Penetration Tests vs Vulnerability Scans: What's the Difference?

16 August 2021 at 10:00 by ParTech Media - Post a comment

As cybercrimes and attacks continue to rise, businesses are investing thousands of dollars in robust security solutions like network vulnerability assessments and penetration testing to keep their data, revenue, and reputation intact from external threats.

Both penetration testing and vulnerability scanning scanning are often wrongly thought as one and the same. However, both are used for completely different purposes managing different levels of security and risk analysis. Vulnerability scans are performed on a more regular basis than penetration tests.

It may all seem confusing at first, but by the end of this post, you will be able to easily distinguish between these two indispensable network security testing methods. Read on.

Table of Contents

  1. What are penetration tests?
  2. How can you create a robust pentest agenda?
  3. Stages of pentesting
  4. What are vulnerability scans?
  5. How to create a sound vulnerability scanning plan?
  6. Stages of vulnerability scanning
  7. Closing thoughts

What are penetration tests?

Penetration testing aka pentesting is the process of finding vulnerabilities in the network and preventing them from seeping into the system. In other words, the purpose of penetration testing is to find genuine vulnerabilities in the system that acts as a gateway for intruders. It involves simulating real-time attacks in the form of ethical hacking into networks to test its defense and examine weak areas.

Penetration tests are performed by deploying manual or automated technologies in a bid to compromise server endpoints and network gateways. Once the vulnerabilities are clear, testers further exploit the compromised system to deliver subsequent exploits at other internal assets, receiving a high-security clearance and access to assets via privileged escalation.

Pentesting is not a one-time wonder. Computers and networks are dynamic and so is the need for pentesting. Pentesting depends on several aspects and needs to be performed on a regular basis, at least once a year. It depends on the following factors -

  1. Your company size
  2. The budget allocated for pentesting
  3. Compliance with IT rules and regulations
  4. Infrastructure

How can you create a robust pentest agenda?

One of the most effective pentesting plans is to create an inventory accommodating all your assets, which in turn comprises servers, applications, websites, and extensions. After building an inventory, you should categorize the assets into low-value and critical assets. Depending upon the asset type, it is necessary to frame a test plan to be executed on a daily basis, or weekly basis. This will also ensure that any configuration in the code that introduces a loophole can be detected before it is mishandled.

Pentesting for cross-site scripting

You can use cross-site scripting test cases with fuzzy techniques, wherein the changes in the code will be intimated through fuzzy alerts in case of cross-scripting detection. Through this, you can execute test cases on a daily basis.

The main reason for pentesting failures is extensively focusing on main systems and not realizing that the entry path can also be inviting in other systems.

To get the most from your pentesting exercise, it is advisable to test with an assumption that the hacker holds your asset information, rather than pentesting with the drive to acquire some basic information. The more intel the pentester acquires, the better will be the results in a short span of time.

Stages of pentesting

A typical pentesting plan has the following stages -

Planning and reconnaissance- Test goals are framed and intel is gathered.

Scanning - Scanning allows the pentester to gather insights about how an application responds to intrusions.

Gaining access- Cross-site scripting tests are staged to bring the vulnerabilities to the surface.

Maintaining prolonged access- APTs(Advanced persistent threat) are imitated to see if the vulnerability can be used to maintain access for longer time frames.

WAF configuration - Results are examined to configure the web application firewall(WAF) before testing is run again.

Let us now get to the other side of the shore - Vulnerability scans.

What are vulnerability scans?

A vulnerability scan is a high-level test that seeks potential vulnerabilities in the system. Unlike pentesting which looks for dormant weaknesses to exploit the system, vulnerability scans are much more open book and look for vulnerability, skimming the surface of applications.

Vulnerability scans follow a more passive approach such that it does not go beyond reporting the vulnerability. It is upto the administrator to check for false positives and rerun the scans.

It is recommended to run vulnerability scans at least once a quarter. Quarterly vulnerability scans can help unearth major loopholes in your firm’s network and help you understand your security structure better and the threats faced. Since vulnerability scans are very much affordable depending on scan vendors, organizations levy their trust upon vulnerability scanners to discover security ambiguities in the assets inventory.

Limitations of vulnerability scans include -

  1. False positives
  2. Organizations should check a vulnerability manually before testing it again
  3. Does not confirm if a vulnerability is exploitable.

How to create a sound vulnerability scanning plan?

Just like penetration testing, covering all the devices and access points that touch your ecosystem forms the crux of vulnerability scanning. The time period between a vuln-scan and the next scan is a risk as the changes proliferate in the code and it may lead to new vulnerabilities. So it is upto you to decide whether the ecosystem needs monthly scans, weekly scans, or quarterly ones. Assigning asset owners to critical assets can help in patching the vulnerabilities at a faster rate. Assigning business owners to assets can also greatly help in identifying the vulnerabilities separately.

It is essential to focus on high-priority assets that are prone to vulnerabilities. So once a vulnerability is discovered, it is better to commence the patching process with a robust time management plan. So, the next time you run a vuln-scan, you may get another view of vulnerability if it has any.

Also, documenting your scan progress can enlighten you with insights and can further assist in empowering the vulnerability scan process.

Stages of vulnerability scanning

  1. Initial analysis and assessment - Identify the criticality of different assets in your network and frame an appealing strategy to better understand the risk appetite factors, risk tolerance level, and risk mitigation process. Having a strong vuln-scan objective can ensure fruitful results.
  2. System baseline definition - Gather a plethora of information regarding individual assets before getting hands-on. Review if the device has open ports and services that should not be opened. In short, gather public information such as vendor details and versions that may aid in a seamless vulnerable scanning process.
  3. Performing the vulnerability scan- Look for the right policy in your scanner and analyze compliance requirements based on your company’s business stance prior to the vulnerability assessment.
  4. Vuln-scan report creation - Identifying the vulnerabilities and documenting them is the next step. Based on the asset’s critical value, owners can also be allotted for a better-organized process.

Closing thoughts…

Both penetration testing and vulnerability scans are the most useful security testing methods currently available to most organizations. Performing scans on a regular basis can help prevent identity theft and ensure a seamless workflow in your organization.