Modern businesses share a digital space with one another and the internet, so the possibility of security attacks or breaches has increased significantly.
Attackers are searching for security gaps in your network or system that could help them gain access to your sensitive information. Due to these vulnerabilities, your organization’s cybersecurity is at constant risk. The majority of IT security breaches are financially motivated toward securing information or intellectual property as its value soars high in the black market. Therefore, cybersecurity is paramount, and vulnerability management is a part of the process that keeps it intact.
What is vulnerability management?
Vulnerability management is a process that involves a continuous cycle of monitoring, identification, assessment, remediation, and prevention of flaws that may expose your IT assets to breaches and unauthorized modifications.
It’s obvious that you need to have a vulnerability management program to safeguard your IT assets against threats that may strike. It is the first defense against the overarching threat of black-hat hackers.
Let’s think of vulnerability management with the following analogy: as a child, you go to the doctor for your regular check-up; the doctor examines your health, identifies symptoms and risks, measures severity, and provides you with treatment. Then, they bribe you with a lollipop and ask you to revisit after some time. Similarly, vulnerability management comprises routine checks, evaluation of possible risks, assessment of risk intensity, suggested remediation, and repeat checks to see if the threat is still there.
No matter how robust your cybersecurity is, there are always bugs in the system from where the attackers can gain access. Vulnerability management makes sure that these bugs are fixed and patched before any cyber attack happens.
To give a 100% security shield to your system, be sure to leverage penetration testing and vulnerability management to cement your security controls and reinforce your IT security.
Before delving deeper into the topic, let's start with the basics first and understand what vulnerability means in cybersecurity.
What is vulnerability?
A vulnerability is the possibility of any risk or threat that may harm the integrity of information stored in the system or network, modify it, or be used by the attacker for disastrous purposes.
Simply put, it is the possibility of any unauthorized access that poses a risk to the business and its clients. Hence, it needs to be taken care of properly. In this era, where remote work is trending, the occurrences of these vulnerabilities have skyrocketed as the on-cloud network vulnerabilities are being differently managed than on-premise ones. But before discussing that in more detail, let’s identify the different types of vulnerabilities that you might come across.
What are the types of vulnerabilities?
Network vulnerabilities: These are the vulnerabilities that are spread over a network of systems. These include computes, routers, IoT devices, and others communicating with the internet and one another. (Learn more about possible challenges to security of IoT devices)
System vulnerabilities: System vulnerabilities are those that are exclusive to a particular machine or an IT asset.
Application vulnerabilities: Application vulnerabilities are the flaws in an application that may allow the attackers to do evil. It could expose your sensitive data and may also give them full access to your system.
Configuration vulnerabilities: These are the vulnerabilities which emanate from flaws like not changing passwords, or not using any passwords for accessing your security cameras, home devices or more. These are mostly because of the flawed configuration.
These vulnerabilities occur because of poor configuration and patch management, human errors like erroneous code, unchanged passwords, installing apps from untrusted sources, and more. Therefore, the primary step in vulnerability management is to avoid them.
Why do you need vulnerability management?
With organizations slowly moving toward the remote work paradigm, the threat to data stored on-premise or on cloud is higher than ever. The world is a witness to increasing cases of cybersecurity issues currently meaning organizations have to have a vulnerability management process to control information security risks.
Even after the vulnerabilities have been identified, it's crucial to check whether appropriate remediation is done and implemented. This is taken into account by the vulnerability management program. It ensures that as soon as the vulnerability is fixed and the patch is implemented in priority and is re-scanned, it eliminates any windows for the hackers to breach before the attack surface is patched up.
Vulnerability assessment vs. vulnerability management
People often confuse between vulnerability assessment and vulnerability management and may sometimes use them interchangeably. But these two terms are not synonymous.
Vulnerability assessment is a one-time project with a scheduled start and end date. It is not a scan. Here, a third-party security consultant or a company will audit your organization’s assets and prepare a detailed report on vulnerabilities you are exposed to. When the final report is prepared by the external authority, remediation measures are suggested, the report is delivered, and the vulnerability assessment process ends.
Vulnerability management, however, is continuous and not a one-time process. Vulnerability assessment can be a part of the process in the vulnerability management program, but they are not the same.
The vulnerability management process
Most organizations have a process to manage vulnerabilities in their network and still lie behind in remediating them. The Ponemon Institute surveyed 1,848 IT and IT security professionals in North America, EMEA, APAC, and Latin America. In the report, most respondents self-report that their effectiveness in prioritizing and patching vulnerabilities is low, as well as securing applications in the cloud.
This can be due to a variety of reasons or improper implementation of a vulnerability management process. Let's take a look at what an ideal vulnerability process might look like.
1. Detect vulnerability
Before the internet existed, a flaw or a bug in the system wasn’t that much of an issue. But now, when devices have started to communicate with one another and the internet, security vulnerabilities have exponentially increased.
The first step in safeguarding your system or network against any threat is to check the amount and nature of vulnerabilities it contains. It is not a one-time thing, but rather a continuous approach. You have to do continuous vulnerability scanning to identify new vulnerabilities as they come about. When you have to do it at scale for a network, you might want to use vulnerability scanning tools to make the process easier and doable.
Now, you need to check the feasibility of network scans. While using vulnerability scanners, some network scans are relatively quick and easy, whereas some may impact your system. Due to the variation in the processing power, you must ensure that you do not affect the system permanently or cause downtime. It is advisable to use vulnerability management tools that inform the scope of network scans. It’s also highly recommended to run these scans outside working hours to prevent any downtime.
Now you have the vulnerability scan results available with you, what do you do next?
2. Assess the risk
Risk assessment and risk management are an integral part of the vulnerability management process as it helps you prioritize what risks are there. You need to take care of and mitigate the risks that pose a considerable threat to your system or network.
Risk-based vulnerability management is shifting toward addressing mission-critical vulnerabilities first. But there are organizations where professionals tend to remediate those with minimum risk or false positives. False positives are the vulnerabilities that may have a minimum or zero possibility of compromising network security but are easier to mitigate and report. It's primarily because of the way security researchers are incentivized. Security researchers are paid according to the number of vulnerabilities they have resolved.
Instead, the appropriate thing should be to compensate them for the measure of real security threats they have minimized.
Now, if you are starting out on this journey, you have already run through scans and gotten a report. There may be thousands of vulnerabilities in there, and you might just be wondering where to start.
Find the outliers
Identify a system that has a higher number of vulnerabilities. Start with it. If you find the same vulnerability present across multiple systems, you might want to remediate it first and report. You might even come across an application that doesn't belong to your system and has many vulnerabilities. In this case, uninstall that application from the network.
Tackling the outliers first is generally a quick and easy way to make a big difference when you are just starting. Now when you know where to start, make a list, like we will below.
Assign separate columns for the system name, vulnerability name, responsible party, due date, date resolved, and the status. It's better to use an automated vulnerability management program, but if you want to maintain a normal repository, use Excel, Google Sheets, or similar spreadsheet tools. With the tracking details in place, you are all set to show the good work when your friends in the auditing department visit you later.
Then, to prioritize identified vulnerabilities according to the risk score, you can use the CVSS (Common Vulnerability Scoring System) risk formula and get insights into what and when to remediate them. CVSS offers standardization for measuring the risks and assigns them a risk score between 0 to 10, where 10 is critical.
This will help you mitigate the risks that can cause serious damage to your IT infrastructure or the integrity of the information you hold within.
3. Prioritize remediation
Once you have assessed and measured the risk score associated with vulnerabilities, start prioritizing them for remediation. Your next step should be to, start fixing those with the highest risk level first as they can massively impact your organization's security.
Now, with an entire list of vulnerabilities, no one would want to log into and update hundreds of systems one by one by hand. It's inefficient, and it just doesn't scale. You can do operating systems patching at the most basic level using an auto-update mechanism, which is a patch management feature. You can also use the configuration management to test remediations against a subset of the environment and see if it is causing any issues.
It enables you to deploy security patches in groups while ensuring the impact they may pose to the environment (automatic reboots or downtime). An ideal platform will allow you to build installations and update packages for software that's not available out of the box. This functionality ensures that you can keep all your applications patched and up to date.
4. Confirm remediation
After scanning and fixing the vulnerabilities, you need to make sure that they are gone. With your security team hustling between several issues and competing priorities, remediation checks may get pushed to the backburner, but you have to prevent that from occurring.
Some vulnerabilities are complex and won't just vanish when you apply the patch. Some vulnerabilities may seem like there is an obvious solution, like a default web page being enabled on a server. What seems like the obvious answer is to disable the default page. But if there are several instances of that default page on different ports or being used by various web server applications, the obvious solution isn't entirely correct.
Some of the celebrity vulnerabilities may have more than one patch that is needed to resolve the vulnerability completely. The initial patch to fix the issue only addresses part of the vulnerability, and then the follow-up patch requires that the first patch has to be uninstalled before a new one can be installed.
Finally, many patches will install, but they don't go into effect until after the system's been rebooted. Without a reboot, the vulnerability is still present. Because of all these factors, you have to do another scan to confirm that the vulnerability is completely resolved. In the case of high-severity vulnerabilities that are fast tracked for remediation, running dedicated scans to look for possible risks and threats are warranted.
If you're tracking vulnerabilities and remediating them, you should not consider a vulnerability resolved until a scan has confirmed that it is no longer present.
Who is responsible for vulnerability management?
While establishing a vulnerability management program in your organization, you will need experts in different roles. Clearly, the responsibility of vulnerability management is shared between different people in the organization. Here is how you can define the roles and responsibilities of people entrusted with vulnerability management:
Security officer: The security officer owns the entire vulnerability management process, and is responsible for its design and implementation.
Vulnerability engineer: The vulnerability engineer is responsible for setting up the vulnerability scanning tools, configuring them, and scheduling different vulnerability scans.
Asset owner: The asset owner is responsible for managing the IT assets that are scanned by the vulnerability management process. They check whether the vulnerabilities are mitigated, and risks associated with them are accepted.
IT system engineer: An IT system engineer is responsible for implementing the remediation measures suggested after identifying vulnerabilities.
Build your vulnerability management program now
Once you have a solid understanding of how vulnerabilities are identified, assessed, remediated, and confirmed, you can start building your organization's vulnerability management program.
But of course it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Your vulnerability management program may encounter organizational challenges. So before building a robust process, run the scans first and get an idea of how big your problem is. Use vulnerability scanners if you have a wide array of IT assets that may deliver thousands of vulnerabilities.
Check if you have specific regulatory requirements that must be met first. Based on roles and responsibilities, service level agreements, escalations, and more, start building your vulnerability management program with the best tools at your disposal.
Want to shield your organization completely from external threats? Discover how penetration testing can help you do that and build an unbreachable security framework.
Sagar Joshi is a content marketing specialist at G2 in India. He is a firm believer in the potential of content and its role in helping people. Topics related to security and technology pique his interest and motivates him to write about them. In his free time, you can find him reading books, learning a new language, or playing pool.