What to choose?  Vulnerability assessment or Penetration testing?

By September 20, 2022 September 22nd, 2022 No Comments

As Organizations become more distributed and connected they are exposed to a lot of cyber threats.  On the other hand, cyber threats continue to grow and evolve in frequency, vector, and complexity. The evolving tools, tactics, and procedures used by threat actors to breach organizations can only be defended by up-to-date proactive security measures and continuous improvement practices in place.  

The majority of attacks originate from a range of automated offensive tools to scan the target organization/entity for unpatched vulnerabilities, common misconfigurations, obsolete systems, weak known credentials, expired certifications, etc.  Whether the organization is being specifically targeted or just a target of an indiscriminate attack both vulnerability assessments and penetration testing play a curtail role in the proactive identification of vulnerabilities thereby helping in enhancing the organizational cyber defense, and risk management measures.

Both vulnerability assessments and Penetration testing are considered proactive security testing and auditing practices in cyber security; they are often interchangeably used but they are two different approaches with related processes.

Vulnerability Assessment is a systematic review of security weaknesses in a system; in other words, it is the process of identifying, quantifying, and prioritizing the vulnerabilities in a system.

Mostly for known vulnerabilities. VA tools are generally designed to automatically scan for new and existing threats that can target your system. There are four major stages in vulnerability assessments.

–       Vulnerability Identification 

–       Vulnerability Analysis 

–       Risk Assessment 

–       Remediation 

A Good vulnerability report should contain at least the details of the target, description and severity of each uncovered vulnerability with timestamps. 

Penetration Testing is an exercise to exploit vulnerabilities in the system. It is used to determine whether a detected vulnerability is genuine o. Although there are automated tools that can be launched to exploit a vulnerability, it is done mostly manually by experts also known as – White hat hackers/ ethical hackers. The main purpose of Pentest is to simulate an attack on identified vulnerabilities and exploit them; thereby prioritizing the actions to validate and mitigate confirmed security weaknesses in the system. One can say Pentest is a form of simulated hacking. Generally, the pentesting assignments are categorized based on the level of information and access given to the target 

–     White-box pentesting: Penetration testers are given internal knowledge of the target system- the connectivity information, architecture documentation, source code, sometimes system credentials to identify, analyze, and exploit the potential weakness in the target system. It is the most time-consuming but also considered the comprehensive type among the other options of penetration testing. 

–     Gray-box pentesting: In a Gray-box pentesting, some level of access details to the target system and internal knowledge is given. It is to create a more realistic attack simulation where the attacker has gained already some level of knowledge and information about the controls of the target system. 

–     Black-box pentesting: In a black-box pentesting, other than that of what is already publicly available/published data, the tester is not given internal knowledge of the target system. A black-box pentesting exploits the vulnerabilities from outside the network. It is the quickest of all, the downside is that if it is not exploited, any vulnerabilities of internal services remain uncovered.

Vulnerability AssessmentPenetration Testing 
– Automated 
– Does not validate false positives 
– Programmed scans
– Non-intrusive 
– Manual
– Rules out false positives 
– Applies Tailored, intuitive tactics
– Intrusive 
GoalUncover known vulnerabilitiesUncover and exploit identified vulnerabilities
ScopeBroad Focused
OutcomeList of vulnerabilities with priority for fixing.Safely exploit the vulnerability, Establish attack methodology, and Remediation measures. 

The choice of whether to do vulnerability assessment or penetration testing depends really on the criticality of the business and the risk. Vulnerability assessment scan is to find the vulnerabilities of a system and prioritize them for fixing. Whereas, the idea of penetration testing is to identify if an adversary can break into the organization’s defense and the related risk, and exposure. 

Both are essential elements of a properly planned organization’s cyber security program.

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