Compliance with regulatory requirements works best when you understand the terms of art used in compliance and cybersecurity, such as the difference between penetration tests and vulnerability scans. You can perform many types of tests to assess the state of your data security, vulnerability scans and penetration tests being among the most important — but they are not the same thing, and they serve different purposes.

Read on to learn the differences between these two crucial security measures.

What is a Vulnerability Scan?

A vulnerability scan identifies and reports on any points of weakness in your firewalls, software, web applications, servers, and other devices connected to your corporate IT systems. Vulnerability scanning is integral to a company’s vulnerability management program and overall security posture.

There are two types of vulnerability scans: internal and external.
An internal scan endeavors to find vulnerabilities in your company’s internal networks and IT assets; while external scans are performed on your company’s network perimeter, which connects to the outside world. Simply put, an external scan checks the locks on your house’s entrance doors and windows; an internal scan checks the locks on the doors of individual rooms.

To perform the assessment, companies use a vulnerability scanner, which is an automated security scanning tool that finds known vulnerabilities. Remember, this means a vulnerability assessment will not find zero-day vulnerabilities (that is, vulnerabilities that are not yet known to the vendor that manufactures the software or hardware in question).

How Often Should I Do a Vulnerability Scan?

Security professionals recommend performing a vulnerability scan more often than a penetration test: at least once per quarter, compared to a yearly “pen test.”

The cadence of your scans also depends on the cybersecurity regulations or frameworks your company must comply with. For example, the PCI DSS framework requires that companies perform quarterly vulnerability assessments.

In contrast, the HIPAA Security Rule doesn’t require a vulnerability scan at all – but it does require that organizations conduct a risk analysis, which is meant to find any potential risks and vulnerabilities to the personal health data that they store, handle, or transmit. It’s hard to do that without performing a vulnerability scan.

Benefits of a Vulnerability Scan

Vulnerability scans come with many benefits, mostly associated with maintaining and improving your secure digital environments within the workplace. Some benefits of vulnerability scans include:

  • Catching vulnerabilities and weaknesses before cyber attacks can occur
  • Optimization of required fixes
  • Improved efficiency of resource allocation and management
  • Improved operational efficiencies
  • Reduced costs associated with recuperating from cyber attacks or data breaches
  • Improved credibility with customers, clients, and business partners

What is a Penetration Test?

A penetration test is conducted by a team of penetration testers, or ethical hackers, and is used to identify and test entry points within an organization’s security environment to expose potential vulnerabilities and exploit weaknesses.

“Pen testing” is often carried out as a simulated cyber attack to determine how easy it will be for cybercriminals in the real world to exploit potential vulnerabilities and hack into the organization’s internal networks. Hence pen testing generally provides a more effective way to expose and manage an organization’s overall cybersecurity risk than a vulnerability assessment.

How Often Should I Do a Penetration Test?

It’s highly recommended that organizations do a pen test at least annually, although more security-focused organizations will opt for twice a year. Since attackers’ tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) change every year, it’s up to your organization to ensure it stays ahead of the threat curve and finds weaknesses in your security posture that can be targeted.

In addition, you also have to consider whether your business must adhere to any regulations or industry frameworks that dictate how often you need to conduct a pen test. For example, the PCI DSS requires that a pen test must be conducted at least once a year to maintain compliance.

Benefits of a Penetration Test

Penetration testing brings numerous benefits, most of which are related to network security and security testing. These benefits include:

  • Proper risk management and evaluation of security risks
  • Improved business continuity and efficiency in daily operations
  • Increased protection of operating systems and shared channels with clients and partners
  • Continued compliance with regulatory bodies and security standards

Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing: Key Differences

Although pen tests and vulnerability scans sound similar in scope, there are some key differences.

Automation vs. Manual Testing

  • Vulnerability scanning relies entirely on security scanning tools, so it’s completely automated in its assessment. The scan casts a wide net over the entire network.
  • Pen testing involves a combination of automated tools and manual testing from experienced penetration testers to find the exploits.

Exploiting Any Found Vulnerabilities

  • Vulnerability scanning only aims to discover vulnerabilities, not to exploit them.
  • Pen testing exploits any vulnerabilities it finds, to assess the strength of the security posture. Since pen testing also relies on creative tactics and techniques to hack the internal networks, the penetration testers may discover a zero-day vulnerability in the process.

Detective vs. Preventive Controls

  • Vulnerability scanning is a detective control, which means the priority (and the goal) is to detect problems.
  • Pen testing is a preventive control, which means the priority is to identify vulnerabilities and use the findings to prevent those weaknesses from being exploited.

Financial Investment Required

  • Vulnerability scanning has only a low-to-moderate cost, since it usually involves using tools.
  • Pen testing carries a higher cost since organizations usually engage an external team to perform the pen test and report their findings.

Questions to Ask When Deciding Between a Penetration Test and a Vulnerability Scan

Both vulnerability scans and pen tests are critical to strengthening an organization’s overall security posture, although each serves a specific purpose. So what are some questions you should ask yourself when deciding on which service your organization needs?

Consider the following:

  1. Do you have to conduct a specific test as part of a regulatory compliance requirement?
  2. What is the result that you’re trying to achieve? For example, do you only want to report on existing vulnerabilities to your senior management, or do you want to take a more active, targeted approach to prevent cyber attacks?
  3. What does your security budget look like? Can you engage a team of external penetration testers to dig deep into your security infrastructure and find holes?
  4. Are you trying to take an active approach or a reactive approach? While a vulnerability scan can help with either scenario, a pen test is best used as an active approach to build stronger security defenses.
  5. Have cybercriminals exploited a new vulnerability or has a vendor released information for a zero-day exploit? If so, a vulnerability scan is likely the best approach; it’s cost-effective and will help your team identify whether that vulnerability exists in your network.
  6. Has your team onboarded a new technology or application, or changed your IT infrastructure recently? If so, there may be a high risk of misconfigurations, which can be easily exploited by cybercriminals, so conducting a vulnerability scan on each occasion is a great way to assure all systems are protected.
  7. How confident are you about the strength of your security posture and your ability to defend against the toughest cyber threats? A pen test is your best bet to test your defenses, validate the ongoing remediation efforts, and fix any noticeable weaknesses.

Secure Your Data With RiskOptics

The ZenGRC is risk management software that helps organizations manage vulnerability assessments and penetration tests as part of the greater security assessment plan, including vulnerability scanning tools and penetration testing tools.

In addition, ZenGRC provides continuous risk monitoring and reporting so organizations can spend less time on menial follow-up tasks to manage cyber risk and focus more on strengthening their security posture.

Schedule a demo today to learn how ZenGRC can help your organization improve vulnerability assessments and penetration testing.