Determining Your Risk: Vulnerability Assessments vs. Penetration Tests

by Brad Garland

Vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are both important components of threat management, but there’s often quite a bit of confusion surrounding the difference between the two. This confusion often leads to wasted resources and inefficient risk management strategies. Both methods can be performed internally or externally depending on your company’s industry, environment and internal skill set. Internal vulnerability tests are required by guidance acts like GLBA and HIPAA, so it’s important to know distinctions among various methods of risk assessments to determine your risk of a cybersecurity breach.


What’s a Vulnerability Assessment?

A vulnerability assessment is essentially the process of identifying real and potential vulnerabilities in your security policies and procedures and your entire information security structure. During an assessment, you evaluate the next steps that need to be taken to eliminate current holes in your security system or reduce the amount of risk they pose.


What’s a Penetration Test?

A penetration test simulates an internal or external cyber attack. Typically, only institutions that internally host multiple databases, websites, or file servers need an internal penetration test, as they are the one with the highest level of risk. In a penetration test, you or an IT security consulting company attempts to breach your system and steal data or compromise the information on your servers. Companies often hire renowned hackers for this task, just like security firms hire former safe-crackers or professional thieves to test their physical systems. The tester will try to gain access to confidential or sensitive data. If he succeeds, tighter security measures are needed. A true external penetration test will usually include an external vulnerability assessment, but not always. That being said, we always include the two together and believe this should be done annually.


Which Method is Best for Your Organization?

To determine which method is best for your organization (or if multiple methods are necessary) you should first investigate current procedures in place and the environment in which your data is stored. Examine the information you have stored internally and how it is currently protected. Look into your firewalls, encryption type, anti-virus software, and any other types of protection. 

Ideally, you should have a vulnerability solution in place internally and use the services of a third party to validate your testing. If you don't have the ability, staff, or budget to implement the test internally, you should consider hiring a security consulting company. A vulnerability assessment identifies your weaknesses and helps you determine how to fix the problems, as opposed to a penetration test which shows you whether someone can break into your system and what information could potentially be stolen or corrupted.

A penetration test is a virtual snapshot of your current security structure, so most organizations should start with a vulnerability assessment then go forward with penetration testing.

In conclusion, the best way to keep your system safe is with constant assessment. Contact us for more information about cybersecurity and safeguarding your company.