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Penetration testing vs vulnerability assessments: Exploring differences and use cases

This post will explore the differences between penetration testing vs vulnerability assessments. This post will also answer questions and explain why OnX may be the partner for you.

The OnX Canada security team routinely gets these questions from our clients regarding cybersecurity testing tools:

  • What exactly is a vulnerability assessment?
  • How is it different from a penetration test?
  • How do the two work together?
  • Why are these two separate services?

On the surface, these two services seem similar. Even cybersecurity professionals can be confused by the nuances between the two tests. Both tests serve to enhance the overall security fabric of an organization. This post will explore the differences between penetration testing vs vulnerability assessments.

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Vulnerability assessments

In some ways, a vulnerability assessment is exactly what it sounds like–a “checkup” of your organization’s security posture. When conducting a vulnerability assessment, the OnX Security team inspects all connected systems within an organization and identifies potential warning signs.

Broadly speaking, there are five steps in a vulnerability assessment:

  1. Determine the scope of the evaluation. The best practice is to assess 100% of an organization’s environment, both internal and external assets.
  2. Generate credentials for the assessment team to utilize during the process for authenticated scans.
  3. Configure applications and execute the scan.
  4. Review results, analyze the data, and aggregate it into a vulnerability report.
  5. Deliver the report.

Vulnerability assessments use scanning applications to collect data on an organization’s systems. A vital step in the process is creating credentials for the scanning software to log into target systems. “Credentialed” scans result in more profound insights into the security posture of each networked device. The authenticated scanning software can go deeper into the operating system to reveal missing patches, misconfigurations, and other vulnerable assets in a “true positive” way.

An unauthenticated scan is forced to make assumptions about the organization’s network and the open ports. While this is helpful, it is not as complete of a picture as an authenticated scan, which probes deeper.

Reviewing the results is the most nuanced step of the process. Many penetration tests incorporate some form of vulnerability assessment (more on this later); however, a full-blown vulnerability assessment goes more in-depth into the results than a traditional penetration test (pentest). A vulnerability assessment takes the extra step to validate the complete data set.

Talented vulnerability assessors take time to sift through the collected data to aggregate findings into actionable insights. These actionable, aggregated, and accurate findings provide a roadmap for the client to follow, moving them from their current position to the most secure posture available.

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Penetration testing vs vulnerability assessments

What is the difference between penetration testing vs vulnerability assessments? In a word: exploitation.

As previously mentioned, a penetration test often includes a vulnerability scan. However, there are two significant differences.

  1. A vulnerability scan’s results are from an application that does not use authenticated credentials.
  2. A pen tester will focus on systems and vulnerabilities that appear to be the weak points of the security system.

A pentest goes above and beyond a vulnerability assessment in that it takes the results of a vulnerability scan (either conducted at the beginning or middle of the penetration test) and leverages the results to guide active penetration attempts directed at what has been determined by the vuln scan to be most susceptible points of attack. The OnX team leverages various cybersecurity tools, tactics, and white hat hacking procedures to mimic a cyberattack and gain a foothold in the organization’s network, elevate our current user privileges, or tap into another interconnected system within the scope of the test. Our penetration testers often combine multiple exploits targeting the identified vulnerabilities to achieve the same results.

In the penetration test report, our team highlights the technology storyline of the chosen exploit path, why our team used them, and details on how our pen testers went deeper into a system or network. The report then details a list of findings and the recommendations we make for the organization to remediate those vulnerabilities. This report also includes an overview of the results of the vulnerability scan. Both tests work together so our team can provide your organization with tailored solutions to improve its overall security posture.

To explain the differences in another way:

  • Vulnerability assessments identify weaknesses in the environment.
  • Penetration testing exploits the identified weaknesses.

Utilizing the nuances of both security tests is an effective method for measuring an organization’s cybersecurity controls and determining how quickly and well it can respond to a cyberattack.

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It is not a matter of choosing penetration testing vs vulnerability assessments. Instead, both are tools critical to building a strong security posture and discovering the insight that helps an organization best protect its sensitive data from emerging threats.

Get in touch to learn how to use these tools to strengthen your organization’s security fabric.