Pen Test or Vulnerability Scan?

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The difference between a penetration test and a vulnerability scan lies in the amount of human time and skill needed to perform it, and the depth to which the target systems will be assessed. Scans are automated and therefore are quite shallow, whereas penetration tests are largely manual but can result in systems being more thoroughly evaluated.

Some compliance standards, such as PCI DSS, require that both vulnerability scans and penetration tests are carried out on a regular basis – so it’s important to know the difference.

What is a penetration test?

A testing process designed to locate and exploit vulnerabilities in IT systems. It relies heavily on the skill of a penetration tester (sometimes called an “ethical hacker”);  an individual skilled in a wide range of techniques that can be used to gain unauthorised access to systems.

Penetration tests are useful in gauging exactly how susceptible an organisation is to attack, breach and loss of data. This is achieved by emulating the kinds of reconnaissance and attacks that a real hacker would use.

A penetration test report is written by the tester and would contain the following sections:

  • A non-technical management summars, with a business focus
  • A technical summary of recommendations
  • Detailed test results


What is a vulnerability scan?

A vulnerability scan is an automated process where the location of vulnerabilities is performed entirely by a software tool known as a scanner.

Such tools are good at uncovering individual vulnerabilities, but they lack the ability to piece together individual issues in order to discover ways in which target systems could be breached in real life.

Vulnerability scans are useful as a low-cost way to support risk management, and can even be performed by suitably experienced end-users.

A vulnerability assessment report is automatically generated and would contain the following sections:

  • A summary of technical findings
  • Scan results

Find out more here.

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