cybersecurity end goal. Both processes aim to minimize the potential risk of a cyberattack but they address different concerns at different stages. That doesn’t mean that you should view them as competing strategies. Regardless of size, businesses should be doing both.
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