Penetration Testing Vs Vulnerability Testing: What’s the Difference?

vulnerability scan

Cybersecurity is a top priority for business owners across all industries. Testing is a huge aspect of maintaining secure systems, including both penetration testing and vulnerability testing. But what is the purpose of each, and how do they differ?

Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is the practice of attempting to break into a computer system in an effort to find security weaknesses. A pen test uses the same tools and techniques as real attackers would, including malware, hacking methods and on-site attacks. These tests should be completed annually. 

Penetration tests allow companies to uncover flaws in their overall cybersecurity methods by simulating a real-life attack. These testing analysts, which many call “ethical hackers,” attempt to prove that your weaknesses can be exploited using methods such as SQL injection, password hacking, and more, though they will always use non-damaging techniques.

These tests can also include phishing campaigns intended to find out how many employees fall for the scam. They may even try to track how much information employees send via email or through instant messaging applications, such as Facebook Messenger.

What Is Vulnerability Testing?

Vulnerability testing is a way to review a system’s security strengths and identify any areas that are weak. These tests may occur as part of pen testing, but they can also be done independently. They should be completed quarterly.

The goal of vulnerability testing, much like penetration testing, is to find errors within your systems that an attacker could exploit. However, this type of testing looks for flaws using secure tactics, while pen testing involves targeting flaws in computer systems or networks using tactics outside the security perimeter. 

You can get false positives when it comes to the risks that exist within your systems; however, a good tester will rank each weakness according to its risk (high, medium, or low) so you know what to prioritize. They will also give you a comprehensive score that allows you to see what your overall security stature looks like.

What Are the Key Differences between Each Testing Service?

Penetration Testing

  • Simulate cyber attacks by using tactics that actual threat actors use
  • Detailed, hands-on testing to attempt to hack into your computer systems
  • Generally more expensive than a vulnerability test
  • Can play a critical role in ensuring you maintain industry compliance
  • Take longer to complete
  • Should be completed annually

Vulnerability Testing

  • Cheaper than pen tests, but can also be part of pen testing
  • Automated rather than hands-on
  • Also often play an important role in helping you achieve compliance
  • Quick to complete
  • Should be completed quarterly

Do You Need Both Penetration and Vulnerability Testing?

Vulnerability testing is a key component of cybersecurity. Because it is an automated scan, it can be done any time of the day or night, ensuring that security threats don’t get missed just because they occurred during lights-out.

However, vulnerability tests on their own do not generally include the comprehensive testing that penetration tests do. They do not simulate potential attacks, which can be an enormous asset for your business to determine which weaknesses need to be addressed first.

Additionally, both tests can be crucial to your compliance needs and—especially in the case of penetration testing—may be required, depending on your industry. 

Because penetration testing and vulnerability testing both serve a valuable role in cybersecurity, it’s best to consider having both types of tests performed. As mentioned, vulnerability testing should be completed quarterly, while pen tests should be conducted yearly. 

Learn More About How to Enhance Your Cybersecurity

Want to learn more about how to secure your business against cyber attacks? Check out AIS’s Cybersecurity Maturity Checklist for a list of ways you can keep your systems safe.

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