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App Security Insights

What is the Difference between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing?

Mar 9, 2018 1:28:08 PM / by AppSolid Team

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In just a few short years, applications have become the go-to way that most consumers connect to the internet. Something about the inherent usability and simplicity of an app — whether it be designed for mobile devices or the web — has a widespread appeal that attracts developers and users alike.

Yet, as the popularity of apps (especially those of the mobile variety) has skyrocketed, the risks involved have likewise only increased. Hackers and other malicious users have a nasty way of mounting more invasive, innovative and damaging cyber-attacks with each passing year.

This means developers like you have to be ready to take the necessary precautions to protect your users and your code against those who wish to dismantle and exploit them both.

That’s why application security tactics, such as vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, need to be such an integral part of your strategy. Frankly, you need to learn how to embrace application security as a whole, but these two methods are among the most used and most effective ways to keep hackers at bay and safeguard your app against their intended harm.

However, while there’s no right time to take your application security plan up a notch (other than right now, really), perhaps you’re best served if you have a better idea of the tools we’re recommending you implement into your app.

Today we’ll be taking a closer look at the oft-confused vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, clarifying why both can prove invaluable to any application.

Understanding the Enemy

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In today’s technology-driven world, it can sometimes feel like everyone is out to get you. But with a wary eye and a thoughtful mind, you don’t have to let your paranoia get the best of you. Just a few simple best practices can keep you focused on the protection of your app without spiraling out of control.

This , of course, comes with a deeper understanding of the hackers and other malicious users who wish to cause you harm. Stay updated on the latest developments involving cyber-attacks, including both recent data breaches and the latest updates to your security measures. There’s no better way to be an easy target than to remain completely out of the loop on what you should be doing to keep your app out of the wrong hands.

When your goal is to avoid a cyber-attack, knowledge is certainly key. Work with your customers to keep them in the loop on what they can do to protect themselves and fortify the steps you’re already taking. Giving consumers a bit of autonomy with how their data interacts with your app can be a huge step toward minimizing the amount of sensitive data stored behind your code.

The steps you take to manage data and the role your consumers play in your app’s functionality will often dictate the level of risk involved in the day-to-day operation of your app. This includes the employees on your team who govern the back-end processes of your app. Be mindful of who has access to your app’s code and user data, and do everything in your power to keep it away from wandering (and therefore less trustworthy) eyes.

A Crash Course on Vulnerability Scanning

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If you’re not already familiar with vulnerability scanning, you’re probably wondering how this whole thing works. Well, its name may have tipped you off to the whole thing already because what vulnerability scanning essentially does is analyze your app for any pre-existing weak points that might make your app an easier target for a cyber-attack and even undermine what security measures you do have in place.

This can take a variety of forms, but the result is the same with any system of this type. Perhaps the version of vulnerability scanning your most familiar with comes in the form of personal security software, a common precaution that individual users may choose to implement into their system.

But vulnerability scanning is fast becoming a must for developers as well, no doubt to counter the rising threat levels. The irony here is that hackers themselves may be using a similar approach to find the easiest access points of a system they have earmarked as a possible target.

This race to identify security weaknesses may complicate matters a bit, but in the end, developers have a distinct edge because they have unmitigated access to their code and can more easily integrate vulnerability scanning and other security tools into the fabric of their precautionary measures.

Even the most intuitive hacker can’t muster knowledge of your app like the team that created it in the first place. Your ability to navigate your infrastructure will allow you to stay one step ahead of those who wish to cause your app harm. Naturally, the sooner you identify and correct any vulnerabilities, the better shape your infrastructure will be in whenever cyber-attackers do come calling.

Ironically, the implementation of any vulnerability scanning system may itself cause temporary disruption of your system, leading to potential overload or system crashes. But this result should be easily avoided if you take care in how you fuse your app’s framework with the scanning functionality aimed at protecting it.

In the end, the detailed interaction between the two will define the anticipated success level of any vulnerability scanning and determine whether you can keep hackers away. So, before you select a vulnerability scanning tool, be sure to assess your options for integration. After all, there are a wide variety of scanners on the market, which offer wildly different results depending on your app’s specific needs.

Some security scanners are intended to search a specific type of environment, such as mobile or web applications and even entire networks. You may also choose to implement a port scanner that finds open ports within any system, giving you a chance to close access points for a potential cyber-attack. The objective of your app will help you decide whether you need to scan your entire network for possible threats.

Not everyone needs such comprehensive protection, and ultimately, you don’t want to complicate your security framework any more than necessary to prevent cyber-attackers from inflicting damage. The smoother and simpler your approach to application security is, the more likely you are to stick with it and continue to develop a thorough method to put your app’s safety first.

Penetration Testing Explained

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While the goal of vulnerability scanning is to explore your system in the hopes of finding any weaknesses that might be exploited by hackers and other malicious users, penetration testing — or pen-testing, as it is commonly known — takes a more aggressive route to identifying the overall stability of your app from a security perspective. Basically, penetration testing is any tactic that puts your security to the test, in many cases creating an effort designed to simulate a cyber-attack.

The end goal, of course, is to determine opportunities for improvement in both your information systems as well as support areas. Think of it as more of an assessment tool than a diagnostic one.

By creating a scenario in which your security undergoes a controlled effort at a security breach, penetration testing reveals the truth behind whether or not all the investment of time and resources you’ve put into your application security is ultimately worth it. In this way, this approach ideally complements not only networking safety but also security effectiveness as well.

Simulating a thorough but false attack — or, in the best cases, a series of them — is an exceptional way of putting both internal and external users to the test. To really get the most out of your penetration testing, you’ll want to be sure to cover the user experience as well as that of your team. Finally, the results will make it so much easier to create a new plan of attack to prevent irreparable damage from real cyber-attackers.

With minimal real risk, you’ll know for sure whether your system is truly as reliable as you think it is or whether it complies with industry regulations. Just imagine the confidence with which you’ll be able to promote your app’s security and the safety you can guarantee your customers with a successful run of penetration testing on your record. Indeed, as cyber-attacks and various data breaches have become the norm, penetration testing has become an increasingly attractive option for developers, especially given the widespread application of this tool.

More than just a useful resource for web applications, penetration testing has proven useful for everything from a wide variety of enterprise applications and websites to phone and wireless systems.

Although it may take your security measures to new heights, evaluate all your options before you opt for penetration testing, as it’s far more involved and much more of an investment than simpler strategies like vulnerability scanning.

A World of Difference

Although they share a result, vulnerability scanning and penetration testing ultimately use vastly different approaches to ensure that your app doesn’t play host to hackers and other malicious users hoping to find a way into your app. The most obvious distinction between the two, of course, is that vulnerability scanning is designed specifically with mobile apps in mind, while penetration testing is a tool for web applications.

Still we highly recommend you employ vulnerability scanning measures into your app (after all, mobile technology is the future), that doesn’t mean that penetration testing is without its merits. Many of today’s operating systems rely on web-based applications rather than traditional software, meaning that penetration testing may have an important role in your business as well.

The differences between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are extensive. Whether you use one or the other (or both) will likely depend on a number of factors, chiefly how in-depth you’re looking to get with your application security. Vulnerability scanning may involve a thorough scan of your application. Yet, you may choose to engage in penetration testing to provide the highest level of protection for your app and its users. Limiting your exposure to a potential cyber-attack through early identification of weak points is one thing, but mounting a full-fledged (albeit simulated) cyber-attack is a surefire way to discover exactly what fallout you would be facing if hackers did attack.

Yet, rest assured that the comprehensive nature makes either worthy of consideration. Just take action to protect your app now rather than perpetually mulling it over, allowing hackers a wider window of opportunity to pounce on an unprotected application.

What Is Your Stance on Safety?

Regardless what the nature of your app may be (though it’s especially pertinent if you regularly deal with sensitive user data), we hope we’ve established why a deeper sense of security will only perpetuate your mission and future success. Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing — while vastly different tools in how they protect your app — share a common goal in creating the safest environment possible for your user base.

Remember, these are the same consumers whom you rely on to drive your business forward. You owe it to them to prioritize their safety as well as the extensive investment of time, resources and reputation you’ve placed into your app.

Just one massive cyber-attack — a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common — and everything you’ve worked for can fall apart.

Isn’t it worth it then to take preventative measures before such an attack were to take place? Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing can bring you that much closer to protecting the long-term future of your app, elevating your security to new heights and minimizing the associated risk.

It’s a scary world out there for app developers, but it doesn’t have to be. The benefits of today’s security resources dictate that cyber-attackers may face greater difficulty than ever as they attempt to launch a security breach. Developers like you are becoming wiser about what they can do to safeguard their apps from the flood of potential threats. You need only seek out resources like vulnerability scanning and penetration testing to begin implementation within your app.

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Topics: Vulnerability Scanning, Penetration Testing

Written by AppSolid Team