Vulnerability Management: What is It? Process, Best Practices

By Fortra's Digital Defense

These days, data breaches within organizations occur so often that they are an expected inevitability. Threat actors are always seeking ways to infiltrate a system to exploit it for personal gain, whether to release sensitive information like trade secrets or slow a company down to a crawl by taking over its network. A business's IT department and security team can prevent this issue with an effective vulnerability management program.

Security experts must take a proactive approach to manage vulnerabilities within the network to minimize or eliminate the attack surface a cybercriminal could use to manipulate the system. New systems, software, and tactics are constantly evolving. If a company does not take the initiative to prevent cyber attacks, it will significantly increase its risk of having its vulnerabilities exploited, thus posing a danger to its entire system.

Businesses and organizations can ensure their environment's security by proactively addressing vulnerabilities. Adopting a vulnerability management program before a cyber-attack occurs is the wisest and most proactive strategy to maintain information security.

 

What Is a Vulnerability Management Program?

The definition of vulnerability management is the process of identifying, classifying, prioritizing, and resolving vulnerabilities or weaknesses within:

  • operating systems
  • enterprise applications
  • end-user applications
  • browsers

The process should be continuous since threats are ever-evolving and threat agents can introduce new systems, services, and tactics at any time. Vulnerability management programs are now a requirement--no longer just an option--for companies that want to comply with risk management frameworks.

To protect your assets, you must know what makes them exploitable. Vulnerability management should be the basis for any security program because it tells you about everything within a network. With this information, the security personnel will know what, when, and how to protect it.

A common misconception about vulnerability management programs is that they are the same as patch management programs, but this is not entirely correct. Applying patches is a way to mitigate vulnerability risks. In contrast, vulnerability management prevents network exploitation and operates to deal with known vulnerabilities within hardware equipment and software.

 

The Four Steps of a Vulnerability Management Program

The backbone of an efficient vulnerability management program is a vulnerability scanner. This automated tool thoroughly combs through networks, systems, and software to expose network security weaknesses that cybercriminals could exploit for malicious use. The scanning process breaks down into four steps:

  1. Identifying Vulnerabilities
  2. Evaluating Vulnerabilities
  3. Treating Vulnerabilities
  4. Reporting Vulnerabilities

 

Identifying Vulnerabilities

The purpose of the first step in the vulnerability scanning process is to uncover all the vulnerabilities within a network's environment. Scanning has four stages:

  • The scanner will search all network-accessible systems
  • It will identify open ports and services running on the systems
  • The scanner will attempt to log into systems remotely to collect additional information
  • It will compare the system's information to known vulnerabilities

Vulnerability scanners can scan a broad range of accessible systems within a network, including:

  • laptops
  • virtual and physical servers
  • databases
  • firewalls
  • printers
  • desktops

The scanner checks them for various attributes, such as operating systems, open ports, file system structure, configurations, user accounts, etc. The vulnerability scanner will then correlate the collected data to known vulnerabilities using a database consisting of publicly known vulnerabilities.

 

Evaluating Vulnerabilities

After the vulnerability scan is complete and has identified vulnerabilities, the next step is evaluating the flaws and categorizing them according to their potential risks. The evaluation relies on the vulnerability management solutions the organization prefers to use. Note that vulnerability management strategies have varying vulnerability ratings and scores, though the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) is a standard option.

The scores will tell the organization which vulnerabilities pose the highest threat and require priority mitigation. It is rare for a vulnerability scan to produce a false positive, but it can happen, so businesses should also consider other factors as they evaluate network weaknesses.

These factors may include:

  • The vulnerability's exploitation difficulty
  • The company's impact if someone exploits the vulnerability
  • Whether the vulnerability is exploitable from someone on the internet
  • The age of the vulnerability and its length of time within the network

No security tool has a 100% success rate, but an organization can increase vulnerability detection and reduce false positives with penetration testing. Pen testing and vulnerability scanning will expose the strengths and weaknesses of the organization's network infrastructure.

 

Treating Vulnerabilities

With the exposure of system vulnerabilities that pose a risk to the business, the business now needs to make sure the vulnerability with the highest risk is at the top of the patch list. The IT team and network stakeholders usually collaborate to determine the appropriate treatment method, which could include remediation, mitigation, or acceptance.

Remediation

This method involves completely fixing a vulnerability using patch management tools to prevent cyber-attackers' exploitation. It is the preferred option.

Mitigation

If remediation is not possible, mitigating the vulnerability will reduce the risk of attackers exploiting the network's flaw. Mitigation is useful as a temporary measure for vulnerabilities that are too new to have a proper patch. Once a fix is available, the organization must make sure it remediates the vulnerability.

Acceptance

For low-risk vulnerabilities that may cost more resources to fix than an attack would cost the company, it may be better to acknowledge the presence of the flaw and do nothing to fix it.

The organization's vulnerability management solution will recommend remediation tactics, but they are not always the best course of action. In this situation, the business's security team, system administrators, and system owners will need to determine the appropriate approach.

 

Reporting Vulnerabilities

Regularly conducting vulnerability assessments helps organizations understand how fast and effective their vulnerability management program works over time. The vulnerability assessment gives security teams detailed insight into their IT department's infrastructure and its weaknesses. With access to this vulnerability data, the security team can accurately patch and manage the vulnerabilities that threaten the company.

The data collected from vulnerability scanning and penetration testing will include various customizable reports and dashboards that will give the security professionals an idea of which remediation techniques will best suit the organization's needs.

 

Four Tips for a Better Vulnerability Management Program

Developing an effective management program is a time-consuming process, especially when it comes to remediation. To help organizations overcome cybersecurity challenges without getting overwhelmed, consider these four tips to improve a vulnerability management program:

  • Frequently Assess Vulnerabilities: Applications and infrastructures change so quickly and often that it may seem almost impossible for an organization to keep up with the changes. Continually scanning the environment for vulnerabilities will give you the best up-to-date analysis of your network's flaws. Your organization's vulnerability management solution may include additional integrations that will provide security personnel with real-time reports.
  • Perform Comprehensive Scans: It is no longer enough for businesses to scan servers and desktops within their enterprise network and do nothing else. IT infrastructure evolves too quickly, so a comprehensive approach is more appropriate. Any vulnerability management program in your organization should include thorough scans into its entire attack surface, including the cloud and devices connected to the network for the first time.
  • Move Quickly: A successful vulnerability management program needs both human analysis and an automated scanning program. The scanning process has a lot of repetition that a person can complete, but it leaves too much room for human error. Automation streamlines the work and reduces the risk for mistakes that could cost the organization substantial losses from an undiscovered or exposed vulnerability without adequate security patches.
  • Address All Weaknesses: Vulnerabilities within networks are not exclusive to technical equipment. People within businesses can intentionally and unintentionally contribute to the development of security risks. The organization's security experts must partner with the IT department to locate and remediate all vulnerabilities, including those pertaining to employees and contractors. Simulations and expanded education for workers can significantly reduce security risks attributed to social engineering attacks, like phishing, which cyber-attackers use to access IT assets.

 

Why Vulnerability Management Is Crucial

The number of cyber-attacks against anyone operating an enterprise is steadily increasing with every passing year, and the threats are not slowing down. One of the reasons for this problem is the lack of network updates that include good patches for vulnerabilities.

Bad actors always search for ways into a threat landscape to find vulnerable assets to exploit. One of the most common ways they accomplish this feat of asset discovery is to infiltrate businesses through outdated software.

This particular security gap is a high risk for an organization because it operates as an unprotected backdoor. Without updates to software, firewalls, and other security measures, an organization is essentially inviting attackers into its environment. Once cyber-criminals are aware of the vulnerability, they will use all tools at their disposal to access the company's assets.

It is useless to have security measures in place if you are unaware of what you are protecting. That is where a vulnerability management program comes into the picture. Instead of waiting for an attack to happen and dealing with the aftermath, a vulnerability management program takes a proactive risk management approach.

With this program, automated scans will regularly check the system in its entirety for new and old vulnerabilities, including security gaps that were lying dormant for an extended time. Bad actors will have fewer opportunities to infiltrate the organization because they will have nothing to exploit or manipulate to access the company's assets. When paired with threat intelligence collected by qualified security professionals and provided on regular threat intelligence feeds, a company can be confident that its networks, assets, and reputation are not at risk.

Vulnerability management does not only provide the necessary tools to prevent data breaches and unauthorized network use, but it also helps IT professionals understand how cyber-criminals can manipulate system flaws for personal gain. It provides a way for the organization's team to identify weaknesses, study its risks, and determine the best course of action to prevent the vulnerability from producing a legitimate threat to the business.

 

How can Digital Defense help with Vulnerability Management

Though some business leaders consider them to be a luxury, vulnerability management programs are a must-have for any organization to keep its digital assets secure at all times. The risk of a data breach resulting in stolen assets like trade secrets, credit card data, and other sensitive information is too high, so you need to take a proactive stance on your security.

Digital Defense is a leading security services provider that understands the importance of adequate risk assessment. For more than 20 years, we have provided clients with many high-quality vulnerability and threat assessment SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) solutions. We can give your company the protection it needs against cyber-attacks while streamlining your security management.

Our proprietary platform, Frontline. Cloud, pairs patented technologies and multiple software security systems to proactively defend businesses of any size from compromising cyber-attacks.

About Digital Defense

Our Frontline.Cloud SaaS platform supports Frontline Vulnerability Manager™, Frontline Web Application Scanning™, and Frontline Active Threat Sweep™ that together provide:

  • Asset discovery and tracking
  • OS and web application risk assessment
  • Targeted malware threat assessment
  • Machine learning features that leverage threat intelligence
  • Agentless & agent-based scanning
  • Penetration testing for networks, mobile applications, and web applications
  • Compliance management. One of the world’s longest tenured PCI-Approved Scanning Vendors

The Frontline.Cloud platform virtually eliminates false-positives associated with legacy vulnerability management solutions, while also automating the tracking of dynamic and transient assets and prioritizing results based on business criticality.

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