Blogs & Opinions 30.01.2024

Pen Testing v Ethical Hacking: Which is Better?

Which is more effective in improving a company’s cybersecurity posture?

What’s the difference between pen testing and ethical hacking? And more importantly, which is more likely to improve your organisation’s security? Steve Williams thinks he has the answers

The ongoing exploit of the MOVEit vulnerability demonstrates that cyber criminals are willing to target industries indiscriminately.

According to the Cy-Xplorer 2023 report, cyber extortion activity reached the highest volume ever recorded in Q1 2023 after a decline of 8% the previous year. Consequently, businesses must adopt new solutions to improve their security posture and devise more effective methods for keeping their data and infrastructure under lock and key.

One of the most impactful investments businesses can make is in the discovery phase. After all, you can’t protect against vulnerabilities if you’re unaware of their existence. Ethical hacking and pen testing are both successful methods of achieving this.

“Ethical hackers use the same tools and techniques, but their experience and skills set them apart”

They share many similarities, but if you’re looking to split hairs, create a debate, or generate controversy, then you can argue that, by definition, all ethical hackers are penetration testers. However, not all penetration testers are ethical hackers, as ethical hackers use the same tools and techniques, but their experience and skills set them apart. Ethical hackers write tools, execute scripts, publish research articles, offer training, and more.

While both help businesses understand and address their vulnerabilities, a pen test will focus on specific systems or methods to ensure security and compliance. In contrast, a well-planned, proactive, comprehensive security assessment carried out by an experienced ethical hacking team will undoubtedly deliver superior results when hardening your security posture.

So, which is more effective in improving a company’s cybersecurity posture?

Penetration testing: ticking the box

Penetration testing – or pen testing – is when a cyber expert or white-hat hacker poses as a threat actor and works to infiltrate an organisation’s security environment using intrusion tests, vulnerability scanning, exploitation, password cracking, web application testing, red teaming and more. The process can uncover complex vulnerabilities, providing greater control over the testing process.

However, penetration testers are typically tasked with investigating one part of a business’s infrastructure at a time, rather than taking a more holistic approach. As networks are usually large and complex, this may not be enough to keep up with the latest attack techniques.

And anyone can do it. Aspiring pen testers can quickly get online certifications, meaning they are not all necessarily qualified security professionals. As a result, they are more limited in their approach and using off-the-shelf tools can only provide superficial analysis. This adds limited value as it doesn’t emulate the tactics of a real-life cyber criminal. While it can be helpful for businesses to test one specific area they know they are vulnerable in; it can often be a tick-box exercise.

Comprehensive security assessments: diving in deeper

More comprehensive ethical hacking is gaining traction. It goes beyond standard digital defences, providing a deeper insight into a business’ security state, and adds an experienced human touch to proactive risk prevention.

The objective is to use a more mature approach and pose as a threat actor to infiltrate a company’s digital estate, conducting authorised cyber attacks to identify software vulnerabilities before criminals do. From this perspective, you will gain a more detailed report of findings, evaluating all aspects of a business, from network infrastructure, cloud, and applications to mobile endpoints.

Putting safety into practice

Whilst pen testing is valuable, comprehensive security assessments conducted by highly experienced ethical hackers provide a more holistic approach. It is a more effective service, plunging deeper into a business’s infrastructure to produce better results. This is invaluable as vulnerabilities deepen and cyber threats evolve.

The message for business leaders is clear: comprehensive security assessments need to be placed as a priority. It is far more valuable if the business wants a concise, factual report that provides a clear picture of its weak points. The most successful businesses ensure mature communication regarding their security posture by seeking support from cybersecurity experts to tailor their investments to their needs.


Steve Williams is a solutions consultant at Orange Cyberdefense. Steve has a keen interest in ethical hacking and pen testing, and is very passionate about helping customers resolve security challenges and address vulnerabilities.

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