Vulnerability Scanning vs Penetration Testing: Which Security Assessment Do You Need?
Regular security assessments are a critical component of your overall security strategy. Yet understanding the different types of security assessments and their benefits can be confusing — particularly the differences between penetration tests and vulnerability scans.
Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are both critical methods for assessing the security of an organization’s systems, but they differ in their scope, depth, and purpose.
Let’s clarify the key differences between the two types of testing and how they work together so you can choose the right approach for your organization’s needs.
What is a penetration test?
A penetration test, also known as a “pen test,” is when a company hires a third party to launch a simulated attack on their systems. This simulated cyberattack helps identify unknown vulnerabilities in the organization’s infrastructure, systems, and applications. Penetration testing is a common way for organizations to assess and strengthen their security posture.
During a penetration test, ethical hackers (also known as “white hat” hackers) attempt to break into an application or system to discover and exploit potential vulnerabilities. In addition to attempting to hack into the system, sometimes pen testers will conduct social engineering exercises as part of the penetration test. Phishing would be one example of this. They then share their findings in a penetration test report to help organizations understand and fix any issues before real hackers can exploit weaknesses.
Some organizations choose to undergo a penetration test to achieve or maintain compliance with specific cybersecurity frameworks. While not every security standard requires a penetration test or vulnerability scan, completing a pen test is a common way to satisfy compliance requirements.
- SOC 2: While a pen test is not an explicit requirement for SOC 2 compliance, almost all SOC 2 reports include them and many auditors require one.
Generally speaking, auditors do not require a penetration test for SOC 2 Type 1, but do require one for SOC 2 Type 2. However, depending on the nature of your IT environment and infrastructure, auditors may require a penetration test for a Type 1 report. Sometimes (depending on the environment) incredibly robust internal and external vulnerability scanning can be conducted in lieu of a pen test.
- ISO 27001: While not specifically required, a penetration test is typically used to meet Annex A 12.6.1, which requires organizations to prevent potential vulnerabilities from being exploited. A pen test is usually necessary to provide sufficient evidence to your auditor that you’re aware of vulnerabilities and understand how they can be exploited.
- PCI DSS: Organizations must complete a PCI penetration test at least once a year or after any major systems updates. Compared with a regular pen test, PCI pen tests have more specific guidance on the minimum amount of vulnerabilities to consider such as injection flaws and buffer overflows. The testing methodology also specifically requires application-layer and network-layer testing of all internal and external systems and risks.
- HIPAA: While not specifically required, a penetration test is typically conducted as part of a required security risk analysis.
- GDPR: Not specifically required, but Article 32 requires “a process for regularly testing, assessing, and evaluating the effectiveness of technical and organizational measures for ensuring the security of the processing”.
- CCPA: Not specifically required, but recommended as part of maintaining a reasonable level of security and avoiding violation fines.
Types of pen testing
White box test
During a white box pen test, the ethical hacker is given inside knowledge of the environment they are assessing. This allows them to determine the level of damage a malicious employee (current or former) could inflict on the company.
Gray box test
With a gray box pen test, testers are given limited knowledge of the environment that they are assessing and a standard user account. This allows them to evaluate the level of access and information that a legitimate user would have to the organization’s systems.
Black box or external pen test
During a black box test, penetration testers aren’t given any information about the environment they’re assessing. These tests simulate an attack by an outside third party with no prior or inside knowledge of the organization.
This specialized type of black box test is designed to assess the internal security posture of your employees. During this type of test, as few employees as possible are made aware of the test.
Internal pen test
An internal pen test is similar to a white box test. During an internal pen test, the pen tester is given a great deal of specific information about the environment they are assessing, such as IP addresses, network infrastructure schematics, and source code.
Penetration Testing 101
What is a vulnerability scan?
Also known as a vulnerability assessment, this type of security assessment is a high-level scan of an organization’s devices, systems, and networks. Vulnerability scans give an overview of issues that could be exploited.
These assessments are automated and can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. They can also be triggered manually or scheduled to run on a regular basis. They can be third-party vulnerability scan assessments conducted by external, independent third parties, or can be conducted internally using tools/services that may already be part of your tech stack such as AWS inspector, or Github’s Dependabot.
Vulnerability scanners simply report on any vulnerabilities found. The organization’s information security team must dig deeper to understand those vulnerabilities, confirm they exist, remove any false positives, and prioritize and remediate gaps within appropriate timelines.
How to decide between penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning
Although penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are both designed to assess an organization’s security posture, there are some key differences.
A vulnerability scan is a high-level test that focuses on finding, prioritizing, and reporting vulnerabilities using automated tools.
A penetration test might use a vulnerability scan as part of the process, but it goes more in-depth. The ethical hacker’s goal is to not only discover vulnerabilities but also exploit them — and potentially move deeper through your environment to discover additional threats.
During a penetration test, threat modeling simulations map out the application’s entire attack surface to identify possible attack entry points. Automated vulnerability scans don’t necessarily consider the organization’s application business logic, which could lead to overlooked vulnerabilities or false positives.
In short, vulnerability scans are like your car’s operating system running a periodic diagnostic scan to flag an issue. Penetration tests are like having a licensed mechanic check your vehicle bumper to bumper.
|Vulnerability Scan||Penetration Test|
|Goal||Finds, ranks, and reports on existing vulnerabilities that may compromise a system through use of a tool||A white hat hacker discovers and exploits vulnerabilities, pivoting through the environment to discover deeper threats|
|Who||An ASV for external scans, third party or qualified internal personnel for internal scans||Third party or qualified internal personnel (must have a penetration testing methodology and experience)|
|When||Quarterly and after significant system changes||Annually and after significant system changes|
|How||An automated tool to find and report vulnerabilities||A manual testing process that discovers vulnerabilities, uses vulnerabilities to discover additional threats, and thoroughly reports findings including remediation|
|Reports||Ranking by severity of potential vulnerabilities found including generic publically available description||Description of each vulnerability verified or discovered during testing including a proof of concept and remediation guidance|
|Duration||Lasts several seconds to minutes depending on the scanned host, or hours depending on the network||Lasts days to weeks based on the scope of the test and size of the environment|
How much does a penetration test or vulnerability assessment cost?
Security assessment costs can vary widely based on the scope and complexity of your systems.
The cost of your pen test will be affected by factors including:
- Number of physical and data assets
- Complexity of computer systems, applications, and/or products
- Number of networks, vendors, access points, and physical office locations
- Length of the pen testing engagement
- Specific tools required to complete the assessment
- Chosen pen tester’s level of experience
- Size of the pen testing team involved
The majority of pen tests cost between $5,000-$20,000, with the average being between $8,000-$10,000. Vulnerability assessments typically cost between $2,000 to $2,500, depending on the number of IP addresses, servers, and applications that need to be analyzed.
How often should you perform a security assessment?
We strongly recommend organizations undergo a security assessment such as a penetration test at least once a year. It’s also prudent to complete a security assessment after any major changes to your system or environment. Maintaining consistent annual or biannual penetration tests will help you stay on top of new and emerging threats and manage vulnerabilities.
Most compliance frameworks require organizations to conduct an annual security assessment such as a penetration test. Customers may also ask you to perform an annual pen test as part of their vendor due diligence process or contractual agreement.
List of trusted penetration testing and vulnerability scanning firms
Secureframe partners with the most trusted penetration testing and vulnerability scanning vendors to help our customers achieve best-in-class security standards. This list includes highly respected firms that specialize in all types of security assessments.
BSK Security penetration testing covers web and mobile applications, cloud systems, and APIs with test scrips designed to find system vulnerabilities.
Cobalt's carefully vetted penetration testers are highly experienced in assessments and penetration testing for mobile and web applications, web APIs, network security, and more.
Highly experienced, military-trained ethical hackers at CyAlpha offer secure testing and validation of IT infrastructure and applications.
The Federacy pen testing platform offers an efficient data collection process and reporting process using industry-leading standards.
With a comprehensive onboarding process, GRSee gains a deep understanding of each client’s vulnerability management processes and business logic, enabling them to design customized testing approaches.
Insight Assurance performs point-in-time penetration testing services using a mix of automated and manual tools by experienced ethical hackers.
Lost Rabbit Labs
The security experts at Lost Rabbit Labs deliver penetration testing tools that focus on identifying and removing potential attack paths, vulnerabilities, and data security leaks.
Moss Adams LLP
Moss Adams offers comprehensive security assessments and in-depth penetration testing that mimic real-world attempts to infiltrate your network.
The team at Prescient Security offers comprehensive security assessment and penetration testing services that include social engineering, mobile and web application testing, code analysis, and much more.
Rhymetec penetration testing can simulate attacks against web and mobile applications, APIs, networks, and wireless infrastructure.
Schellman Compliance LLC
Schellman Compliance offers a comprehensive set of penetration testing and security assessment services to help organizations identify vulnerabilities.
Secure Cloud Innovations LLC
Secure Cloud Innovations’ security professionals help companies identify and prevent vulnerabilities within their networks and applications through a mix of penetration testing methodologies.
Software Secured offers testing services that are tailored to your organization to enhance and strengthen your security posture.
TrustFoundry's full array of penetration testing services can help your business identify and eliminate security vulnerabilities, with 1,000+ assessments delivered and 40 years of penetration testing experience.
PCI DSS Approved Scanning Vendors (ASV)
The Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC) maintains a list of approved scanning vendors for organizations that are required to maintain PCI DSS compliance.
Their searchable database allows companies to find an ASV that meets their exact needs and serves their geographic location.
Monitor vulnerabilities and maintain best-in-class security with Secureframe
Security assessments give you a deeper understanding of your overall security posture and help you build an actionable plan for improvement. With a security and compliance automation platform like Secureframe, you can put that plan into practice.
- Continuously monitor your tech stack and receive alerts for failing tests. Secureframe pulls Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) data from multiple integrations to automatically alert you when vulnerabilities are discovered.
- Manage risk, vendors, and assets for a 360’ view into your security posture and threat landscape
- Get expert guidance from dedicated CSMs and compliance experts, plus access to a partner network of trusted auditors and pen testing firms
Learn more about how Secureframe can help by scheduling a personalized demo today.