When it comes to cybersecurity, there is a dizzying variety of tools and strategies available to organizations to improve their overall cybersecurity posture. Two strategies that are often confused with one another are vulnerability scanning and penetration testing. In this article, we will do a deep dive into these two strategies and outline the key differences between the two.

What is vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is an automated process for identifying security weaknesses within computer systems, networks, and connected applications. Specialized software tools scan for and analyze potential gaps in your digital defenses, including software bugs, setting misconfigurations, and outdated software and firmware. Since these vectors can provide bad actors with a foot in the door to exploit your digital systems, a vulnerability scan can provide insight into your overall threat surface at a basic level. For instance, a vulnerability scan can determine if your patch management process is working but won’t provide human insights like determining the business risk of potential vulnerabilities.

What is vulnerability scanning used for?

Vulnerability scanning aims to discover and analyze potential weaknesses in your organization’s computer systems and networks. The information generated by vulnerability scanning will allow your information technology professionals to patch and harden the identified systems before a security event. With regularly scheduled vulnerability scans, your organization can boost its cybersecurity defenses while reducing the risk of data loss, unauthorized access, and other cybersecurity threats.

Real-world uses of vulnerability scanners

Popular vulnerability scanners can identify a wide variety of real-world threat vectors. Those utilities include:

Network scanning

Wired or wireless networks provide a wide range of potential security vulnerabilities. Network scanning allows you to catalog vulnerable systems and identify potential in-roads for malicious users. You can discover unauthorized devices on a network, map out perimeter points on the network, and list out connected networks that might need additional security, such as external vendors and business partners.

Host scanning

Workstations and servers can also be a source of security vulnerabilities. Host scanning allows you greater insight into your network hosts' patch history and configuration. This gives you an idea of what sort of risk your organization is exposed to if a device on your network is compromised.

Web application scanning

Web applications and websites are often your organization’s most visible and exposed threat surface. Web app scanning allows you to automatically detect software vulnerabilities, such as unapplied patches or misconfigured settings that would give malicious actors a route to greater access or control of your web application.

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing is a carefully controlled, holistic assessment technique used to assess the resilience of networked systems, computers, and web applications against real-world cyberattacks. Unlike vulnerability scanning, pen-testing goes beyond automatically listing vulnerabilities for your information technology professionals to mitigate. Since information security professionals deliver your pentest, you get the most accurate simulation of an actual cyberattack in a safe and controlled environment. As a benefit, the skilled professionals providing your pen-testing services can determine both the source of vulnerabilities and the impact of those vulnerabilities when exploited.

What is penetration testing used for?

Penetration testing measures your organization’s digital resilience, including your capability of withstanding and detecting security breaches. By employing ethical hacking techniques, penetration testing is used to identify vulnerabilities and potential gaps in security measures, allowing you to harden your networked systems against the event of an actual cyberattack. Provided continuously, penetration testing is a crucial strategy for your organization’s overall cybersecurity posture, leaving threat actors with an absolute minimum of potential footholds in your organization’s digital systems.

Real-world uses of penetration testing

Penetration testing services can identify a wide variety of real-world threat vectors. Types of penetration testing services include:

Network penetration testing

Network penetration testing involves a team of skilled information security professionals probing your organization’s network infrastructure. That includes servers, firewalls, routers, and other hardware accessible via your corporate network.

Social engineering penetration testing

Rather than testing your organization’s hardware assets, social engineering penetration testing targets your organization’s human assets. After all, a considerable majority of cyberattacks rely on social engineering as a component of their overall strategy. Social engineering includes phishing, vishing executed via voice communications, and smishing through SMS messages. In social engineering penetration testing, a skilled professional searches for vulnerable people to manipulate into giving unauthorized access to your digital assets.

Physical penetration testing

Often overlooked as an afterthought for most organizations, physical security provides real-world barriers that prevent unauthorized access to your organization’s most sensitive hardware. Examples include locks on server rooms and keycards required to access your office spaces. Physical penetration testing involves qualified professionals attempting to physically access systems that would otherwise be off-limits, all with a carefully controlled and monitored environment.

Key differences between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing

Now that you have a more profound knowledge of vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, we can delve into the key differences between the two.

Vulnerability scanning is:

  • Largely automated
  • Used for compiling lists of vulnerable software and hardware systems
  • Lacking human insights natively, like identifying the severity of surfaced threats.

Penetration testing is:

  • Driven by resourceful human penetration testers
  • Provided with an up-to-the-minute methodology to simulate the most recent attack strategies
  • Helpful in determining not only the methods used for potential attacks but also the impact those attacks might have on your organization

In other words, vulnerability scanning is the primarily automated process of identifying technical systems that can provide an access point to malicious actors, while penetration testing is a human-driven process for both identifying weaknesses in and simulating exploits of technical systems, including a follow-up process that prioritizes critical vulnerabilities that pose significant threats to your organization.