Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Tests usually go hand in hand as part of Security Audit for major companies that they are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably. Here, I’m going to explain the main difference between Vulnerability assessment and penetration testing and how both are critical to staying ahead of security threats. Although vulnerability assessment and pen testing both deals with finding and fixing security exploits and loops, they are different from each other. Let’s start with some definitions.
Vulnerability assessment – is the science of identifying the risk, quantifying the impact and prioritizing the most critical system vulnerabilities. For example, Major companies whose infrastructures requires frequent assessment are in the below industries:
Information and Communications Technology, Electric and Water Utilities, Trade and Commerce and Health Service among others. Such assessments may be conducted on behalf of a range of different organizations or security providers from small to medium companies up to large multinational companies.
Vulnerability from the perspective of disaster management means assessing and proactively mitigating the threats from potential hazards to the population and network infrastructure. It may be conducted in the political, social, economic or environmental fields.
Quite often, in the web world, a vulnerability assessment is conducted using a scanning tool. These tools are able to find many different types of security vulnerabilities and can rate just how dangerous they are. When the scan is complete, the tool can offer a written report that can be reviewed and acted upon by the developers or IT department.
Once completed, the assessment will often not attempt to go any deeper than simply looking for the vulnerabilities sort of like a checklist report back to the site owners. Major companies opt to have yearly, quarterly or monthly assessment to be more prepared for any loopholes in their IT infrastructure.
On the other hand, penetration test or pen tests can have a great deal of overlap with a vulnerability assessment, in fact, a penetration tester will often perform a vulnerability assessment to some degree. The main difference is that the pen tester will then take things further and actually initiate an attack to test the system by various means in order
to exploit a site within the bounds of an agreed-upon test. Additionally, a pen tester may string together multiple vulnerabilities to achieve the goal. The vulnerability assessment will often just check to see where the problems are but a good penetration test should show not only where they are but also how to actually attack them. One way to think of this is seeing a ladder lying on the ground by itself is not a big deal.
Even if we see an unlocked second-floor window, it is still not that much of a big deal but if someone is able to use the ladder to the second-floor window this would become a successful attack because both vectors were used or exploited.
All of this is done to assess weaknesses in a company’s physical and IT systems. Most security conscious companies will frequently test their own security to ensure that it is ongoing every minute of every day. All changes are immediately run through a vulnerability scanner others may just check periodically. A pen test is conducted with someone who is experienced with breaking into systems. It will be conducted during an agreed upon time frame against a set of agreed-upon systems with agreed-upon information from the site owner.
In practice, there are three types of pen tests. The first one is the black box category. This is the type that most people probably envision when they think of hacking. In a black box pen test, the attacker may only be given a single URL and no further information.
There’s also a grey box test where the tester will be given additional information. It can be what operating system is running or which database management system is being used. Utilizing this information, a pen tester can better focus the attack types and potentially achieve the goals faster.
The last type of pen test is a white box test. This is where the attacker is given
the keys to the kingdom and can have any information that they want including the
ability to log into any system. With any level of access, professional testers can get the diagrams of the infrastructure and can have the source code to review everything about the system.
Cybersecurity has always been a game of cat and mouse chase. Fortunately, with both vulnerability assessment and penetration testing clubbed together, companies can be ahead of the security threats and fix loopholes in their system.