Security

Vulnerability Management

Barbara Ericson
28 Jan
10 min read

Modern vulnerability management is more important than ever before.

Most large organizations have a significant amount of their business infrastructure set up in digital sectors, stored either on hard drives or on the cloud.

This opens up serious possibilities for organizational damage due to cyberattacks and malicious behavior.

No organization is without vulnerabilities in their digital security web. But good vulnerability management strategies will allow your organization to identify and treat potential weak spots in your defenses before they become true problems.

Vulnerability Management US Guide 2021

Knowing how to accurately identify vulnerabilities in your organization and correct them to prevent future malicious intrusions or data breaches is vital if you want to maintain operational security for the long-term future.

Good vulnerability management will minimize your organization’s “attack surface” and make it more difficult for cybercriminals of any kind to take advantage of your enterprise and its important data.

But it’s tough to know how to best practice vulnerability management for your organization if you don’t have a lot of experience, or if you are adopting vulnerability management for the first time.

This guide will break down the key parts of vulnerability management philosophies and methodologies, as well as provide actionable examples.

Why Do You Need Vulnerability Management?

Put simply, you need vulnerability management because modern enterprises are more vulnerable to digital security threats than ever before. In fact, a recent security survey found that nearly half of all organizations have suffered one or more digital breaches in the last year.

The fact of the matter is that digital intrusions are easier to achieve and harder to track. The greater issue of digital security will become more complex and difficult to manage if you don’t begin managing your enterprise’s vulnerabilities right now.

Investing in and training for vulnerability management will help you capitalize on existing technologies and avoid serious breaches of the future.

Risks of Ignoring Vulnerability Management

If you don’t practice vulnerability management, your organization will be at greater risk for serious cyber threats. These include:

  • Theft of digital assets and user data
  • Breach of digital security compliance codes like the GDPR – this can result in heavy fines
  • Theft of personal data and sensitive company information
  • Shutdown of company servers and other hardware

All of these potential effects could have long-term negative repercussions for your organization. The damage to your company’s reputation and profits may be immense.

All in all, it’s a much better idea to practice proactive vulnerability management than it is to wait for the proverbial cyber-storm to hit your enterprise.

What is Considered a Vulnerability?

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Ultimately, a web application security vulnerability is any potential weak spot in your organization’s digital defenses, whether it’s based on digital threats or real-world actions.

There are various public sources that offer specific definitions of organization vulnerabilities.

These include the National Vulnerability Database or NVD. Microsoft also regularly puts out free security updates that include definitions of various digital vulnerabilities.

But remember that vulnerabilities can be unique to your organization based on its digital architecture and unique attributes.

Why Does Vulnerability Identification Matter?

Understanding what constitutes a vulnerability for your organization is important so you can identify various risks and take steps to correct them. To this end, it’s a good idea to check out the Center for Internet Security.

It offers the biggest collection of configuration baselines your organization should use to both assess and correct any vulnerabilities from your software’s configuration.

You can practice good vulnerability management by following four broad steps.

Identifying Vulnerabilities

Before you can take action against vulnerabilities, you must identify them. No two organizations have the exact same vulnerabilities.

Typically, it’s wise to employ a vulnerability scanner. Vulnerability scanners can:

  • Determine any open ports or services currently running on the scanned systems
  • Log in remotely to any necessary systems to gather more information
  • Compile and correlate gathered information with already known vulnerabilities
  • Scan any network-accessible systems, usually through pinging them or sending various data packets (i.e. TCP/UDP packets)

Basically, scanning for vulnerabilities involves looking for places where a potential cybercriminal might try to attack your systems.

How to Identify Vulnerabilities

Web Vulnerability Scanners

You can employ traditional and linear vulnerability scanners or use adaptive vulnerability scanners to search for specific things based on prior experience.

Fortunately, vulnerability scanners can be automated if you pick up good vulnerability management software.

By automating your scans, you’ll ensure that your organization is constantly assessed for new threats and you won’t have to waste too much manpower on regularly scheduled scans. 

Furthermore, endpoint agents at your organization can gather vulnerability data continuously from your systems without performing intrusive scans. 

Using endpoint agents could be useful since it’ll help your organization maintain up-to-date data for your vulnerabilities.

The more up-to-date your data is, the less likely you are to be surprised by potential intrusions or data leaks.

Ultimately, any worthwhile vulnerability management scanner or software solution will gather data and create reports to be analyzed and acted upon later.

Evaluating Vulnerabilities

Once you’ve gathered enough data and identified various weak spots in your system’s defences, you’ll need to evaluate those vulnerabilities to make sure you deal with them correctly.

Your organization likely already has a risk management strategy. Any vulnerability evaluations should take this into effect so you adhere to existing strategic guidelines.

Vulnerability management solutions or software will typically provide scores or risk ratings for vulnerabilities in your organization. One good example is the CVSS or Common Vulnerability Scoring System.

Developing quantifiable requirements in your evaluations is one of the top 10 best practices for software testing projects, which you can read more about in our guide!

Think of scores and ratings as tools you can use to figure out which vulnerabilities you need to attack first.

Additional Reasons to Evaluate

Evaluating any scanned or identified vulnerabilities also serve additional purposes:

  • Evaluation can help you identify whether the vulnerability is real or a false positive report
  • It can tell you how easy or difficult it is for the vulnerability in question to be exploited
  • Evaluation can determine whether the vulnerability can be exploited over the Internet
  • Perhaps most importantly, evaluation can inform you about the impact on your business were it to be exploited in the near future

It’s important to maintain excellent vulnerability evaluation standards so you identify any false positives and avoid wasting your organization’s time.

But it’s also important so you tackle existing threats efficiently and effectively without wasting time on minor issues that won’t impact your organization much in the long run. 

Treating Vulnerabilities

After identifying and evaluating vulnerabilities, you need to treat them. Treating vulnerabilities means either eliminating the risk of digital intrusion or breaches altogether or enacting defences to make penetration much more difficult.

Staying Ahead of Attackers through Vulnerability Management

The best part about vulnerability management is that it allows you to treat potential intrusion points or weak spots before hackers have a chance to do your organization harm.

Treatment for any vulnerabilities should be swift, decisive, and absolutely thorough. Good treatments will produce positive security effects in the long run and, in a perfect world, won’t even be seen.

Examples of ways to treat vulnerabilities include:

Mitigation

Which involves lowering the likelihood of a vulnerability being exploited by a cybercriminal OR lowering the impact it would have were it to be exploited in the future.

This strategy may be needed if a detailed patch for a particular vulnerability won't be out for some time, but you still need to take steps to correct the vulnerability in the short-term

Remediation

Which involves completely patching or repairing the vulnerability to prevent future exploitation. This is the ultimate endpoint for all vulnerabilities in theory

Acceptance

Worthwhile strategy only when a vulnerability is deemed particularly low risk or high cost relative to the other vulnerabilities on your list. Acceptance means not taking any action to fix a vulnerability or lower its impact should it be exploited

Most vulnerability management software or organizations will provide remediation strategies for any detected vulnerabilities. But organization executives will have to decide which vulnerabilities to target overall and what strategies to employ in the long run.

Fortunately, remediation is often simple once a vulnerability is identified.

Most organization vulnerabilities are fixed by applying software patches or adopting better digital hygiene techniques for physical staff, such as making sure that ID badges are properly accounted for at all times to prevent physical intrusion.

It’s important to recognize that not all vulnerabilities must be fixed. For example, a vulnerability on an outdated piece of software no longer used by client applications or current staff web browsers is no threat to the organization in its current form.

Reporting Vulnerabilities

After fixing a vulnerability, you must also report it. Continuous vulnerability assessments involve recording the details of a vulnerability scan, detection, evaluation, and eventual fix so that future security team members can follow the same process more quickly and efficiently.

Why is Reporting Important?

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Your organization must constantly be learning from the threats of the past in order to be prepared for the cyberthreats of the future.

Reports help make this philosophy a reality, as well as bolsters your IT team’s ability to tackle new vulnerabilities as they are discovered.

Furthermore, your organization may need to report on any detected vulnerabilities in order to maintain compliance with certain regulations or security requirements.

Vulnerability management software usually automatically creates vulnerability reports, as well as provide some basic analysis.

You and your IT team may need to perform more in-depth analyses based on gathered data in order to find patterns in repeated vulnerabilities across your organization and to anticipate future problems before they arrive.

Vulnerability Management Solutions

In a nutshell, ability management solutions are automated software tools that you can utilize to simplify and streamline your vulnerability management practices.

Rather than having someone on your IT team constantly running additional scans, for example, vulnerability management solutions can automate or tweak existing scans and ensure that you’re always on top of your management goals.

However, no two vulnerability management solutions are alike. Different software solutions will offer different features – some vulnerability management software only performs scanning, while others can help your IT team in every step of the vulnerability management process.

What to Look For in Vulnerability Management Software

Some of the best vulnerability management solutions will integrate additional security tools and functions. This can be cost-effective for your organization and improve ease-of-use for your IT security team. Additional functions and features to look for in vulnerability management software include:

  • Intrusion detection
  • Threat detection and response functionality
  • Auditing and reporting for security compliance
  • Data classification for any gathered vulnerability data
  • Asset discovery
  • Privileged access management (i.e. only certain people can access the software)

It’s important to locate and leverage good vulnerability management software ASAP. Your IT team can integrate it into their existing security technology without much trouble in most cases.

Pro Tips for Vulnerability Management

Be Sure Your Workstation and Server Software is Up to Date

workstation icon

Naturally, it's important to make sure that all used workstations and server software in your organization are up-to-date.

Operating systems and individual software applications are updated quite frequently by their programmers.

Each major update usually includes security fixes and patches for identified and thoroughly analyzed vulnerabilities.

Rather than identifying and coming up with a solution to these vulnerabilities yourself, simply keep your software updated and download the patches for free.

Up-to-date software is more difficult for cybercriminals to breach, as well.

Discover and Map Out Your Assets

As your organization grows, so too do your available assets and potentially vulnerable entry points. It’s important that you are aware of any assets in your existing software systems, including individual terminals, accounts, Internet-connected portals, and more.

Basically, knowing everything that’s connected to an individual system will help you keep a sharp eye out for any potential vulnerabilities. It may be a good idea to periodically scan for new assets to make sure that everything is brought under your broader security umbrella.

Scan Regularly

Scanning regularly is the best way to catch new vulnerabilities as they crop up, either due to unforeseen complications or because of new vulnerabilities introduced during patches or software modifications.

Fortunately, vulnerability management software can help greatly with this effort by automating scans to occur regularly and at low-traffic periods.

Even automated software can perform custom scans tweaked by your IT teams for maximum effect. If you don’t have vulnerability management software, it’s likely still worthwhile to have one of your IT team members manually perform regular scans just to be safe.

Document the Scan Results

Any scan results must be documented regularly, even if no vulnerabilities are detected. This keeps a digital trail of scan results and can help your IT team identify flaws in scans later down the road if a potential vulnerability is exploited without the scan detecting the issue.

It’s the best way to make sure that future scans are as thorough and competent as possible.

Make Plans for Unpatchable Issues

No matter how excellent your vulnerability management software is, it won’t be able to catch everything. Furthermore, some issues will simply be “unpatchable” and you won’t be able to fix them either in time for certain launches or big organization events or before they are exploited.

Your risk management strategies should take this eventuality into account. Make plans for any unpatchable issues you don’t anticipate being able to handle before something else happens.

In this way, you can minimize the effects of any breaches or intrusions and better defend yourself should something go awry with your defence plan.

FAQ

What Are the Risk Factors Needed to Assess Vulnerabilities?

If you want your vulnerability evaluations to be as sophisticated and accurate as possible, you’ll pay attention to multiple risk factors. These include:

  • CVSS scores, which measure how vulnerable a given system weakness really is
  • Severity ratings, which indicate how serious a potential vulnerability is
  • Exploitability, which measures how easy it is for a vulnerability to be taken advantage of
  • Vulnerability age, which identifies how long a vulnerability has likely been active
  • Patch availability, which indicates how quickly you may be able to remediate a vulnerability
  • Asset criticality, which measures how important a vulnerable as it is to your greater organization or operational security

What Are the 4 Main Types of Vulnerabilities?

Though vulnerabilities come in all different types, organizations are primarily affected by four main varieties. These include:

Unpatched or out of date software. This just emphasizes how important it is to keep your software updated whenever a new patch rolls out.

Any unpatched software could be exploited by cybercriminals that leverage known security bugs that have not been patched in the old version of the software at hand

Misconfigurations. Any system is configurations may be exploited by attackers to allow for breaches or data leaks

Phishing and ransomware. These vulnerabilities are primarily driven by bad digital hygiene, such as employees clicking on unfamiliar emails while logged into their work accounts or failing to run good antivirus software

Missing or poor encryption. This last vulnerability allows hackers to take advantage of weaknesses within your system’s defences

Who Is Responsible for Vulnerability Management?

In the end, multiply people are responsible for vulnerability management. Anyone involved in digital security or granted secure access to systems or data must practice good vulnerability management strategies.

However, some people are responsible for specific aspects of vulnerability management.

  • Monitoring and analyzing vulnerabilities should take care to scan regularly and diligently
  • Remediating or fixing vulnerabilities should be quick and efficient with their solutions
  • Authorizing vulnerability management practices or solutions must be decisive in their actions

Conclusion

In the end, vulnerability management is a major part of any organization’s greater digital security framework and strategic philosophy.

By identifying, assessing, treating, and reporting on existing vulnerabilities, you’ll enjoy greater digital security across the board and experience fewer intrusions or cyberattacks in the long run.


Barbara Ericson
A longtime open source contributor, with extensive experience in DevOps principles and practices. Barbara is especially interested in helping IT businesses and organizations implement DevOps, cloud-native technologies, and open source.