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Understanding the nuances: comparing vulnerability scanning and pentesting

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When talking with our customers, we often notice that some terms are used interchangeably. Often borrowed from English or used incorrectly over time, the distinction between a vulnerability scan and a pentest becomes blurry. In this article, we aim to provide clarity on these two important aspects of improving cyber security. Because there is a significant difference between the two. And not knowing the difference could have an impact on your cybersecurity policy.
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What happens when you get hacked?

Understanding the repercussions of a cyberattack is crucial in comprehending the significance of vulnerability scans and pentests. So let’s start at the beginning: what happens exactly when a business gets hacked by cyber criminals? 
When cyber criminals target a business, their objective is to gain unauthorized access to computer systems. Once inside, they can engage in malicious activities, such as deploying ransomware, deleting or stealing data, or spreading malware. Additionally, they may install spyware to infiltrate sensitive information or deliberately sabotage operations with viruses.

However, the majority of successful breaches are surprisingly simple. The victims either lack proper security measures or have known vulnerabilities, often resulting from unconscious human actions. The most common method employed by threat actors to gain access to a system is by exploiting compromised, standard, or easily guessable passwords. In fact, one of the most frequently used passwords globally is "123456".

The chance a SME is attacked by a cyber criminal is 1:5. Mind you, the chance of the theft of a laptop is 1:1250 and the chance of a fire in a company building is 1:8000. So testing your defensive layers is now more crucial than ever. 

Software is always at risk

The emergence of a revolutionary digital landscape driven by big data, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and cloud computing is transforming our lives, work and interactions dramatically. As our society and economy increasingly rely on information and communication technologies, this digitalization has also brought forth significant risks and vulnerabilities.

Software in many forms is often the driver of this rapidly transforming digitalization. Due to its inherent vulnerabilities and the continuous evolution of technology, software is always at risk for cyber criminals.

To get inside your software tool, web application or other digital asset, cybercriminals first need an entrance. This of course isn’t something that’s given freely, so we secure access with for example passwords. Simple enough - it does seem to keep criminals at bay. But then, how is it that we see - every year - billions of euros worth of damage from cybercrime? Well, it’s simply because a cybercriminal can’t be kept out using only a password.

Just as a burglar isn’t deterred by a locked door - there are always ways to get in, even without a key. Software and systems consist entirely of pieces of code, which can be exploited. Any code can potentially contain vulnerabilities. These often arise inadvertently during the development process. We call these errors ‘zero-day leaks.’
Cybercriminals are constantly looking for these vulnerabilities; they can become back-doors through which they can slip into your network or software. Or they manipulate the code - by overwriting it, for example.

Keeping ahead of cybercriminals as much as possible is key to protecting your company from reputational and financial damage. How can you do this? By conducting a vulnerability scan or allowing an ethical hacker to penetrate your digital assets. But what are the differences between these two ways of improving your cyber security? 

What is a vulnerability scan

A vulnerability scan is an automated process that utilizes specialized tools to examine networks, digital assets, web or mobile applications for potential security risks.By identifying vulnerabilities, these scans help mitigate cybersecurity risks that, if left unaddressed, can lead to significant damage to businesses.

A cyber security expert or ethical hacker uses these scanning tools to gather information about the vulnerabilities of your digital assets. However, vulnerability scanners are relatively dumb, as they often generate false positives or even worse false negatives. Vulnerability scanners are incomplete by definition by the lack of human input and qualification. 

Advantages of a vulnerability scan:

  • A vulnerability scan is a fast process. There are tools that can provide you with a vulnerability report within 3 minutes.
  • As a result, scans are generally cost-effective.
  • Automated process: no human needs to get involved to conduct the vulnerability scan. 

Drawbacks of a vulnerability scan:

  • The given information is not in-depth and does not provide suggestions to fix the potential vulnerabilities.
  • Each vulnerability found in a report must, at the very least, be manually verified.
  • Many false positives: the risk of finding non-dangerous vulnerabilities is significant, especially in large organizations. And scans don’t learn this for themselves, so more false positives will continue to be found in the future.
  • Just as everything within a digital infrastructure, the vulnerability scanner also needs regular updates, which cost time.

What is a pentest?

A pentest, short for penetration test, offers a more realistic assessment of systems by simulating cyberattacks from an external perspective. A pentest is a simulated cyber attack performed by an ethical hacker carried out on your network, software tool, web application or other digital asset. The goal of a pentest is similar to that of a maleficent cyber criminal: gain unauthorized access. When doing so, the ethical hacker reports all vulnerabilities he comes across when trying to achieve his goal.

The logic behind a pentest is simple: if a pentester succeeds in gaining unauthorized access, then a cybercriminal would be able to do the same. Although a pentester often uses tools to perform a pentest, it is the human creativity which makes a pentest very effective.

Advantages of a pentest:

  • The pentest is a realistic simulation of a cyberattack. If the knowledge of the tester is at the same level as the cybercriminal then any potential vulnerabilities are laid bare.
  • A pentest is normally more reliable than an automated scan alone.
  • Problematic vulnerabilities that arise from non-technical causes are also discovered. This could be, for instance, the human element of data handling.

Drawbacks of a pentest:

  • Pentesting is normally a non-continuous process. Something that’s secure today can perhaps become vulnerable tomorrow.
  • Pentests are carried out by people. This frequently makes them more expensive than vulnerability scans unless automation is used.
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Automated vs manual pentesting

When it comes to pentesting, we encounter two approaches regarding the methodology: manual versus automated. The advantage of automated pentesting lies in its efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and accuracy compared to manual pentesting.
The difference between manual and automated pentesting lies in the execution and approach. In manual pentesting, a trained ethical hacker conducts the tests manually, using human expertise and creativity to discover vulnerabilities.

On the other hand, automated pentesting utilizes automated tools and software to perform tests, making the process faster and more efficient. While manual pentesting provides in-depth insights and focuses on complex scenarios, automated pentesting offers scalability and the ability to conduct repeated tests.

Often vulnerability scanning and automated pentesting are seen as the same cyber security measures. Both vulnerability scans and automated pentests use automation tools, but the main difference between a vulnerability scan and a pentest lies in the objective. In an automated pentest, cyber attacks are mainly simulated to determine the location of vulnerabilities.This provides a more realistic view of the actual security of the system and offers more insights into how a real attacker would operate.

The three mentioned methods do not cancel each other out; they can complement each other to ensure a comprehensive security assessment. A combination of manual, automated pentesting and vulnerability scans provides a balanced and thorough approach to ensuring the security of systems.

Penetration Testing as a Service: first class security with the best of both worlds 

Companies don’t need to sacrifice quality for convenience. Thanks to Hacksclusive, they now have the option of using a pentesting as a service (PTAAS) platform.

A PTAAS combines the high level of security assessment obtained by pentesting, with the transparency and accessibility of a secure cloud service. The platform is regularly maintained and updated with the latest tools, including automations that save time and money, and customers gain detailed insights about each pentest and what actions are needed.

Whether using automated assistance or not, the key to ensuring the best results from either a vulnerability scan or pentest is the expertise of a cybersecurity expert or ethical hacker. To outsmart the cybercriminals, you need expertise and hacking skills that surpass the bad guys. Only then can you be certain that your cybersecurity is sufficient. 

Curious if a vulnerability scan or a pentest is the best solution as a cyber security measurement for your business? Get in touch with us! 

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