Updated On 7 February, 2023

The Difference between Vulnerability Scans and Pen Tests

What is the difference between Vulnerability Scans and Pen Tests?

We have often seen in our client interactions that business owners confuse vulnerability scans with pen tests. A surprising number of inquiries have come through from companies for vulnerability scans when they’re actually looking for a pen test. Regardless, vulnerability scans and pen tests have become crucial and fundamental to an organization’s security practices. Regulations and standards like NYDFS, FedRAMP, and PCI DSS mention these terms in their requirements distinctively. However, GDPR, CCPA, and HIPAA specify reasonable security practices or security assessments. In either case, vulnerability scans and pen tests will be covered.

Vulnerability scans search for known vulnerabilities in your digital systems. These high-level scans are primarily automated, and their objective is limited to reporting potential vulnerabilities. However, pen tests go a step beyond that to conduct simulated attacks by leveraging controlled exploitation on your systems without causing any negative impact to business. Put simply, a vulnerability scan checks whether a door is open while a pen test walks in to see what is behind the door.

What is a vulnerability scan?

A vulnerability scan is a security exercise that seeks to identify existing vulnerabilities in an organization’s digital systems. Vulnerability scans are also called vulnerability assessments. Vulnerability scanners report their findings against a database of known vulnerabilities. Since vulnerability scans can be automated, an organization can configure scans to run on a scheduled basis. The time taken for a vulnerability scan can range from a few minutes to several hours.

Once a scan is completed, a detailed report is created. This report will contain information about the vulnerabilities identified in the scan. The amount of information and customizations available for the report depends on your vendor’s scanning platform. Good vulnerability scans will also offer you guidance on mitigating the vulnerabilities.

A commonly accepted practice is to use the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) for assigning a number on a scale of 1 to 10. 10 means it is a high-severity vulnerability, while 1 corresponds to an information log. This scale is also valuable for prioritizing the vulnerabilities for remediation. As these tests are automated, scanners tend to have a high number of false positives in the reports. As such, you are left with no option but to verify the findings manually.

In day-to-day security ops, vulnerability assessments play an integral part in securing organization’s systems. Conducting vulnerability scans is an example of a ‘broad’ or ‘boil the ocean’ approach to organizational security.

What is a pen test?

Pen tests aim to provide a hacker’s perspective to an organization by exploiting the existing vulnerabilities and loopholes in an organization’s IT systems. This exercise is conducted in a controlled environment to prevent any impact on the client’s business environment. The objective behind exploiting vulnerabilities is to assess the potential impact on the company if they were to be exploited by real hackers. Pen tests include both manual and automated testing techniques. While conducting pen tests, security experts must follow an attacker-like approach. However, this is only possible when the pen test team is familiar with the attackers’ TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures).

An ideal pen testing methodology would be based on industry-accepted standards such as NIST SP 800-115. It would cover internal and external testing and dedicated tests for application and network layers. A pen test must consider the findings discovered in the last twelve months and whether they have been patched. A pen test report should also contain information about appropriate measures for the remediation of identified vulnerabilities.

The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) identifies five phases in a penetration test: Scoping, Discovery, Exploitation, Post-exploitation, and Reporting. The FedRAMP guidance specifies that the scope of a pen test should include web application, API, mobile app, network, social engineering, and simulated internal attacks.

The FedRAMP guidance also outlines mandatory attack vectors to be tested during a pen test:

  1. Web application & API: Application logic, input validation, session management, authentication, and authorization.
  2. Mobile application: Data storage, information disclosure, and authorization.
  • Network: Attack scenarios, record results, and exploitation.
  1. Social engineering: Spear phishing.
  2. Simulated internal attack: Privilege escalation and record results.

Even if your organization does not need to comply with FedRAMP requirements, this guidance can be considered best practice.


Data protection laws require mandatory data breach disclosure within a prescribed time limit. These regulations also carry harsh fines and penalties when not adhered to. Avoiding fines and penalties is a good idea on any given day; an organization shall never compromise the security of its IT systems and data stored therein. The most common root cause behind majority of the data breaches and security attacks across the globe is a known vulnerability that wasn’t patched. Therefore, organizations must improve their security posture through regular vulnerability scans and pen tests. You can simplify your organization’s security testing process with BreachLock’s Penetration Testing as a Service (PTaaS) offerings, which combines the power of AI, Automation, and Human PenTesters to deliver fast and comprehensive pen tests at scale. Schedule a call here!

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