Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing
Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are both technical assessments that provide useful and often very detailed information about the security of your computing environment. Although these two assessments have a lot of similarities and are often used interchangeably by those outside of the cybersecurity realm, they are actually quite different.
Imagine you are a member of the neighborhood watch and want to “scan” your street for vulnerabilities. You walk up to each house and check if there is an open door or window that you could get in through. If you come across an opening, you record which house it is, where the opening is, and then move along to the next house.
A vulnerability scan does just that by examining your network devices, workstations, and web applications for software and operating system flaws, missing patches, misconfigurations, malware, and more. After identifying these vulnerabilities, a vulnerability scan report should then organize your vulnerabilities by criticality and outline remediation steps that you can implement to mitigate those weaknesses.
A penetration test takes it a step further than a vulnerability scan, instead of just recording open doors and windows, you are walking inside and attempting to find and take as many valuables (e.g., proprietary information or confidential client data) as you can.
A penetration test report should show exactly how the tester was able to gain access and what they were able to do with that access; such as creating backdoors, deploying code, and accessing sensitive data.
Which One do I Need?
Both of these assessments are valuable, but they serve different purposes and should be used at different times.
If you have never conducted either assessment before, or have not done much in terms of hardening your cybersecurity posture, a vulnerability scan (along with a risk assessment) is the place to start. This will give you a full picture of how secure your environment is and the best way to go about closing security gaps.
A penetration test on the other hand will give you a more detailed picture of specific systems, typically critical ones that you have already taken steps to secure. The penetration test will determine how effective those security measures are as it tries to exploit every available opening.
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