Penetration Testing

What Is Penetration Testing? How Does it Differ from Ethical Hacking?

We understand that there is a difference between penetration testing and ethical hacking but when it comes to learning these subjects, we often assume that they are one. Even cybersecurity professionals working in the industry are often confused with the differences between the two.

While they are complimenting job roles, falling under the same category “Offensive Security”, there is a difference between the two. Within offensive security lies multiple disciplines like penetration testing (technical and physical access), social engineering, red teaming, software reverse engineering, ethical hacking, and much more.

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is aimed at finding vulnerabilities, malicious content, flaws, and risks. This is done to strengthen the organization’s security system to defend the IT infrastructure. Penetration testing is an official procedure that can be deemed helpful and not a harmful attempt. It forms part of an ethical hacking process where it specifically focuses only on penetrating the information system. While it is helpful in improving cybersecurity strategies, penetration testing should be performed regularly. Malicious content is built to discover weak points in the applications, systems or programs and keep emerging and spreading in the network. A regular pentest may not sort out all security concerns, but it significantly minimizes the probability of a successful attack.

A penetration test helps determine whether an IT system is vulnerable to a cyberattack, whether the defensive measures are sufficient, and which security measure failed the test. It shows the strengths and weaknesses of any IT infrastructure at a given point of time. The process of penetration testing is not casual, it involves lot of planning, taking explicit permission from the management, and then initiating tests safely without obstructing regular work flow.

What Is Ethical Hacking?

An ethical hacker role appears to be like that of penetration tester, but it encompasses diversified responsibilities. It is an all-embracing term that includes all hacking methodologies along with other related cyberattack methods. Ethical hacking is aimed to identify vulnerabilities and fix them before the hackers exploit them to execute a cyberattack.  Ethical hacking is termed as ethical because it is performed only after taking necessary permissions to intrude the security system. The professional performing the intrusion works on ethical grounds and that is how ethical hacker can be differentiated from black-hat hackers.

The role of an ethical hacker is challenging as the hacker must intrude the system without affecting the functioning of it and locate the vulnerabilities. The ethical hacker understands and reports malicious activity and suggests proper measures to defeat attackers in their attempt. Beside hacking, an ethical hacker also studies other security related methodologies and suggest their implementation. Overall, ethical hackers carry the burden of the safety of entire IT infrastructure.

Ethical Hacking Vs. Penetration Testing:

Penetration Testing Ethical Hacking
The main purpose is to find vulnerabilities within the target environment. It aims to encompass various attacks through different hacking techniques to find security flaws.
Penetration testing focuses on the security of the specific area defined for testing. Ethical hacking is a comprehensive term and penetration testing is one of the functions of the ethical hacker.
Penetration tester is expected to be aware of executing different methodologies and knowing the purpose of every methodology, how and when to execute. Ethical hacker should have a comprehensive knowledge of the hacking methodologies.
Prior experience in ethical hacking is required to be a good penetration tester. Ethical hacking is a step towards penetration testing. Unless one knows the methodologies, they cannot conduct a pentest.
A penetration tester can work on a specific domain and network. The knowledge expected is more specific at an expert level. Being an ethical hacker, you should be aware of technicalities of the software and hardware of digital devices connected to the network.

To summarize, ethical hacking is like learning all the technical aspects of driving a vehicle, versus penetration testing, where you put all those acquired skills together to drive the car.

Ethical hacking and penetration testing are the most popular skills among cybersecurity enthusiasts. If you aspire to be an ethical hacker, then take a look at the Certified Ethical Hacker (C|EH) from EC-Council. It is a comprehensive program that offers 340 attack methodologies with 20 of the most security domains. C|EH is mapped to NICE framework which makes it popular among employers too. For more details on C|EH, you can visit our webpage:

EC-Council Certified Security Analyst (ECSA) is a program that gives you hands-on experience on penetration testing with labs and exercises based on real-time scenarios. It is a globally accepted penetration testing program as it is also mapped to the NICE Framework. The program has been developed by the leaders from the cybersecurity industry world-wide and thus it drafts a successful career path in your cybersecurity career. For more details on ECSA, do visit our webpage:

Editor's Note:
Reviewed by Vito Sardanopoli, Appointed Task Force Member at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Robert Duhart, Director, Security Architecture at Cardinal Health
get certified from ec-council
Write for Us