Finding What’s Missing in Your Digital Assets: An Overview of Vulnerability Assessments

vulnerability assessments

The health of your digital assets is critical to your cybersecurity defenses. As you have many of these, it can be challenging to be confident that each has up-to-date patches and proper configuration. The best way to evaluate your digital assets is with a vulnerability assessment. They are often an exercise that correlates with regulatory compliance or adherence to a standard.

In this post, we’ll provide an overview of what vulnerability assessments are, how they work, their benefits, and what to seek out in a partner to perform them.

What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?

Vulnerability assessments are a testing process. Their objective is to evaluate every asset in your network to identify any missing patches or misconfigurations.

So, what exactly is a vulnerability? It could be a bug or code flaw that cybercriminals could exploit. It can also be a gap in security procedures or a lack of internal controls.

Vulnerability assessment services can involve automated and manual techniques emphasizing comprehensive coverage. Vulnerability scanning tools are the primary means of assessment.

They can target different technology layers.

Types of Vulnerability Assessments

  • Network-based: This scan probes geographically distributed applications and machines to discover if any security gaps are present in networks or communication systems. Such a test would also analyze devices on the network for compromised passwords and review the system’s robustness in relation to common attacks.
  • Application-based: This assessment is at the application layer and detects if misconfigurations or common application vulnerabilities are present. The objective is to determine how secure an application is. Conducting these after updates for applications is a best practice.
  • Host-based: In this layer, scanners analyze the weaknesses of machines, including workstations, servers, and network hosts. Typically, this occurs with a manager/agent structure to discern if the system complies with enterprise-wide security protocols and standards.

Next, we’ll review the levels of priority for vulnerabilities.

What Are Vulnerability Assessment Levels?

The assessment assigns security levels to all the vulnerabilities testers locate. The levels define the most important priority from the findings. Each issue found has a priority of Critical, High, Medium, Low, or Informational.

  • Critical: This is the most urgent type of vulnerability that requires immediate remediation.
  • High: These are also a priority and should be set for remedy as soon as possible.
  • Medium: These vulnerabilities have less exposure to risk and data security but should still be on the list to fix.
  • Low/Informational: This segment includes vulnerabilities that are cautionary or informational.

So, how does each issue obtain its rating? There are specific criteria that would label the vulnerability. Those include:

  • The likelihood of exploitation by a hacker
  • The severity of the vulnerability
  • What the vulnerability provides to a cybercriminal

These tests can deliver valuable information to your IT team and help them understand where weaknesses are and what needs to be fixed the fastest. There are many reasons why such an evaluation can be beneficial to your organization.

Why Conduct Vulnerability Assessments

Vulnerability assessments have a direct link to IT risk. They explore a range of possible issues across your network and get to the root of the problems you likely aren’t aware of presently. Because these assessments define a priority level, they inform your entire IT risk picture. This makes them a significant part of your complete IT risk management framework.

A vulnerability test can be a crucial tool for industries with rigid compliance issues around data protection and cybersecurity, especially healthcare. They can be an excellent complement to a HIPAA security risk analysis. Additionally, they can support compliance with standards and policies such as PCI DSS, FISMA, DISA STIGs, GLBA guidelines, OWASP, and NIST.

When you perform regular vulnerability assessments, you have one more proactive defense mechanism to prevent data breaches. It’s an ongoing process that gives you clarity around weaknesses. Consider the fact that new vulnerabilities arise every day—over 25,000 new ones were discovered and publicly reported in 2022. The best way to stay in front of them is through continuous assessment.

These evaluations also help you build a patch management strategy, which is critical to securing your network. It’s often impractical to patch a vulnerability immediately, so this process provides you with a classification of the priority.

Other benefits you can realize include:

  • Creating an inventory of all devices on your network, their purpose, and system information
  • Establishing a business risk profile
  • Planning upgrades throughout your system
  • Managing and allocating your resources more effectively
  • Improving the overall security posture of your organization
  • Demonstrating that you are a security-focused business, which can enhance your credibility with customers and partners

Next, let’s look at the steps of the assessment.

The Steps of a Vulnerability Assessment

A vulnerability assessment can occur onsite at your company. They can also happen remotely with a VPN connection to your internal network, either by installing scanning tools on the system or via a virtual machine.

No matter where the evaluation occurs, it involves these steps.

Asset Discovery

First, you determine what to scan and assess. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds. Large enterprises, especially those with decentralized operations, don’t always have clear visibility of their digital infrastructure and ecosystem. It’s especially complex when there are IoT and mobile devices. You don’t need perfect organization to start an assessment. Discuss any challenges like this with your assessment partner.

Defining the Scope

With that conversation and what you know about your network, you’ll outline the scope of the assessment, which could be at the host, application, or network layer.

The Scanning and Testing

Next is the actual scanning, using tools, as well as manual activities. The design of these scanning tools is to identify known security weaknesses. Many of these are part of the public discourse, so information is available on how to resolve them and what the level of risk is.

Tools look for missing patches and existing vulnerabilities for every system. Using authenticated scans is the best approach, as they improve accuracy. Authenticated means testers are using credentials in the scan. Instead of guessing an application’s version or patch level, an authenticated scan checks the actual files on the system.

Analysis and Risk Assessment

After the scan, the testers will analyze each identified vulnerability. Using the criteria we reviewed earlier, they’ll assign the level of risk. Some assessments may uncover risks that are all high priority, but there still will be an analysis of what you need to do first. Others may have mainly medium risk. That classification within the same level is necessary because you can’t do everything immediately. All this information goes into your report.

Reviewing the Results

You’ll receive a complete report from those scanning. It will include these areas:

  • Devices tested
  • Vulnerabilities discovered and their priority level
  • Steps testers took during the evaluation
  • Prioritization of the vulnerabilities
  • Recommended steps for remediation

With the report, you should also have a session with the assessment provider to discuss all the details and answer any questions. Ideally, the information is easy to understand (even for non-technical folks). As a result, you’ll get clarity and transparency.

Planning for the Next Test

Once you remediate the issues found in the assessment, it’s time to consider the next one. You won’t know if you properly addressed everything without a retest. This provides validation that you took the appropriate corrective action. Unfortunately, you may think you resolved an issue, but it’s still present.

More Things to Know About Vulnerability Tests

There are some additional points you should know about vulnerability tests. First, false positives are possible. It occurs when a tool identifies that a weakness exists even though it doesn’t. It’s a common issue with these exercises, and they can derail the evaluation. Thus, working with a testing service that will scrub these is crucial.

Another thing to know is that a vulnerability test isn’t the same as a penetration test. They both identify issues, but vulnerability assessments don’t exploit them like a pen test, which simulates an attack. It’s a good idea to do both.

A vulnerability test can also identify a current malware infection or breach. Should this occur, your tester will halt all other work and bring it to your attention so that you can begin your incident response.

Finally, you should be choosy about whom you partner with for these tests. There are lots of automated tools out there that anyone could presumably use to assess your systems. However, you want a little more checks and balances than this, which means you need humans reviewing scans and performing other tasks. Such a team should have expertise and experience and be able to deliver the most accurate results. Otherwise, you’ll still have weaknesses lurking in your networks going unnoticed.

Talk to Our Experts About Vulnerability Tests

Vulnerability assessments are an essential part of a strong cybersecurity program. By conducting these often and continuously, you fortify your security posture. If you want to learn more about our vulnerability testing services, schedule a discovery call with our team today.

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