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Cybersecurity 101: vulnerability assessment vs. penetration testing

BY eSentire

August 1, 2017 | 4 MINS READ

Managed Risk Programs

Vulnerability Scanning/Management

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We sat down with Eldon Sprickerhoff, Founder and Chief Security Strategist at eSentire to discuss vulnerability management and how to measure the strength of defenses. This discussion comes on the heels of recent high-profile cyber-attacks, such as Petya and WannaCry—attacks that could have been prevented with proper vulnerability management strategies, such as vulnerability assessments and penetration testing.

Eldon explained the difference between these tests and the merits of both, emphasizing why they must work together to provide a comprehensive cyber-attack prevention plan.

Eldon has over 20 years of tactical information security experience, defining operational security best practices and overseeing the security posture on behalf of eSentire customers. He holds several security industry certifications (including CISSP, CISA, and CRISC) and is considered to be a subject matter expert in information security analysis.

What is a vulnerability assessment?

A vulnerability is a weakness in a device, software or configuration that can be exploited by cybercriminals. A vulnerability assessment (or scan) is the first step in assessing your business’ strengths, weaknesses and needs from a cybersecurity perspective.

To explain how this works, let’s use the analogy of a house. Performing a vulnerability assessment would be like giving someone the keys to your house (credentials), and asking them to walk around (both inside and out) to determine how someone might gain access to what’s inside (network).

During their assessment, they might check the windows, test the locks and evaluate the strength of the fence outside. In essence, they’d try to find every possible way someone might break in and steal your belongings. If they found a key under the mat or a broken lock on the back gate, those would be the vulnerabilities they’d report back to you.

Some systems on the network (such as network equipment, A/V equipment, videoconferencing equipment, and backup hardware) are particularly susceptible to vulnerabilities. Commonly-installed third-party software such as Adobe software, browsers and browser plug-ins can also be exploited.

Fortunately, many companies conduct vulnerability assessments; however, it’s only the first step in ensuring threats won’t get in.

What is penetration testing?

As you conduct regular vulnerability scans, hackers are doing the same thing – scanning your network, trying to find the weak points where they can break in. The difference is, hackers won’t stop when they find a vulnerability; they’ll attack. This is where the penetration testing comes in.

In keeping with the house analogy, hiring a penetration tester is akin to hiring a burglar. You want this person to break into your house however they can, and take with them all that they can hold. It may sound counterproductive, but it’s the only way you’ll know for sure what’s possible.

For example, if you didn’t fix the lock on the back gate, the burglar will use that to gain access to your backyard, and from there he might find an unlocked back door and gain access to your house. However, if your home alarms are turned on, you’ll catch the burglar and be able to rest easy, knowing your defenses are working.

Penetration testing takes a vulnerability scan to the next level. And nowadays, both clients and regulators are asking for them. Unfortunately, a recent investigation conducted by the SEC found that 57% of the investment management firms did not conduct penetration tests and vulnerability scans on systems that were considered to be critical.

Businesses may shy away from penetration testing because they don’t think their company is big enough to be hacked or because they simply don’t have the budget for it. But with the steady increase of cyber-attacks on small and mid-sized firms who lack the means to protect themselves, conducting these tests on a regular basis could help prevent a serious breach.

How often should you be doing these tests?

Vulnerability testing should be done on an ongoing basis – say monthly or quarterly, whereas penetration testing can be done as a yearly checkup.

A vulnerability assessment allows you to prepare for a penetration test, and a penetration test allows you to prove you’re acting on any vulnerabilities, so it’s critical that a vulnerability assessment is performed (and identified vulnerabilities remediated) before any penetration testing is initiated.

Unless you have the internal capabilities and resources, penetration tests are typically outsourced to an external entity. Performing the two types of tests helps you prepare for any attacks made on your network, but that’s not the only reason to implement them into your cybersecurity approach. They also allow you to demonstrate to your clients and regulators that you are taking measures to identify vulnerabilities and apply the appropriate defenses to mitigate the potential risk of an attack.

Learn more

eSentire provides both of these assessments as part of our Advisory Services. With eSentire, you can work with dedicated security experts to assess risks, develop cybersecurity roadmaps to address known gaps and build a comprehensive program that meets the requirements of your industry and business. If you would like to learn more about our services or how to conduct vulnerability scans and penetration tests, please visit our Advisory Services.


eSentire, Inc., the Authority in Managed Detection and Response (MDR), protects the critical data and applications of 2000+ organizations in 80+ countries, across 35 industries from known and unknown cyber threats by providing Exposure Management, Managed Detection and Response and Incident Response services designed to build an organization’s cyber resilience & prevent business disruption. Founded in 2001, eSentire protects the world’s most targeted organizations with 65% of its global base recognized as critical infrastructure, vital to economic health and stability. By combining open XDR platform technology, 24/7 threat hunting, and proven security operations leadership, eSentire's award-winning MDR services and team of experts help organizations anticipate, withstand and recover from cyberattacks. For more information, visit: www.esentire.com and follow @eSentire.

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