Vulnerability Scans and Penetration Tests — What’s the Difference Anyway?

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Published on
July 20, 2023

Every company is vulnerable to cyberattacks. Whether you own a small local business, a quickly expanding enterprise, or any kind of company in-between, having a proper network security solution in place is vital to your success. In fact, failing to do so could mean the end of your organization. According to recent statistics, 60 percent of small businesses fold within six months after a cyberattack.

Chris Akenson, the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) and Senior Analyst at STN, says “hackers are out there scanning the internet and looking for vulnerabilities 24/7. Without performing security measures like vulnerability scans or penetration tests, your company is more vulnerable and has a greater chance of being targeted.”

There are steps you can take to keep your company protected though. By regularly performing vulnerability scans and penetration tests, you can help ensure you’ll be aware of any threats to your network, so you can quickly and efficiently eliminate them.

Chris Akenson went on to say, “there are plenty of threat vectors out there, but there is technology available that can help mitigate your risks and protect your company.” And no matter what industry you work in or what size your business is—vulnerability scans, penetration tests, or a combination of the two can be an important step in keeping your network secure and business safe.

This statement begs the question about how vulnerability scans and penetration tests differ and how to best take advantage of them.

Vulnerability scan – the automated approach

To keep a network secure, all companies should perform vulnerability scans. This automated test provides an in-depth look at a network and helps identify potential security weaknesses. It also informs you of the severity of those weaknesses and helps you choose the best path for remediation to reduce and even eliminate the risk.

By performing vulnerability scans, you’ll be able to identify issues such as missing patches and outdated protocols, certificates, and services—which can all have an impact on the integrity of your network security. However, for vulnerability scans to truly be effective, it’s important that they’re performed on a regular basis. Chris Akenson says, “at STN, we generally recommend running quarterly vulnerability scans internally, and then having a third party run another scan to confirm your findings.” It all depends on the individual needs of each company though.

Vulnerability scans are also more than just good practice. The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program puts regulatory compliances in place for many companies in the financial, healthcare, and other industries that are highly targeted by hackers—requiring them to perform vulnerability scans throughout the year.

Penetration test – the human approach

During a penetration test, an “ethical hacker” will attempt to break into your organization’s network. This highly trained cybersecurity professional will act just as a hacker would. They will try to identify lax security settings, insecure processes, and stored passwords to break into your network and take over your main controller. By doing so, they help determine if it’s possible for someone to break into your network and what information they can gain access to.

To get accurate results, it’s important to have your penetration test completed by an outside company. Chris Akenson says, “there could be a conflict of interest if the people who run your network also test it.” When it comes to a penetration test, it’s best to have it completed by an outsider who’s unfamiliar with your company network and whose reputation won’t be at stake if an overwhelming amount of network weaknesses are discovered.

Two security measures are better than one

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing each have their benefits. Used together, they can provide an effective and nearly impenetrable barrier. According to Chris Akenson, “in combination, these security measures create an almost-perfect blueprint for securing a network.”

Think of vulnerability scanning as the information gathering stage. It searches through your network, informs you of weaknesses, and helps you identify the best path forward. Then, penetration testing validates your results. It will test those weaknesses, attempt to exploit them, and enables you to prioritize which threats you should deal with first.

Choose a trusted cybersecurity provider

There are more cybersecurity solutions available to organizations today than ever before—and that number is only growing. The global managed services security market is projected to reach 29.9 billion by 2020, according to a study by the Allied Marketing Services.2

With so many options, it’s important to choose a service provider you can trust. Before you decide which is right for your organization, conduct some research and make sure they’re fully credible. We recommend only working with cybersecurity professionals who are Certified Information Systems Security Professionals (CIISP), the gold standard of certifications in cybersecurity. In addition, it’s best to work with a company who has experience providing security solutions for your specific industry.

Take steps to secure your organization’s future

As cyber threats evolve and become more advanced, it’s more important than ever to secure your company’s network. That means you need to perform annual penetration tests, quarterly vulnerability scans, and take daily precautions to protect your assets from the growing threat of cyber thieves.

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