Authenticated vs unauthenticated scans

Neda Ali
Reviewed by
Abey Koshy Itty
Published on
21 Nov 2023
9 min read

The history of web scanning can be traced back to the rise of the internet and the increasing prevalence of web applications.

As organizations began to rely more on web-based systems for conducting business, the need to secure these applications became evident.

In response to this emerging threat landscape, security researchers, developers, and organizations began developing tools and techniques to identify and mitigate web application vulnerabilities.

The focus initially revolved around common vulnerabilities such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and Remote File Inclusion.

What are authenticated scans?

Authenticated scanning, also known as credentialed scanning, involves conducting vulnerability scans while authenticating with valid credentials or user accounts.

This means that the scanning tool or process has access to the system or application being scanned, typically with administrators.

Authenticated scans provide a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of the security posture of a system.

With authenticated access, the scanning tool can analyze the system’s configurations, installed software, and underlying components in greater detail.

It can also examine user-specific settings, access controls, and permissions.

By using privileged credentials during authenticated scans, vulnerability scanners can go further into a network and find dangers related to malware, installed apps, weak passwords, and configuration issues.

Authenticated scanning is particularly useful when assessing the security of internal systems, such as servers, databases, and workstations within an organization’s network.

It allows for a detailed examination of system configurations, software versions, and user-specific settings. Here are some pros & cons of authenticated scans:

1. Deeper visibility

Authenticated scans provide deeper visibility into the target system’s configurations, settings, and installed software.

This allows for a more comprehensive assessment of potential vulnerabilities, including those specific to certain user accounts or privileged configurations.

2. Identify vulnerabilities

With privileged access, authenticated scanning can accurately identify vulnerabilities that may be hidden from unauthenticated scans.

It can differentiate between legitimate configurations and actual vulnerabilities, reducing the chances of false positives.

3. Prioritize and focus

Authenticated scans provide detailed information on specific configurations and settings that need to be addressed for remediation.

This allows organizations to prioritize and focus their efforts on fixing vulnerabilities that are relevant to their specific systems and configurations.

4. Compliance requirements

Authenticated scanning is often necessary to meet compliance requirements and security standards.

Many regulations and frameworks, such as PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard), require authenticated scans to assess the security of systems handling sensitive data.

Cons of authenticated scanning

1. Might be challenging

Authenticated scanning requires valid credentials with appropriate permissions.

Obtaining these credentials might be challenging, especially for third-party systems or external services that organizations may not have direct control over.

Without proper credentials, conducting authenticated scans is not possible.

2. Affects the stability

Authenticated scanning has the potential to cause unintentional actions or disruptions if not performed correctly.

The scanning process, if misconfigured or conducted without proper knowledge, might inadvertently modify settings or impact the stability of the target system.

3. Time consuming

Authenticated scans can be more resource-intensive and time-consuming compared to unauthenticated scans.

The scanning tool requires additional resources to log in and interact with the target system, which might impact the overall scanning performance or increase the time required to complete the assessment.

4. Authorization procedures

Authenticated scanning may require explicit authorization and proper documentation to meet compliance requirements.

Organizations need to ensure that the scanning activity is authorized, documented, and aligns with any applicable legal and regulatory frameworks.

What are unauthenticated scans?

Unauthenticated scanning as the name implies involves conducting vulnerability scans without providing any credentials or user accounts.

Unauthenticated scanning is typically performed from an external perspective to evaluate the security of internet-facing systems, such as web applications, websites, and network infrastructure accessible to the public.

It focuses on identifying vulnerabilities that can be exploited without privileged access. It provides a broad overview of the potential vulnerabilities that can be identified externally.

They focus on weaknesses that can be detected without having privileged access, such as open ports, outdated software versions, server misconfigurations, and known web application vulnerabilities.

Here are some pros and cons of unauthenticated scanning:

Pros of unauthenticated scanning

1. Understand the potential risks

Unauthenticated scanning provides insight into vulnerabilities that can be identified and exploited by external attackers who do not have privileged access to the system.

It helps organizations understand the potential risks and vulnerabilities visible to the public or unauthorized users.

2. Early detection

Unauthenticated scans can quickly identify widespread vulnerabilities that can be addressed early in the development or deployment process.

By detecting these vulnerabilities early on, organizations can prioritize remediation efforts and reduce the potential attack surface.

3. Less resource intensive

Unauthenticated scans are generally less resource-intensive compared to authenticated scans since they do not require logging in or interacting with the target system using credentials.

This can result in faster scan times and less impact on system resources.

4. Great for external-facing systems

Unauthenticated scanning is well-suited for evaluating the security of external-facing systems, such as web applications or network infrastructure accessible from the internet.

It helps identify vulnerabilities that are visible and exploitable by potential attackers without the need for internal access.

Cons of unauthenticated scanning

1. Limited access

Unauthenticated scanning cannot assess the internal configurations, user-specific settings, or vulnerabilities specific to certain user accounts.

It may miss vulnerabilities that can only be identified with privileged access or hidden behind authentication mechanisms.

2. Increase in false positives

Unauthenticated scans may generate false positives if the scanning tool cannot differentiate between legitimate configurations and actual vulnerabilities.

Further manual validation or additional testing may be required to confirm the existence of reported vulnerabilities.

3. Only partial view

Unauthenticated scanning only provides a partial view of the overall security posture.

It focuses on vulnerabilities that can be detected externally but does not address potential internal vulnerabilities or system-specific misconfigurations.

4. Cannot assist in compliance testing

Depending on the industry and specific compliance requirements, unauthenticated scanning may not be sufficient to meet certain regulatory standards.

Authenticated scanning may be necessary to fulfill compliance obligations that require a comprehensive assessment of internal systems and configurations.

Authenticated vs unauthenticated scans: When to use it?

When you wish to conduct an in-depth analysis of your system or network or when the owner of the target system or network has given you permission and cooperation, authenticated scans might be helpful.

Authenticated scans can assist you in finding problems like misconfigurations, out-of-date software, weak passwords, and others that may not be immediately evident. Authenticated scans can also assist you in adhering to security norms and laws like PCI DSS or HIPAA.

When you need to make a rapid, general assessment of a system or network or when you don’t have access to or authorization to utilize credentials, unauthenticated scans can be helpful.

Unauthenticated scans can assist you in locating unprotected or vulnerable online programs, services, or other gadgets that could endanger your system or network.

As they can simulate how an attacker would try to exploit your system or network, unauthenticated scans can also help you verify your security posture and defenses.

How to combine authenticated and unauthenticated scans?

Combining authenticated and unauthenticated scans is the most efficient and thorough method of vulnerability scanning.

The outcomes of the two scans can also be compared to find any differences or gaps that might need more research or correction.

You can raise your security awareness and preparedness by combining authenticated and unauthenticated scans.

How can Beagle Security help you?

Choosing between authenticated and unauthenticated scans depends on the objectives and context of the security testing.

With Beagle Security, you can go one step further and conduct an automated AI penetration test that delves deeper and simulates real-world attack scenarios. This provides a more thorough and insightful assessment of your application’s security posture.

These automated penetration tests can be unauthenticated – with a black-box approach when you don’t provide the login credentials. You can also provide the login credentials to convert it to an authenticated penetration test. Even complex login flows can be captured with the help of the Beagle Security login recorder.

What’s even better? If your application consists of complex business logic that vulnerability scanners usually struggle with, you have the option to record these using the scenario recording extension. Beagle Security’s AI test engine will then cover these specific scenarios for a deeper assessment during the test.

Check out Beagle Security for proactively securing your web apps and APIs with automated AI penetration testing and actionable remediation insights. Play around with our interactive demo environment or book a personalized demo today.

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Written by
Neda Ali
Neda Ali
Product Marketing Specialist
Abey Koshy Itty
Abey Koshy Itty
Marketing Manager
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