Managing cybersecurity and the threat landscape involves many tools, practices, policies, and activities. It’s a never-ending cycle as new risks emerge and the ability to identify and mitigate them matures. One of the most essential aspects of a great cybersecurity defensive posture is to tap experienced third parties to conduct a vulnerability assessment. With such an exercise, you can find and fix problems with patches and configurations.
In this post, we’ll review what a vulnerability assessment is, how it works, and the benefits and values it yields for your organization.
What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?
A vulnerability assessment is the process of evaluating all the assets in your enterprise. Its objective is to find missing patches and misconfigurations. The definition of a vulnerability in this scenario is any flaw in bugs or code that would offer an opportunity for hackers to exploit.
The assessment also classifies vulnerabilities based on specific criteria, including the likelihood of hackers exploiting these weaknesses, their severity should this occur, and what the exposure provides if a cybercriminal uses it. The categories are:
- Critical: These are the most urgent and require immediate attention.
- High: This is the next highest priority and should be on your remediation roadmap.
- Medium: These vulnerabilities are less risky but should still be on the list to fix.
- Low/Informational: This category includes cautionary but not urgent vulnerabilities.
How Does a Vulnerability Assessment Work?
Commencing a vulnerability assessment involves automated and manual techniques. Scanning tools are an essential element in these practices. However, you shouldn’t rely solely on these. Human intervention and analysis are equally important.
Firms performing an assessment will take different paths, depending on the type.
Vulnerability Assessment Types
- Network-based: In this scenario, the focus is on scanning geographically distributed machines and applications. The objective is to find security gaps in communication or network systems. This assessment analyzes devices on the network, seeking to find compromised passwords as well as an evaluation of your system’s ability to respond to common attacks.
- Application-based: This type of probe involves the application layer. It would enable the detection of misconfigurations and common application weaknesses. In this approach, you learn how secure an application is.
- Host-based: For this type of test, scanners review machine weaknesses, such as workstations, network hosts, and services. It uses a manager/agent structure to determine if a system is in alignment with enterprise security standards and protocols.
Regardless of what you’re assessing, the process typically involves these steps.
What Are the Stages of a Vulnerability Assessment?
The process begins by defining what to scan and review. Work with your provider to determine where to start based on your cybersecurity goals. The more extensive your network, the more involved these assessments will be. Get counsel and advice from experts to kick things off.
Determining the Scope
Next, you and your provider will define the scope of the process and what layer you will assess. In this step, you’re outlining the expectations and goals as well.
Scanning and Testing
The third step includes scanning different layers. Remember that automated tools are a great first pass, but you want some manual investigation, too. These resources can only find known security weaknesses, which is why manual efforts are also critical.
Identifying missing patches for every system also occurs in this stage. Authenticated scans are a best practice—they boost accuracy because testers use credentials. Such a scan verifies the actual files on the system.
Post scanning, your provider will analyze all the found weaknesses. They’ll label them based on the classifications above. The more complex the vulnerability, the more planning that will be necessary for its remediation. Prioritizing these helps you determine the actions you must take now and what can wait.
The results you receive from vulnerability scans are in a report that has these sections:
- What devices they tested
- Each vulnerability located and its priority level
- The steps testers took during the assessment
- Prioritization of vulnerabilities
- Remediation recommendations
Your partner will then review all these findings with you. It’s your opportunity to ask questions and get clarity on anything. A note on reports to consider—ask potential providers for a sample of a report before you enter into a relationship. The most effective ones are factual and easy to understand. If you see a preview that looks overly technical and dense, it’s a red flag.
Next Test Planning
After you resolve the issues found in the assessment, you’ll want to map out when to do the next one. A retest can validate that you’ve properly addressed the findings and taken the needed corrective action.
Why Should Businesses Use Vulnerability Assessments?
A vulnerability assessment can be a pillar of your cybersecurity strategy. Companies undergo these for many different reasons. First, they are just a good practice to minimize risk and be proactive in thwarting cyberattacks. A vulnerability is what a hacker seeks to facilitate a data breach, so having as many ways as possible to mitigate this risk is imperative.
Second, they can support regulatory compliance requirements, such as those involved with HIPAA, PCI DSS, FISMA, DISA, STIGs, GLBA guidelines, OWASP, and NIST.
Third, they can validate that all applications have the correct updates and versions. Ensuring that the platforms used in your organization are as secure as possible is essential to a robust cybersecurity defense. It’s easy for updating to slip through the cracks. Automating this can help, but you may still be missing some needed patches. Engaging in these assessments gives you a more dynamic approach to patch management.
The Benefits of Vulnerability Assessments
So, why is the value of a vulnerability assessment? We’ve covered many ways it supports cybersecurity best practices. Here are all the benefits you can realize.
- You’ll find flaws that would otherwise be impossible to locate. Weaknesses are rarely visible in day-to-day operations. When you identify the specific vulnerabilities to fix through this evaluation, you minimize risk and have a more definitive patch management strategy.
- You can measure your IT hygiene. These assessments “measure” the performance of your security measures. It finds all the things that could contribute to risk with a priority on when to fix them.
- Assessments protect your business assets. Applications are a favorite target for hidden malicious code. These scans can locate these to discover the possible entry points for cybercriminals. Consistent assessments add more protection to your assets.
- You can manage your resources better. Your organization may be facing a lack of resources, which is a prevalent challenge in cybersecurity. Thus, you have to do more with less. Since these scans prioritize fixes for you, you can use resources more effectively.
- You get a fresh perspective on how secure your network is. Internal teams can perform scans, and you can also have tools always running in the background. However, these practices won’t catch everything. By collaborating with assessment experts, you get a unique and new point of view that’s free of bias.
- Regular assessments are much more affordable than breaches, interruptions, and fines. Maintaining security and privacy around data is essential to any business, whether in a regulated industry or not. Investing in these activities will be much less expensive than the fallout from data breaches, service interruptions, and fines.
- You can benchmark the maturity of your cybersecurity program. These protocols are in a constant state of change because attacks are always adapting. By using vulnerability scans, you can measure the effectiveness of your standards. When you see things declining, you’ll know it’s time to update these.
- Assessments demonstrate that your organization is security-centric. You can enhance your credibility with customers, stakeholders, and partners with vulnerability assessments. It could even be a criterion for them to do business with you. Conducting these shows that you take security seriously and are constantly working to build a safer environment.
- Your inventory records will be more accurate. Identification of assets is the first step in assessments. Ensuring these stay up to date is essential in endpoint security management. You’ll be able to develop this with scans. You can then track what the device’s purpose is and its system information.
Final Thoughts on Vulnerability Assessments
Most organizations need a litany of tactics, processes, and tools to keep hackers out of their networks successfully. The most common vulnerabilities that can impact a business are either due to user behavior or technology issues. The former is very complex and impossible to fully control because it’s humans making decisions that aren’t always the right ones.
Technology issues are something you have greater control over. It’s an objective exercise, too, meaning it’s just about the state of the system. The sheer volume of vulnerabilities that can occur in this realm is overwhelming, so using a third party that specializes in these is a way to reduce this unease. Remember that assessments are a continuous exercise, so you must undergo them regularly to realize their true value.
If you want to know more about vulnerability assessments, schedule a discovery call with our team today.