Why are Snorkeling and Scuba Diving helpful in Cybersecurity?

Let's dive into it

Understanding cybersecurity can be a daunting task, even for professionals in the field. With the ever-evolving technology and the continuous emergence of new threats, it's essential to have a clear understanding of security approaches.

When it comes to offensive security, vulnerability scanning and pentesting are the top two approaches. They increase your company’s security posture in different ways, but unlike how they have been treated in the past, the two can actually be used in conjunction to further strengthen your business’ defenses.

But before we can compare the two to snorkeling and scuba diving, it’s important to first define these terms. Vulnerability scanning is an automated process run by software that checks your network for common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs) and reports on them. Penetration testing (pen-testing), on the other hand, is a simulated attack conducted by real ethical hackers to identify and exploit vulnerabilities and misconfigurations.

While companies are increasingly looking to use both vulnerability scanners and penetration tests, many providers only offer one or the other. But what is the difference between the two, and is it worth paying for both?.

Vulnerability Scanners and Snorkeling:

Vulnerability scanning is like snorkeling. When you snorkel, you can make a quick visual assessment of the surrounding water, allowing you to identify fish, algae, and coral. Similarly, vulnerability scanners offer a surface-level, rapid assessment of your network's vulnerabilities and misconfigurations.

Advantages of Vulnerability Scanners

Vulnerability scanners are an efficient and cost-effective way to quickly identify and prioritize security issues, easily finding the low-hanging fruit. Floating on the surface with a snorkel mask helps you identify a group of clownfish that swims around corals and algae, and then report it to your friends on the boat afterward. (Disclaimer: Clownfish are not a threat).

These vulnerability scanners are one of the most efficient automated testing tools;, they are easy to scale and require only one or a few security professionals to implement remediation actions and patch detected vulnerabilities. To put it simply, the vulnerability scanner finds the threats for us, and we execute its suggestions to fix them.

Limitations of Vulnerability Scanners

However, just as snorkeling has its limitations, so does vulnerability scanning. It can only identify vulnerabilities that are visible from the surface level and lacks the depth and resources to discover hidden or complex vulnerabilities. It can also result in false positives or false negatives, because there is not an ethical hacker there validating every finding.

Imagine you stopped watching the clownfish, distracted by the glow escaping from the crack in an object that resembled a chest. You get excited enough to swim deeper and try to figure out if it's what you are dreaming. But, going deeper, you realize that you can´t hold your breath long enough to reach down there, explore it, and come back to the surface (alive, of course).

You might claim that you found a treasure, but that could also mean identifying a false positive. Calling a threat (or a treasure) something that's not what you say might raise false alarms, but not saying a word means risking the opposite. What if that's really a treasure (or a threat) and you fail to discover it and report on it? In the world of cybersecurity, false negatives may result in bigger losses.

Despite these limitations, vulnerability scanning is still an essential tool for identifying known vulnerabilities and keeping your organization secure. Luckily, there is one more tool that can help us.

Penetration Tests and Scuba Diving

Penetration testing is a more comprehensive approach to offensive cybersecurity testing. It involves ethical hacking with a group of penetration testers attempting to break into your network, identifying vulnerabilities and misconfigurations, and exploiting them to assess the potential risks to your organization.

Like scuba diving, pentesting requires a higher level of skill, expertise, and resources than vulnerability scanning. Just as scuba divers go deeper into the ocean to explore and discover hidden objects or living beings, pen-testers go deeper into the system to uncover hidden vulnerabilities that may not be immediately apparent.

The ethical hacking testing team can also conduct a pentest to uncover vulnerabilities or access points that are specific to a system, such as custom code or configurations, or vulnerabilities that require specific conditions to be exploited.

Whether your organization hires a third-party security team or has a group of pen-testers as part of its internal structure, it is crucial that a pen-testing process is conducted at least yearly to protect computer systems from real-world attacks and look after the company's reputation.

Advantages of Pen-Testing

One of the main advantages of pen-testing is its ability to provide deeper testing that can identify exploitable vulnerabilities. By using their creativity, knowledge of attack methods, and various tools and techniques, pen-testers can uncover complex vulnerabilities that may not be detected through vulnerability scanning alone. However, this comes at a higher cost, as it requires more time, resources, and expertise.

Limitations of Pen-Testing

One of the limitations of pentesting is that it provides a single point-in-time assessment of the system's security posture. This means that while the penetration test may uncover vulnerabilities at that specific point in time, the environment may change the next day or a new vulnerability may be discovered shortly after the pen-test.

As such, regular testing (more frequent pen-tests or daily CVE scanning) and updating security features are important to staying ahead of a potential cyber attack. When a security team performs pen tests, it needs to consider public and private sources that might be used by hackers to either gain privileged access to a computer system or compromise the network or application security.

In order to scuba dive successfully, equipment like wetsuits, swim fins, oxygen, masks, and a regulator are required. Similarly, penetration testing requires more complex equipment to be conducted, and with it comes a higher cost. Although you can master snorkeling with knowledge and experience, scuba diving requires more dedicated preparation (with theoretical and practical classes) and a higher level of understanding of the process.

Pen-testing also requires more people involved to have a positive outcome. You can take your snorkel equipment and swim around near the coast to discover some findings. But it's more difficult for you to scuba dive on your own and walk into the ocean with your swim fins on. Better to go on a fully equipped boat to a promising area where findings can be less accessible and more valuable, and with a team to readily join and help you if needed.

Vulnerability Scanning or Penetration Testing?

While vulnerability scanning and pen-testing are different techniques that don’t use the same tools, they complement each other and can provide a more comprehensive and effective approach to security controls when used together.

It is a matter of costs, benefits, and perspective. Choosing the scanner over pen-testing tools means prioritizing a short-term budget. A drawback, however, could be missing a simple unknown vulnerability that an ethical hacker would easily identify. It’s important to consider if mistakes like these could lead to paying a higher cost in the long-run.

On the other hand, choosing only to conduct pentests may mean confidently knowing that you'll find all of the vulnerabilities and security issues that would allow hackers to gain access to your computer systems. But is it worth it to spend the time and money to conduct very frequent penetration testing when affordable automated tools like vulnerability scanners can continuously help identify and remediate known exploits?

As usual, the optimal answer is a balance between the two. 

The Benefits of Combining Vulnerability Scanners and Pen-Testing Tools

Vulnerability scanning provides an economic and efficient way to identify many known vulnerabilities, making it a valuable tool for ongoing and continuous vulnerability management. Like snorkeling, you can quickly assess the surface level to identify a system's vulnerabilities.

However, scanning tools have their limitations, including limited depth and the potential for false negatives. Additionally, though technology has advanced greatly, scanners still lack the ability to think with the complexity and creativity of humans, which can limit its ability to identify more complex vulnerabilities apart from already known exploits.

By contrast, pen-tests conducted by ethical hackers provide a more in-depth and hands-on approach to testing, allowing for the discovery of more complex and potentially exploitable vulnerabilities. Like scuba diving, you can go deeper into the system to uncover hidden current and potential vulnerabilities.

However, it is more resource-consuming because it requires a security team of pen-testers to try the system's defenses and provide a unique point-in-time vulnerability assessment.

When combined, vulnerability scanning and pen-testing can provide a better understanding of the system's overall security posture. CVE scanners can provide ongoing coverage and management of detected vulnerabilities, while pentesting can provide more in-depth and targeted testing to uncover more complex security flaws.

By combining both techniques, organizations can identify vulnerabilities that may not be detected through a single approach, and they can take those findings and prioritize remediation actions accordingly, optimizing their efforts and protecting their company.

How to Integrate Vulnerability Scanning and Pen-Testing

Integrating vulnerability scanning and pen-testing into your security testing process can provide a more comprehensive and effective approach to identifying and addressing security vulnerabilities in your system. Here are some steps you can take to integrate both methods:

  1. Define your objectives: Determine what you want to achieve through your security testing efforts, including which assets to test, which vulnerabilities to prioritize, and how often to test.
  2. Look at your compliance frameworks: Your compliance is often based on certain testing requirements, so this can be helpful for determining your approach.
  3. Plan your testing strategy: Develop a testing strategy that outlines which testing methods to use, when to use them, and how to integrate the results.
  4. Conduct vulnerability scanning: Use vulnerability scanning to identify known vulnerabilities in your system, such as unpatched software, weak passwords, or misconfigured settings.
  5. Conduct pen-testing: Use pen-testing to identify undiscovered vulnerabilities in your system, such as those that require specific conditions to be exploited or are unique to your system.
  6. Analyze results: Review the results of both testing methods and prioritize vulnerabilities based on severity and potential impact.
  7. Take action: Develop a plan to address identified vulnerabilities, including patching, configuration changes, or other mitigation measures.
  8. Repeat: Regularly conduct both vulnerability scanning and pentesting to ensure that your system remains secure and to identify new vulnerabilities as they arise.


In conclusion, vulnerability scanning and pen-testing are two different, but complementary, security tools that can provide a broader, deeper, and more effective way to find vulnerabilities and address security weaknesses in your organization's systems. 

By integrating both methods into your security controls and testing process, you can identify vulnerabilities that may not be detected through a single approach and prioritize remediation efforts accordingly. Regular testing and updating of security measures are important to prevent a cyber attack and protect sensitive data to maintain superior cyber hygiene.

If you remember to define your objectives, plan your testing strategy, conduct vulnerability scanning and pen-testing, analyze the results, take action, and repeat the process regularly, you can go about your day with the peace of mind that your target system remains secure.

By following these steps and integrating both methods into your security testing process, you can help to safeguard your organization's vast ocean of data and assets and detect security weaknesses that lurk in dark waters.

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