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Vulnerability assessments versus penetration testing

18 July 2023 Time to read:  minutes

Author: Rob Brown, Trustmarque Senior Penetration Tester

The risks of choosing vulnerability assessments over penetration testing and the value of offensive security.

The escalating cyber threat landscape has made it increasingly vital for organisations to ensure that their systems and networks are secure from attackers. As a result, companies frequently employ various security measures such as vulnerability assessments (VA) and penetration testing. Whilst both methods are essential components of a robust cyber security strategy, you shouldn’t overlook the unique benefits of penetration testing to safeguard your digital assets. Here we will discuss the risks of relying solely on vulnerability assessments and highlights the value that penetration testing and other offensive security testing methods you can employ in your company.

The risks of relying solely on vulnerability assessments

Limited scope

Vulnerability assessments focus primarily on identifying and reporting known security weaknesses in your systems. While this is undoubtedly valuable, it does not provide a comprehensive view of your security posture. In contrast, penetration testing simulates real-world cyberattacks to uncover unknown vulnerabilities and test the effectiveness of your existing security measures.

A male IT professional comparing vulnerability assessments and penetration testing

False sense of security

Relying solely on vulnerability assessments may lead to a false sense of security, as you might think you have addressed all potential threats. Penetration testing can help you understand the actual risk level of your systems by putting your defences to the test.

Lack of context

Vulnerability assessments provide a list of identified vulnerabilities, but they do not always include contextual information about the potential impact of these vulnerabilities on your operations. Penetration testing, on the other hand, enables organisations to prioritise remediation efforts by understanding the real-world risks of successful cyberattacks.

The value of penetration testing – go on the offensive

Proactive security

Penetration testing is a proactive approach to cyber security, as it enables you to discover vulnerabilities before attackers do. By staying ahead of cyber threats, you can avoid costly data breaches and protect your reputation.

Comprehensive analysis

Penetration testing offers a more comprehensive analysis of your security posture than a vulnerability assessment. By examining the entire attack surface, penetration testers can identify weaknesses in both your organisation’s systems and its employees’ behaviour. Giving you valuable insights into potential attack vectors.

Compliance and regulatory requirements

Many industries and regulations, such as PCI DSS, HIPAA, and GDPR, require organisations to conduct regular penetration testing to maintain compliance. By fulfilling these requirements, you can avoid fines and penalties associated with non-compliance.

Building a security culture

Create a culture of security awareness by involving employees in the process and demonstrating the real-world consequences of lax security practices. This heightened awareness can lead to better security practices and improved overall cyber security posture.

What should you be doing?

Hiring a penetration testing company to do a vulnerability assessment is like hiring a restaurant chef to cook a microwave ready meal. Yes, the task will be executed and presented in a professional manner, however, you’re not going to get the best results possible.

For a vulnerability assessment, a security consultant at Trustmarque would scan your in-scope hosts, remove any likely false positives, and tidy up the results. However, if there are vulnerabilities that vulnerability scanners do not find these will not be included. In addition, if your assessment doesn’t identify any high-risk vulnerabilities, there could be, for example, attack paths that combine two medium vulnerabilities and a low but would achieve a compromise of one, some, or all hosts in your network. These types of risks would not be discovered on a vulnerability assessment and would be missing from your report.

A penetration test on the other hand, as well as including the scanning element from a vulnerability assessment, would seek to uncover unreported vulnerabilities through manual testing, would seek to validate and follow vulnerabilities to their conclusion from an attacker perspective, and would also seek to combine vulnerabilities where possible and show what a real-world attacker could achieve within the time frame.

The real value from a penetration test is when all the low-hanging fruit detected by a vulnerability scanner has been remediated. This will allow your consultant to focus on manual analysis and exploitation to secure your network. Essentially, the consultant is attacking your network or system in the same way that a real-world attacker would go about it, and then providing you with a report detailing how successful they were in bypassing controls.

Be stronger

While vulnerability assessments are an essential component of any cyber security strategy, they should not be considered a substitute for penetration testing. By conducting regular penetration tests and other offensive security measures, you will gain a complete understanding of your security posture, proactively address vulnerabilities, and build a stronger security culture. Ultimately, investing in penetration testing is a wise decision that will help you stay ahead of cyber threats and protect your valuable digital assets.

About the author: Rob Brown is a Senior Penetration Tester at Trustmarque and holds CHECK Team Leader status in both web applications and infrastructure. He was presented with a CREST fellowship (FCREST) at CRESTCon Europe in May 2023.

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