Understanding Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing ~ And why they both are important

Understanding Vulnerability Scans and Penetration Testing

Why You Need Both Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scans

Threats to data and system security have never been more numerous or sophisticated. Only last year, the City of Atlanta spent millions to restore their systems after a ransomware attack.  Great Britain reported a 200 percent leap in ransomware attacks from 2018 into 2019.  Even worse, many cybercriminals have shifted their target focus to businesses and organizations, including government, in more rural areas.  They bank on the idea that systems based in more remote areas will lack sophisticated defenses and tech-savvy staff.  By 2020, every online company or organization should consider themselves a target.  Now more than ever, both vulnerability scans and penetration testing are vital to system security.

Cyber Crime and Terror More Sophisticated Than Ever

In the past year, cybercriminals and terrorists have made use of two new techniques to increase their chances of successful breaches.  Malware “cocktails” combine various techniques to probe and discover system weaknesses. They attack on multiple fronts to identify weaknesses and then use the most opportune virus or another program to make the breach.  Others have set up malware for hire organizations. They sell their services on the open market to help clients breach targets.

What Is a Vulnerability Scan?

Vulnerability scans take two forms. In both, the scan works to identify weaknesses while also evaluating countermeasures.  Some compare a vulnerability scan to checking a house to make sure the windows and doors are locked and that home security systems are active and effective.  An unauthenticated vulnerability scan probes from the point of view of an outsider. It probes “exterior” defenses and searches for breachable weaknesses. These weak areas include routers, firewalls, switches, servers, applications, and other potential areas of egress.  Authenticated vulnerability scans probe from an insider point of view. It mimics the actions of someone who has somehow gained system access and desires to break through internal system barriers blocking access.  Vulnerability scans generally are automated.  They can target specific areas or evaluate the entire system, inside and out.

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing takes a more aggressive approach than vulnerability scans. A penetration tester takes the role of a cyber attacker probing for weaknesses to try to gain entry into a system.  Testing of this sort always uses a human actor, often referred to as an Ethical Hacker. Only a person can change the plan, adjust the programming of the breaching method, and generally act in unpredictable ways.  The tester runs reconnaissance, scans the system, breaches, wins access, establishes position, and tries to maintain it against countermeasures. Penetration testing allows a system to test how it will respond if the attacker “wins,” especially helping to determine if it can eliminate the threat once inside.

Why You Need Both

Vulnerability scans and penetration testing have separate goals even though their purposes and techniques overlap.  A vulnerability scan probes known vulnerabilities in the system and reports potential exposures. Penetration testing serves as a real-time examination of the effectiveness of defenses, countermeasures, and dislodging of a threat once embedded into the system. Both techniques can help an organization to reduce its risk. Knowing the specific purpose and expected outcomes of these can help an organization create a more effective approach.

Every organization that relies on digital technology or stores data should use both penetration testing and vulnerability scans to form a comprehensive cyber risk analysis.  Both of these techniques use different processes to identify separate sets of problems. Once an organization gets a full picture of the challenges to data and digital security, it can start rectifying them or coming up with a more specific and effective plan of defense and, if necessary, recovery.

Reach Out Today

Learn more about the dangers posed by ransomware attacks and how you can better defend your vital systems and data. Let us work with your organization to take the risk out of working online.

Interactive Security can be reached at ~ 267-824-2500 or on the web at www.intactsec.com

Interactive Security, Inc. has been at the forefront of providing industry leading expert information technology security services to clients across the globe – focused on IT Security Auditing & Compliance.


Vulnerability / Penetration Assessments ~ Application Security ~ PCI DSS ~ HIPAA ~ HiTRUST ~ ISO 27001 ~ FEDRAMP ~ FISMA/NIST ~ GDPR ~ Privacy Shield

Shawn Corrigan

Shawn Corrigan is the President and Founder of Interactive Security Holdings Inc. Interactive Security has grown into a global company offering IT Compliance Auditing services for small to large companies - focused on making it obtainable, simple and affordable. With over 20 years in the BPO and Financial industry working at the executive level, Corrigan has experienced the pitfalls, trials and tribulations of bringing an enterprise organization into IT compliance. Corrigan has designed a methodology geared at guiding clients of any size to successfully achieve compliance and ultimately obtain compliance certification. Corrigan is certified as a FISMA – NIST Implementor, PCI-DSS QSA, HiTRUST Certified Practitioner and HiTRUST Certified Quality Professional, ISO 27001 Lead Auditor and Implementor