In this increasingly dangerous cyber world, smart organizations are continually looking for ways to shore up security. Many companies turn to security assessments and testing to do so. Vulnerability assessments and penetration testing represent two approaches to security testing, but is there really a difference between them, and does one offer an advantage? In truth, any security testing is better than none, but there are pros and cons to each method.
A Simple Vulnerability Assessment
A vulnerability assessment is a big picture look at an organization’s security stance, taking into account baseline security standards, patching, the status of perimeter defenses, and implementation of detection and antivirus solutions. The benefit to this approach is that it offers a list of vulnerabilities that an organization can prioritize to improve security. This method is usually undertaken to establish a security and risk baseline for companies that are perhaps at a less mature security level, and that need to form or re-form a standard. Vulnerability assessments take a wide but shallow approach to identifying security shortcomings. They utilize automated scanning tools, but do not account for exploitation techniques which can only be achieved through manual testing.
Penetration testing is a goal-oriented test designed to systematically exploit identified weaknesses, with the objective of demonstrating and objectively measuring actual risk. A properly performed penetration test will not only enumerate and rank vulnerabilities in terms of severity, but will provide a clear illustration of those which could lead to significant losses and how this could be achieved by a real world adversary. Ultimately, a well performed penetration test will help the organization better prioritize and implement remediation efforts.
When compared side by side, vulnerability testing can be seen as a basic approach that enables an organization to establish baseline security and gain a better idea of the steps necessary to move toward an overall secure stance. Penetration testing, in comparison, gives a developed, deep-dive assessment that can tell even a forward-thinking organization how secure they really are. This only further validates the risks a cyber criminal could pose to the organization.
The reality is that a truly effective security approach needs both vulnerability assessment and penetration testing. However, many organizations undergo the former without investing in the very necessary penetration testing. The business benefits of penetration testing performed by an experienced and knowledgeable professional cannot be overstated. How safe can you truly feel if you haven’t put yourself in an attacker’s shoes and attempted to break into your system?