Proper cybersecurity involves staying on top of the health of your security measures and the ability to quickly and thoroughly diagnose potential issues with your system. Two common assessments cyber technicians use to do this are the penetration test and the vulnerability test, which are sometimes confused for each other. Here's what you need to know about them.
A penetration test is used to find and identify the vulnerabilities (security weaknesses) in your network, and to determine whether these vulnerabilities are legitimate concerns and can be exploited to gain access into the network. It is done manually – the person performing the test tries to gain access to the customers' network through different network channels like a hacker would.
The focus of a vulnerability assessment is to identify as many network weaknesses as possible, rather than drilling down and finding out how vulnerable they make your network. A high-quality vulnerability test can scan for more than 50,000 vulnerabilities. This high-level test can be run manually, but it is often conducted by an automatic program at scheduled intervals, after which the findings are documented in a report.
Depending on the program, the report may include references for future reference or general directions on how to deal with listed problems – and may even categorize or "score" vulnerabilities by level of risk (high, medium, or low). There is no attempt to exploit discovered vulnerabilities, meaning it is possible to have false positives. It also leaves it up to the business or IT to confirm whether a vulnerability is a false positive or put in a patch to respond to vulnerabilities with high risk scores.
Which Is Better?
The main difference between penetration and vulnerability tests is like the difference between an X-ray and a detailed MRI – not only in terms of specificity but also in level of expertise. The person who conducts a penetration test is someone with a high level of digital and security expertise. Not surprisingly, penetration tests can cost somewhere in the ballpark of $15,000 to $70,000, depending on how many IPs are tested. On the other hand, vulnerability assessments are more affordable, quicker to carry out, and can be automated to run in intervals.
Whether you need a penetration or vulnerability test will depend on the level of information security you require, whether you need to meet certain security standards, and the decided level of acceptable risk.