VM Tools

How scanners find vulnerabilities

Ashwani Paliwal
September 23, 2023

Cybersecurity professionals are continually engaged in a constant battle against malicious actors seeking to exploit vulnerabilities for nefarious purposes. One powerful tool in the arsenal of these cybersecurity guardians is vulnerability scanners. In this blog, we will explore how these scanners work and the crucial role they play in safeguarding our digital assets.

Understanding Vulnerability Scanners

Vulnerability scanners are specialized software tools designed to identify and assess potential weaknesses in software, networks, and systems. They simulate attacks to discover security flaws, providing organizations with actionable insights to enhance their defenses proactively. These scanners range from simple tools to comprehensive enterprise-grade solutions and can be classified into two main categories: network-based scanners and application-based scanners.

Network-Based Scanners

Network-based scanners focus on examining the security posture of network devices, including routers, switches, firewalls, and servers. They employ various scanning techniques like port scanning and vulnerability probing to identify open ports, services, and potential vulnerabilities in these devices.

a. Port Scanning: Port scanning involves sending requests to specific network ports to determine which ports are open and actively listening. Knowing the open ports is crucial for hackers to exploit any existing vulnerabilities.

b. Vulnerability Probing: Vulnerability probing involves sending crafted packets to a target to elicit responses that may reveal potential vulnerabilities. These scanners compare the responses with a database of known vulnerabilities to identify potential weaknesses.

Application-Based Scanners

Application-based scanners, as the name suggests, focus on examining the security of web applications and software. They assess potential security flaws like SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and other vulnerabilities commonly exploited by attackers.

a. Source Code Analysis: Some application scanners perform a static analysis of the source code to identify potential security flaws. By inspecting the code, they can discover vulnerabilities that might not be evident during runtime.

b. Dynamic Application Scanning: Dynamic application scanning involves interacting with a live application and analyzing its responses to different inputs. It helps identify vulnerabilities that may arise during the actual usage of the application.

How Vulnerability Scanners Find Vulnerabilities

Vulnerability Databases: Vulnerability scanners rely on extensive databases that contain information about known security flaws. These databases are continuously updated with the latest vulnerabilities and their corresponding patches.

Signature-Based Detection: Scanners use signature-based detection to match patterns in the system or application that correspond to known vulnerabilities. This technique is akin to how antivirus software identifies malware.

Heuristic Analysis: Some advanced scanners employ heuristic analysis to discover new or unknown vulnerabilities. These scanners use algorithms to detect abnormal behaviors and potential security weaknesses.

Crawl and Test: Application-based scanners often crawl through the entire web application, analyzing each page and testing various inputs to identify potential security flaws.

Fuzz Testing: Fuzz testing involves sending a large number of random or carefully crafted inputs to the target application or system to discover vulnerabilities triggered by unexpected data.

Benefits and Limitations of Vulnerability Scanners


  • Automation: Vulnerability scanners automate the process of identifying weaknesses, saving time and effort for cybersecurity teams.
  • Early Detection: By proactively discovering vulnerabilities, organizations can apply patches or implement security measures before attackers exploit the weaknesses.
  • Comprehensive Assessments: Scanners can assess large networks and numerous applications quickly, providing comprehensive security assessments.
  • Compliance: Vulnerability scanning is often required for regulatory compliance, helping organizations meet industry standards and data protection regulations.


  • False Positives/Negatives: Scanners may generate false positives (reporting an issue that is not a vulnerability) or false negatives (failing to detect an actual vulnerability).
  • Limited Scope: Scanners are only as good as their database and scanning techniques. They might not identify zero-day vulnerabilities or obscure security issues.
  • Expert Analysis Required: Vulnerability scanning should be complemented with human expertise to interpret results accurately and prioritize remediation efforts effectively.


Vulnerability scanners play a vital role in the cybersecurity landscape by helping organizations identify and mitigate potential weaknesses proactively. These automated tools use various scanning techniques and databases of known vulnerabilities to assess network devices and applications comprehensively. However, while scanners are powerful tools, they are not a panacea. Cybersecurity professionals must use their expertise to interpret results, address false positives/negatives, and carry out necessary remediation measures to ensure robust protection against ever-evolving threats. Regular vulnerability scanning, combined with continuous monitoring and proactive security measures, will enable organizations to stay one step ahead in the cybersecurity arms race.

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