Different between security assessment and penetration test
July 3, 2023
What is the difference between a security assessment and a penetration test?
In today’s world, cyber attacks are becoming increasingly common and sophisticated, making it essential for businesses to take necessary measures to protect their assets. There are many different approaches that a company can take to evaluate their security posture and protect themselves against cyber threats, and two of the most common approaches are security assessments and penetration tests. While both are critical components of a comprehensive security program within an organisation, the two terms are often used interchangeably despite the fact there are significant differences between them. But what is the difference between them?

"At a high level, security assessments can be considered as 'inside out' and identify potential vulnerabilities. Pentests on the other hand, are 'outside in', and don't just identify vulnerabilities - they go further by verifying that they are real and can be exploited. Both are vital components of a comprehensive security program and complement each other in identifying vulnerabilities and strengthening your company defences." Alice Conibere, Junior Security Researcher

What is a security assessment?

A security assessment typically focuses upon a specific area of risk that an organisation has identified or can provide a holistic overview of an organisation and their security systems currently in place. It is a broad approach that can examine all aspects of an organisation, including security, policies, procedures, and technical controls. An internal team or third party will identify potential vulnerabilities through a series of security exercises and review implemented procedures. Due to a security assessment requiring someone manually investigating an organisation, these potential vulnerabilities are not exploited.

Some organisations might choose to include a vulnerability assessment as part of their security assessment, using automated tools, such as Nessus, to scan their network for potential vulnerabilities that an attacker could exploit. These tools are not a complete security solution, as they only provide a snapshot of the network at that given point-in-time. It is up to the organisation’s relevant parties to patch vulnerabilities identified by automated vulnerability scanners; however, Nessus does provide advice that suggests the best way for an organisation to mitigate against any potentially identified vulnerabilities.

When undertaking a security assessment, the first steps are for the scope of the assessment to be defined by the organisation. This includes identifying any relevant networks, systems, or applications that will be assessed. Relevant information about the identified assets is then gathered, with the potential of interviews being conducted with relevant stakeholders so further information can be identified. Documentation, policies, and system configurations are also reviewed so any potential vulnerabilities can be identified. Mitigations are provided to the organisation by the relevant party conducting the security assessment, so the organisation can implement these recommendations.

What is a penetration test?

A penetration test, commonly referred to as a pentest, is a simulated attack on an organisation’s systems. This involves authorised individuals or teams simulating real-world attacks on an organisation’s computer systems, networks, or applications to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses. The goal of pentesting is to proactively identify potential security flaws before a malicious threat actor can exploit them.

During a pentest, security professionals adopt the mindset and techniques of hackers to assess the security posture of a target system. They employ a wide range of tools, methodologies, and tactics to discover vulnerabilities, such as weak passwords, unpatched software, misconfigurations, or insecure network connections. By exploiting these vulnerabilities, pentesters gain access to the system and evaluate the potential impact of a real attack.

Pentesting provides organisations with valuable insights into their security vulnerabilities, allowing them to take corrective measures to strengthen their defences. It helps uncover weak points that could be exploited by hackers, assess the effectiveness of security controls, and validate compliance with industry regulations and standards. Through pentesting, organisations can proactively identify and address security weaknesses, reducing the risk of successful cyber attacks and the associated financial and reputational damages.

What are the main differences between a security assessment and penetration test?

The main difference between a security assessment and a pentest is their approach. A security assessment is a non-invasive approach that identifies vulnerabilities, threats, and risks to an organisation’s assets. It provides recommendations to mitigate the identified risks identified during the assessment. However, a pentest is more of an invasive approach that attempts to exploit vulnerabilities to gain access to sensitive information upon the systems defined within the scope. A real-world scenario is provided of how an attacker could exploit vulnerabilities within the organisation’s assets.

Another key difference is the scope of the assessment, a security assessment is viewed as a broader approach that examines all aspects of security, including the more human side of things. A pentest is a targeted approach that focuses on a specified system, network, or application.

It is important to note that both security assessments and pentests have different objectives and are not mutually exclusive. Organisations need to perform a wide range of assessments to identify vulnerabilities and mitigate any risks to their assets. While security assessments provide an overview of the security posture of an organisation and help identify vulnerabilities, pentests help simulate real-world attacks and determine the effectiveness of current security measures.


Security assessments and penetration tests are vital components of a comprehensive security program. While their objective and approach differ, they complement each other in identifying vulnerabilities within an organisation’s systems. By performing assessments regularly to ensure the security of your organisation’s assets, attacks can be detected and responded to effectively.

If you have any questions, or would like to discuss how we can help with your next engagement, please do get in touch!

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