6 Steps of Vulnerability Assessments Explained

vulnerability assessment

Any organization that is serious and invested in cybersecurity knows how important it is to understand weaknesses proactively in order to protect a network. In other words, you want to know the gaps before hackers exploit them. One of the best ways to do this is with regular vulnerability assessments conducted by experts. They can deliver considerable intelligence to you and your team and ensure you prioritize resolutions to thwart cybercriminals. Each execution of these evaluations is different, but the steps of a vulnerability assessment should provide insight into patching issues and misconfigurations.

If you’re embarking on your first one, haven’t done one in some time, or are looking for best practices, keep reading as we discuss each step of a vulnerability assessment.

What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?

Vulnerability assessments evaluate all your enterprise assets. The goal is to identify missing patches and misconfigurations. There are automated and manual techniques in the workflow, with scanning tools a primary resource. However, human intervention and analysis are essential and should always be part of the process.

Many confuse vulnerability assessments with pen tests, but they aren’t the same. They both work to find issues, but an evaluation doesn’t attempt to exploit any.

Classifying Vulnerabilities

The meaning of “vulnerability” in this context is anything that is a flaw or bug that would allow hackers to leverage to breach your network or applications.

The assessment also involves classifying vulnerabilities based on criteria, including:

  • The likelihood of a hacker exploiting it
  • The severity of the exploitation if it occurred
  • What the exposure offers the cybercriminal

From these conditions, assessors grade vulnerabilities in four categories:

  • Critical: These flaws are the most urgent and demand immediate attention.
  • High: These are urgent, too, and should be a high priority in remediation.
  • Medium: These issues are less risky but should make your list to fix.
  • Low/Informational: The bottom category notes issues that are important to know about but don’t need urgent attention.

These are fundamentals of any vulnerability assessment. However, there are several types you can conduct, depending on your focus.

What Are the Types of Vulnerability Assessments?

There are three types of vulnerability assessments. The differences are in what they assess and review.

Network-Based Vulnerability Assessments

With this type of assessment, those conducting it scan geographically distributed machines and applications. They are looking for security gaps in your communication and network systems. This evaluation reviews devices on your network to determine if there are any compromised passwords, as well as the ability of the system to react to common attacks.

Application-Based Vulnerability Assessments

In this scenario, the assessment is at the application layer. The objective is to detect misconfigurations and common application vulnerabilities. The outcome would be learning how secure (or not) an application is.

Host-Based Vulnerability Assessments

This approach to assessments focuses on machine weaknesses. Scanners would review all types of these—workstations, network hosts, and services. The framework is manager/agent to discern if systems are in alignment with your enterprise security protocols and standards.

It may be beneficial for your organization to do one, two, or all three of these, depending on your needs. So, what is the value of these assessments?

What Is the Value of a Vulnerability Assessment?

There are many reasons that businesses conduct vulnerability assessments. Any cybersecurity group would agree that they are a best practice. The value you can realize includes:

  • Minimizing risk
  • Being proactive in your cybersecurity strategy
  • Support of regulatory compliance requirements, such as HIPAA, PCI DSS, FISMA, DISA, STIGs, OWASP, NIST, and GBLA guidelines
  • Validation of application updates and versions in place
  • A more dynamic approach to patch management

Vulnerability assessments help you meet any of these goals. As a result, they yield so many valuable benefits.

What Are the Benefits of Vulnerability Assessments?

By adding these assessments to your cybersecurity strategy, the benefits support a robust security posture.

Here are some of the benefits you can expect:

  • Identify flaws in your blind spot. Day-to-day operations rarely reveal weaknesses. In an assessment, you have a clearer, more holistic picture. You’ll know what issues need immediate attention.
  • Protect your business assets. Hackers love to target applications with malware. Scanning during an assessment locates these and can often reveal how cybercriminals could enter your network. Continually performing these builds that protective shield over your digital assets.
  • Measure your IT hygiene. There is a measurement component to the evaluation, as you’re looking to get insights on the performance of security measures. You continue to peel back layers to detect risk early and fix it quickly.
  • Manage resources more optimally. Having the necessary resources to do everything in the cyber world is a big challenge. You have to make up for these gaps with strategies, and an assessment can do that for you with its priority levels. Thus, you concentrate your resources on the most critical issues.
  • Maintain security and privacy while avoiding incidents. The top objective of your cybersecurity team is to keep your house safe. Investing in vulnerability assessments improves your confidence in this and is a much lower cost than what you’ll pay should there be a breach, interruption of service, or noncompliance fines.
  • Understand your security with a third-party lens. You’re likely constantly scanning your network and applications, but they won’t find all the issues. If you only do this internally, there’s bias as well. Hiring a third party to do this leads to findings you may have missed.
  • Demonstrate to customers, partners, and investors that you are a security-first organization. The security of your business impacts your reputation, credibility, and trustworthiness. It’s also something other parties want to know about before they work with you. Having these assessments as part of your operations can go a long way to appease others.
  • Keep inventory accurate. A starting point for an assessment is defining all your assets. You need this list to be accurate so you can ensure they also remain up to date. This is critical for endpoint security management. Scanning enables the identification and tracking of assets.
  • Benchmark your cyber program’s maturity. Cybersecurity is a dynamic ecosystem, with emerging threats popping up constantly. With vulnerability assessments, you can continue to evaluate your program and see its progress or decline, which can indicate a time to change protocols.

Now that you know all about the value and benefits of these processes, it’s time to review the steps of vulnerability assessments.

What Are the Steps of a Vulnerability Assessment?

Each of these steps is crucial to conducting an effective assessment. Here’s what you can expect.

Step 1: Asset Discovery

First, you and your partner define what to review and scan. You’ll make this determination based on your objectives, priorities, and concerns. If you have a sophisticated and complex network, the process will be longer.

Step 2: Scope Development

Next is defining the scope and type of assessment. You’ll also want to outline goals, timelines, and expectations in this step.

Step 3: Scanning and Testing

Next, it’s time to scan assets, layers, networks, and applications. This step involves automated scanning tools and manual investigation. You need both! Depending solely on automation can lead to missing things that only humans with knowledge and expertise would find.

In this step, assessors also find missing patches for any system. Authenticated scans support this. They improve accuracy because testers are using real credentials. The scan will verify the files on the system accurately.

Step 4: Risk Analysis

After scanning, your assessment provider will apply their knowledge to evaluate the severity of each weakness. They’ll define them as critical, high, medium, or low. In addition to the categorization, they will also provide information on the plans to remediate these. For more complicated weaknesses, these plans can be extensive. They’ll provide context and support for everything they recommend.

Step 5: Reviewing the Report

After the analysis, you’ll receive an assessment report. The report should contain the following information:

  • Devices tested
  • Vulnerabilities located and the assigned priority level
  • Actions testers took during scanning
  • Recommendations for remediation of each weakness

You’ll have the opportunity to review all this with your provider and ask any questions. You can go over a variety of findings to better understand your exposure and what immediate steps to take. The report should be factual and practical. At this time, you can also determine the remediation efforts for which they could provide assistance.

Step 6: Planning for the Next Assessment

The last step is a task to determine when you’ll undergo your subsequent evaluation. It’s important to commence these regularly to reduce risk and ensure that the fixes and patches worked. Talk to your partner about the recommended interval.

Partner with Blue Goat Cyber for Vulnerability Assessments

Our team of experienced and seasoned cyber experts delivers high-quality assessments that involve both automated and manual scanning. We provide you with turnkey service and reports that are helpful and thoughtful. You can learn more about the steps of vulnerability assessments and how we carry them out for maximum value by scheduling a discovery meeting.

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