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Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are essential for strengthening an organization’s IT infrastructure against potential threats.   While both processes aim to improve security measures, the approaches and techniques vary significantly. This blog provides insights into these differences so that you can tailor and effectively deploy these processes to safeguard your organization’s IT assets.

Comparing key attributes of vulnerability scanning and penetration testing

Vulnerability scanning sends probes and requests into the IT infrastructure and analyzes the responses to identify known vulnerabilities. Penetration testing mimics the same tactics and techniques malicious hackers use to simulate a real-world cyberattack to find and exploit vulnerabilities in the organization’s IT infrastructure.

Table 1 compares the attributes of vulnerability scanning with those of penetration testing. When analyzing this table, it becomes evident that these are two fundamentally distinct processes that require different tools and cybersecurity expertise.

AttributeVulnerabilityPenetration
ApproachUses a defensive approach to protect against and mitigate potential threatsUses an offensive attack to find weaknesses and demonstrate how they can be exploited
External data sourcesUses a regularly updated database of known vulnerabilitiesLeverages public security websites to learn about the latest attack techniques and vulnerabilities being exploited by hackers
ScopeMay be conducted against all parts of the IT infrastructure, such as the network, servers, and the cloudDefines the objectives and scope for the penetration test, such as testing the effectiveness of the wireless LAN security controls
PrioritizationPrioritizes scanning for vulnerabilities based on perceived riskPrioritizes simulating attacks on higher-risk IT assets
AutomationTypically, scans are automatedRelies on human expertise and ingenuity to find vulnerabilities that are not detected by automated tool
FrequencyConducted periodically and continuouslyConducted iteratively, where each iteration improves based on the lessons learned in the previous tests
LocationThe scan location is based on where the perceived vulnerability exists, such as remote locations, data centers, or the cloudThe penetration test location is based on the objectives and scope, for example, an external attack from outside the organization’s perimeter or an internal attack from the employee LAN
FindingsThe scanning tool generates reports showing the identified vulnerabilities and suggested remediating actions
Vulnerabilities should be prioritized based on impact severity
The penetration test team generates reports describing their findings and recommendations to mitigate potential cyber threats.
Vulnerabilities should be prioritized based on their exploitability
Regulatory ComplianceHelps organizations achieve regulatory complianceHelps organizations achieve regulatory compliance
Table 1: Compares the attributes of vulnerability scanning and penetration testing.

Contrasting the expertise of blue and red team members

Security assessments often involve two separate teams. The defensive blue team attempts to mitigate attacks using techniques such as vulnerability scanning and security controls. The offensive red team uses penetration testing and social engineering techniques to stimulate real-world attacks.

Table 2 contrasts the expertise required by members of the blue and red teams. Historically, blue and red teams have operated independently. Recently, the concept of a purple team has emerged, focusing on bringing together the defensive blue team and the offensive red team to create a more collaborative and efficient approach to mitigating threats.

Blue TeamRed Team
Familiar with security systems, including firewalls and Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS)Familiar with penetration tools such as Kali Linux and Metasploit
Knowledgeable in security policies, industry cybersecurity best practices, and compliance requirementsKnowledgeable in the methodologies, tactics, and techniques used by malicious hackers
Capable of running network scanners and analyzing network trafficCapable of running penetration tests to find vulnerabilities
Know how to identify and remediate vulnerabilitiesKnow how to develop exploits, particularly in software
Skilled in monitoring and responding to security alerts and incidentsSkilled in social engineering techniques such as phishing
Gathers vulnerability intelligenceGathers attack intelligence
Table 2: Contrasts the expertise required by blue and red team members.

Distinguishing between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing security policies

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are distinct but complementary processes that enhance an organization’s protection against potential threats. Vulnerability scanning identifies potential weaknesses, while penetration testing attempts to exploit those weaknesses. Together, they are proven approaches for finding vulnerabilities and assessing the impact of those vulnerabilities on the organization’s IT infrastructure.

Ideally, the organization’s security policy should include sections dedicated to vulnerability scanning and penetration testing. Table 3 highlights the content typically found in these security policies. While both are essential for the organization’s security awareness, the goals, scope, and procedures differ significantly.

Vulnerability Scanning PolicyPenetration Testing Policy
GoalsProactively identify and mitigate security vulnerabilitiesEvaluate the organization’s security controls and procedures and identify gaps
ScopeThe IT infrastructure to be scanned (systems, applications, networks, and data)
Scan frequency
Scanning tools or services
IT assets to be included or excluded
Types of tests allowed or restricted (e.g., internal, external)
Penetration tools and techniques allowed or restricted
ResponsibilitiesIndividuals or blue teams run vulnerability scans, analyze the results, and implement remediation measuresIndividuals or red teams stimulate adversarial attacks, identify security gaps, and implement remediation measures
ProceduresDefining scope
Scheduling scans
Executing scans
Storing scan results
Reporting findings
Prioritizing vulnerabilities
Defining scope
Scheduling scans
Executing scans
Storing scan results
Reporting findings
Prioritizing vulnerabilities
Taking remediation actions
Obtaining authorization
Defining the scope, limitations, and boundaries
Executing attacks
Documenting findings
Prioritizing vulnerabilities and threats
Reporting findings
Defining scope
Scheduling scans
Executing scans
Storing scan results
Reporting findings
Prioritizing vulnerabilities
Taking remediation actions
DisclosuresConfidentiality requirements
Identified stakeholders
Confidentiality requirements
Identified stakeholders (may include third-party product vendors and customers)
Compliance RequirementsFor example, GDPR, PCI DSS, or HIPAAFor example, GDPR, PCI DSS, or HIPAA
Table 3: Compares the content in vulnerability scanning and penetration testing security policies.

What to do after reading this blog

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are essential for any organization committed to protecting its IT assets and demonstrating due diligence. Both should be performed regularly to keep up with evolving threats.

If you are excited about becoming more involved in vulnerability testing or penetration testing, I recommend the following next steps:

  • Identify your organization’s high-risk assets.
  • Check the frequency at which your organization does vulnerability and penetration testing.
  • Find out if your organization has blue, red, or purple teams.
  • Identify the vulnerability scanning and penetration testing tools these teams use.
  • Consider whether you want to join the blue or red team.
  • Create a plan to develop the knowledge and skills you need to be successful on your preferred team.

If you want to be on the blue team, you may wish to check out NetAlly’s network analyzer CyberScope. Within minutes, you can connect CyberScope to a wireless or wired network, run comprehensive network scans, and detect weaknesses. Remember, you must always get approval before you conduct any vulnerability scan or penetration test on any network.

Author Bio –
Wireless & Cyber Security Expert

Dr. Avril Salter is an author and acclaimed public speaker with over 20 years of in-depth technical and executive experience working in wireless and network security. She holds senior business and technical architect positions with a history of success in setting direction in major corporations and start-ups. She has an exceptional breadth of technical expertise in wireless standards and network security protocols and is a strategic thinker with a solid understanding of the IT and telecommunications industries.