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Vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing: What’s the difference?

July 6, 2022

Your company’s security program is only as strong as its weakest link. At some point, you’ll have to ensure that the security protocols and tools you’ve established actually do their job. This is where vulnerability scanning and penetration testing come into play. 

Although they sound similar, their applications and purposes aren’t the same. Since you’ll likely need both to hit compliance goals, it’s important to understand the differences between vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing. 

What is vulnerability scanning?

As your company continues to grow, your applications and tools are sure to evolve. This can leave your company exposed to a number of risks. Vulnerability scanning is a continuous security measure that safeguards your company’s infrastructure from internal and external threats. 

Vulnerability scans help you locate specific gaps in your security system, such as missing patches, outdated applications, or faulty firewalls. If a scan reports anything suspicious, you’ll be able to mitigate any issues before they become too serious. 

How does vulnerability scanning work? 

Vulnerability scanning is an automated process that is specifically configured to monitor certain aspects of your system. Companies can outsource scans to a third-party or purchase certain scanning tools—such as AWS Inspector—based on their cloud environment. Scanning tools run internal or external high-level diagnostics that produce a summary or report of any gaps in your system. 

When should you use vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is known as an essential component of any strong infosec program, however; auditors can request vulnerability reports to use as evidence when considering compliance certifications. 

This evidence is commonly used to satisfy compliance requirements within frameworks such as ISO 27001, PCI DSS,  and SOC 2. For instance, the evaluation of vulnerabilities is specifically cited in ISO 27001 requirements.

A.12.6.1 – Information about technical vulnerabilities of information systems being used shall be obtained in a timely fashion, the organization’s exposure to such vulnerabilities evaluated and appropriate measures taken to address the associated risk.

Vulnerability scans should be conducted as frequently as possibly, leaving few gaps for bad actors to maliciously intervene. 

What is penetration testing?

Vulnerability scans identify weaknesses in your security program, but penetration tests purposefully exploit them. Penetration tests are typically executed by a third-party organization that specializes in security and compliance.  Your company’s network, applications, APIs, and cloud environments can all be tested. 

Once weaknesses have been exposed with a vulnerability scan, a penetration test is used to simulate how your system responds as if a real malicious incident were to occur. The professional conducting a penetration test will subject your infrastructure to the same kinds of attacks as a hacker. This intentional pressure test enables you to evaluate your security system, strengthen weaknesses, and fortify defenses. 

How does penetration testing work?

One significant difference between vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing is how they're each performed. Penetration tests are usually not automated, but instead conducted by a real IT professional. Sometimes known as “ethical hackers,” penetration testers will go through a lengthy process when evaluating your company’s infrastructure. 

There are automated tools available, but this method defeats the purpose of simulating an authentic assault on your company’s defenses. After the test, you’ll receive an in-depth analysis of any exploitable weaknesses in your system and how you can patch them. 

When should you use penetration testing? 

Organizations typically seek penetration tests as part of the compliance process. For instance, a penetration test is specifically mentioned as a control to fulfill the necessary SOC 2 requirements. According to the State of Startup Security Report, 60% of small organizations do penetration testing at least annually.

CC4.1 – Management uses a variety of different types of ongoing and separate evaluations, including penetration testing, independent certifications made against established specifications (for example, ISO certifications), and internal audit assessments.

Penetration tests are usually conducted less frequently than vulnerability scans. Many security experts recommend an annual penetration test which also coincides with some compliance requirements. 

Learn more about how to protect your company

Five Principles For Building a Secure Product
The security for SaaS CTO checklist
Security Reviews for Startups