Mar 14 2022

What is Vulnerability Management? Its Process and Best Practices

Table of Contents

Introduction

Cybercriminals can exploit vulnerable areas for the fulfillment of any specific purpose. It takes a continuous process to identify vulnerable areas and regularly work on them for the latest updates and prevention processes for safer and secure system operations. Addressing and managing the rising vulnerabilities identified each year needs a disciplined practice for threat detection and remediation. Some significant vulnerabilities result from hardware, procedural, network, and software vulnerabilities.

What is Vulnerability?

Vulnerabilities can be explained as the risk-prone or weak areas which can become a cybersecurity threat. Any organization can detect these vulnerabilities in almost all systems. However, since these weaknesses are present in crucial areas of organizations like the information system or internal controls, it is vital to monitor and implement effective security systems to prevent cybercriminals gain access illegally and causing severe damage.

Types of Vulnerabilities

  1. Hardware & Software Vulnerabilities

    Hardware vulnerabilities are the flaws or weaknesses found in devices or systems enabling attackers to exploit the system remotely or physically. Common hardware vulnerabilities are unencrypted devices, unprotected storage, and old versions of systems or devices. The popular and well-planned targets are high-value systems and organizations.

    Software vulnerabilities are defects or flaws in the software where the attacker can remotely control a system. These flaws are sometimes related to coding or the design of the software. For example, some software vulnerabilities are lack of input validation, cross-site scripting, unencrypted data, etc.

  2. Network Vulnerabilities

    The network vulnerabilities result in hardware and software issues for exposure to malicious software or poorly configured firewalls. Common network vulnerabilities are misconfigured firewalls, social engineering attacks, and unprotected communication. In addition, many applications and multiple operating systems are present in a simple networking system where flaws or vulnerabilities enable attackers to exploit and gain access to the entire network.

    Filtering and scanning network traffic help faster identify security threats and respond quickly. Regular monitoring also helps organizations detect patterns, which helps them evaluate specific attacks and block them at the earliest stage.

  3. Procedural/Operational Vulnerabilities

    Vulnerabilities happen in organizations’ security procedures which makes them vulnerable. A standard password policy is followed in organizations for better security.

    Various operational procedures are required to be maintained appropriately to avoid exploitations. The cybersecurity system in an organization needs proper knowledge on the best practices to follow to prevent possible cyberattacks planned by attackers from time to time. Well-organized training and knowledge sharing help avoid malware attacks and protect from exploitations.

  4. Operating System Vulnerabilities

    The operating system vulnerabilities are the flaws within the application software or the operating system. These vulnerabilities are errors in the logic of operation or the code within an operating system that hackers exploit to gain access and cause damage. Malware, Network Intrusion, Buffer Overflow, and Virtualization are some threat vectors exploiting operating systems. It is challenging to create error-free software, and the operating system includes various functionality with complex applications.

What is Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability management is the systematic and strategic process used for identification, assessment, and management along with remedial measures to handle security vulnerabilities across organizations’ systems and software. It monitors the risks and maintains the current security status of organizations. As a result, organizations must maintain security systems and reduce threats.

Need for Vulnerability Management

Vulnerabilities are the loopholes or the crucial areas that cybercriminals can use or exploit. With the ever-increasing vulnerabilities cybersecurity is highly essential. Vulnerability management is the process that identifies and evaluates risks of the IT systems, which are then removed or remediated.

  • Vulnerability management’s main objectives are to scan, investigate, analyze, and report the details of risk or security vulnerabilities with mitigating methods and strategies. Vulnerability management is the continuous process to address and remediate security vulnerabilities to avoid cyberattacks or exploitations.
  • It helps identify and eliminate the weak points and secure the network from potential attacks, coding bugs, or flaws. Vulnerability Management is the fundamental approach to ensure cybersecurity and an effective implementation helps transform your security systems.
  • Vulnerability scanning plays a vital role in the initial process of Vulnerability Management. Scanning works on systems and software for detecting, assessing, and evaluating vulnerabilities. The detection of vulnerabilities or weaknesses helps avoid further damage. NIST or The National Institute of Standards and Technology recommends quarterly scans for better results. Vulnerability scans are also recommended monthly or more for organizations depending on the network for their everyday operational needs or with high-scale and sensitive data.
  • Network security and computer security are fundamental components of vulnerability management. It controls the security risks related to information and focuses on complex cybercrime situations. A continuous overview of vulnerabilities is obtained through the vulnerability process for the risks involved in the IT environment.
  • There are various tools for scanning and detecting for an effective cybersecurity process. Applying tools in the vulnerability process makes it better than manual security systems. However, the application of tools needs investment but is still affordable as it saves billions and protects sensitive data.

Five Stages of the Vulnerability Management Process

Identification

Identifying vulnerabilities is the first step in locating the gaps to bring out all the insights. Vulnerability scanners work step-by-step on the network systems to identify and gather all the system information. It is essential to periodically conduct the scanning process to detect misconfigurations and mitigate risks. It is also essential to evaluate the reports and results obtained after scanning and verifying any vulnerability or risk identified within the system.

Evaluation

After identifying the vulnerabilities and details on scan reports, the evaluation process must plan and work on the risks found. The vulnerabilities discovered are prioritized as per vulnerability scores. Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) is a standard vulnerability management solution used for risk rating and scores for vulnerabilities. The uses of different tools help assess different vulnerabilities across systems. For example, web application scanners work on known attack patterns, while protocol scanners check the enabled IP level protocols. Port scanners can find open ports. Network scanners discover and scan for suspicious signals, IP addresses, and operating systems.

Prioritization

The growing vulnerabilities make it difficult and sometimes impossible for organizations to address each. Prioritization as per risk factors or threats makes it better to remediate vulnerabilities. Prioritization metrics and ratings created from scanning and discovery reports are further analyzed for the remediation stage.

Treating or Remediating

This step is the next one to treat the gaps or the vulnerabilities identified. The right remediation approach and specific treatment strategies are crucial in this process. The primary purpose of this step is to treat all the security gaps and vulnerabilities. An organization needs to plan and follow strategic steps for an effective remediation and mitigation process. The essential steps should include new tools and measures with new security measures periodically and updates on all kinds of operational or configurational changes.

Reporting

This step is critical to convey the assessment summary and key findings regarding asset inventory, security gaps, and overall risk. The report also provides insights regarding the most relevant vulnerability and the remediation or patching approach. Critical components of a vulnerability report can be named as executive summary, assessment overview, and individual vulnerability details.

The executive summary gives detail of issues’ overall risk and prioritizes them accordingly. It should also include details on findings, primary objectives, and remediation with the details of names and times of servers.

Assessment overview gives a clear understanding to the program owner on assessment scans which includes details on validation, investigation, and deliverables. Individual vulnerability details highlight various sections as vulnerability name, discovery date, vulnerability score, POC (proof of concept), impact, and guidance on how to treat them. This section addresses and gives details on all main areas like severity level of vulnerability with higher or lower risks problems listed in proper order.

The 5 Essential Steps to Improve the Vulnerability Management Process

  1. 1. First comes the process for the scan, which needs selecting the resources and systems required for scanning. Alongside this, it also needs to compile and configure all the parameters needed for the scan.
  2. The next step is to scan and identify the vulnerabilities, which would use all the resources and systems to develop a report on cybersecurity features.
  3. After analyzing all data and identifying vulnerabilities, a remediation plan is a next step.
  4. Implement the remediation plan in the best possible ways for maximum results.
  5. A follow-up scan ensures and helps assess the plan’s success hence implemented.

Practical Steps to Build Threat and Vulnerability Management Program

The practical steps to build a threat and vulnerability management program are as follows,

  1. Regular testing on penetration
  2. Maintain patching schedule
  3. Track all IT assets and networks
  4. Stay updated on current threat intelligence
  5. Weak cybersecurity infrastructure
  6. Service Level Agreements and remediation clauses.

Regular Testing on Penetration

Network security should be prioritized for cybersecurity against external attacks, mainly penetrating networks. Penetration testing is also known as Pen testing, and it is found effective in network security threat management. It benefited businesses by detecting and fixing vulnerabilities and securing a network. Regular threat management with penetration testing gives a detailed insight to remediate security flaws and control threats to businesses.

Maintain Patching Schedule

A frequent Software update is needed as there is always scope for improvement. Regular updates make every software better with time. Along with the updates, consistent system, and software patching work best against attackers and secure networks. Testing the update before an application is also a good practice to avoid issues after each update.

Track All IT Assets and Networks

As the software is worked on for vulnerabilities, the hardware also needs attention and should not be forgotten. An old or forgotten hardware or program could be an easy target for hackers to exploit. In addition, missing or forgotten hardware can prove to be an expensive vulnerability, so it’s essential to keep track of or account for all your software and hardware assets regularly.

Stay Updated on Current Threat Intelligence

Information is always less when it comes to growing cyber threats. It is always the best choice to consistently stay updated and identify threats and vulnerabilities. Following and tracking the potential vulnerabilities keeps your network safe and helps avoid the most recent threats.

The sooner the vulnerabilities are identified, they are remediated faster. Vulnerability assessment and threat intelligence tools maintain security improvements for your network system as and when required.

Weak Cybersecurity Infrastructure

An organization needs to maintain good cybersecurity practices for safer infrastructure. The employees and staff should properly understand good cybersecurity practices and maintain them.

Any negligence or bad practices can lead to expensive exploitations. Therefore, regular updates and proper training are given to employees to help achieve and maintain good cybersecurity practices.

Service Level Agreements and Remediation Clauses

Whenever there are third-party service providers, an agreement ensures the deadlines and timeframes for the remediation of vulnerabilities. Any open and unpatched vulnerability is risky and open to threat for a more extended period. Therefore, SLAs or Service Level Agreements with beneficial clauses ensure the protection of your network.

Vulnerability Management vs. Vulnerability Assessment

Vulnerability Management Vulnerability Assessment
1 Vulnerability Management is the continuous process and comprehensive program to manage and mitigate cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Vulnerability assessments have a timeline with start and end dates that can also be called a one-time project.
2 Vulnerability Management is a step-by-step process and well-planned practice in organizations for managing cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Vulnerability assessment improves IT cybersecurity and plays a vital role in vulnerability management.
3 Vulnerability Management is a process for overall cybersecurity systems of organizations with four crucial steps.

  1. Asset inventory
  2. Information management
  3. Risk assessment
  4. Vulnerability assessment.
Vulnerability assessment is part of vulnerability management and is one of the crucial steps of Vulnerability management, which plays a vital role in the process.
4 Vulnerability Management maintains asset inventory information related to cybersecurity and understands threats with risk management. Vulnerability assessment determines the threats and helps mitigate risk and strengthens cybersecurity. Vulnerability assessment and scanning regularly works on the ever-changing IT environment protects from unauthorized access and security breaches.

Practical Implementation of Vulnerability Management

After working on the steps of vulnerability management, it needs a practical implementation to get the best desired results. Therefore, a sequential and right approach is necessary and can be explained as below:

Identify and Define Your Goals

The primary purpose of vulnerability management is to identify and mitigate security risks and avoid exploitation. However, the other objectives should also be decided as implementation and overall vulnerability management improvement. These objectives can include periodical scanning or any other application of tools for network scans or to identify open ports.

Roles and Responsibilities

As per your organization structure, the right individuals should be assigned roles and responsibilities. The best security practices among the staff and members help build a robust security system. Monitors and assess the risks with documentation and alert the resolvers for further action. Resolvers locate the known issues and work on patches or other known solutions. Authorizers work on strategies and procedures to mitigate vulnerabilities regularly and work on alterations as per requirement.

Assessment of the Vulnerability Management Program

Vulnerability management updates you about the overall security status in your organization. However, a regular assessment gives a clear idea of the areas which are working and working on periodically for better results. Furthermore, since infrastructures and applications are regularly changing, it is necessary to scan your environment regularly and use vulnerability solutions that provide a real-time view.

Importance of Vulnerability Management Tools

The need for cybersecurity rises with the rise of cyber threats and vulnerabilities. Hence various tools are implemented in organizations to reduce and manage risks periodically. The more the vulnerabilities in any organization, the more risks, and threats regularly and need immediate attention. Two main sections involved in Vulnerability Management can explain the functionality of tools. The first section deals with the threats or risks that an organization faces, and the other is mitigating these risks and threats.

Business Cases for Vulnerability Management Tools

The vulnerabilities in the IT sector are impacting different organizations in different ways. Therefore, we can understand the need and value of vulnerability management tools with some of the cases as below:

Small Businesses

Small organizations or businesses lack proper allocation of budget regarding security or staffing. It is also found that their staff finds it difficult to determine the amount of impact from potential vulnerabilities. In these cases, simple tools or scanning services make it easy and affordable to run periodic scans and consistently provide a detailed report on vulnerabilities and remediate them on time.

Medium-sized Businesses

Medium-sized organizations also fall under the same threat faced by small organizations, but the threat profile is higher. Since threat profile is high, the chances of targeted attacks also increase, and it needs skills to manage such efficient and proactive security. Considering all the factors, like the cost of skilled and experienced IT staff and managing the data or the cost of a data breach, implementing tools is better than the budget or efforts required.

Enterprise Organizations

Enterprise Organizations are the favored targets of cybercriminals with high volumes of data and thousands of network nodes. Managing data at a large scale and managing security systems needs a comprehensive management tool for assessment, scan data, and reports. In addition, many regulatory laws, audits, and security policies require a vulnerability management plan for risk management and maintaining compliance.

Risk-based Vulnerability Management

Risk-based vulnerability management is one of the most popular vulnerability management strategies. This strategy prioritizes vulnerabilities depending on the level of risk they may pose to an organization’s network and digital assets. Following are three main factors that help identify the prioritization of the vulnerabilities based on risk.

  1. Core Business Risk: Every organization has identified core business processes and associated digital assets that are critical for the organization’s day-to-day operations. Once a vulnerability is identified, the priority has been assigned based on the impact it may cause to the digital assets associated with the core business. This factor is the highest contributor to the risk priority, directly linked to its reputation and revenue.
  2. The extent of Exposure: Risk scores associated with a vulnerability also consider the volume of digital assets exposed if exploited. The risk score is directly proportional to the extent of exposure.
  3. Preparedness: This factor addresses organizational readiness against identified vulnerability. It considers whether the organization has defined standard operating procedures or solutions against possible exploitations of identified vulnerability. If the preparedness level is high, then the risk will be low. However, an organization must consider adding more security measures and compliance processes to protect their digital assets if no resolution is set forward for the identified vulnerability.

The Need for Risk-based Vulnerability Management

An extensive organization network with high-scale data is challenging for cybersecurity teams to manage and fix. On average, 80,000 IT assets, including laptops, printers, routers, etc., are manageable by cybersecurity teams in large enterprises. Out of every ten vulnerabilities found in a large organization, it is possible to remediate just one on average, as per research by Kenna Security. It is the factor that makes risk-based vulnerability necessary. The vulnerabilities are prioritized as per regulatory, compliance, or other needs, and the damages are patched. Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) is one standard metric used to score vulnerabilities as per the risk or damages expected for successful attacks.

Three Important Rules to Follow in Risk-based Vulnerability Management

  1. Vulnerability Scanning
    Scanning works on identifying and determining the overall security strategy. The risk-based vulnerability management approach detects and guides to remediate vulnerabilities as per the highest priority based on the threat surface of the vulnerabilities.
  2. Remediation
    Remediation is the key, as regular alerts are generated for continuous scanning.
    The alerts thus received give visibility which enables to remediate or fix the vulnerability faster.
  3. Prioritization
    In a risk-based management system, the vulnerabilities are prioritized as per risk. The risk prioritization program determines the top highest risk patches and focuses on patching them. The risk prioritization gives a clear understanding of exposure and vulnerability severity, thus giving a clear idea of the application of the remediation technique.

Different Businesses with Common Vulnerabilities

Vulnerabilities give ways to cybercriminals to target a business and exploit them. There are specific businesses that are the most targeted for their vulnerabilities. We can also say that when the thieves know about a weaker door lock, they will target the same house before any other house. The weaker houses become an easy target to break and steal the valuables. While all kinds of organizations are at risk, some of the most sensitive and attractive targets are HealthCare, Banking, and Educational Institutions.

DBIR (Verizon’s 2020 Data Breach Investigations Report) confirmed 228 data leak out of 819 incidents in Educational Institutions. Compared to other sectors, the educational service providers have poor reporting time, and Phishing is an effective vector. Found around 92 cases of data disclosure in food services and 25 in Construction industries.

The detailed findings of most exploited vulnerabilities 2016-2020 were prepared in May 2020 by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). 2020 is recorded as a hike in cybercriminal attacks due to weak firewalls, cybersecurity systems, and recovery plans. In addition, lack of employee training regarding malware and cybersecurity skills also added to cybersecurity vulnerabilities and threats.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are exposed to the internet and highly vulnerable as these are often left unpatched. Ransomware attackers or cyber criminals exploit VPNs using arbitrary code execution or file reading vulnerability.

Some of the widely used and popular software in companies are also targeted by hackers. For example, Adobe Flash Player was impacted by UAF (Use After Free) bug or vulnerability which is a memory corruption bug. UAF is the bug where memory is assigned to another application when the same application attempts to use freed memory(unassigned). Additionally, Microsoft Office Memory Corruption Vulnerability impacts MS Office by allowing an attacker to install malware or run malicious commands and other issues which need regular patching.

Cloud servers also grew with the growth of VPN usage in 2020 and found cloud-based vulnerabilities like a failure in configuring office 365 security settings.

Vulnerability Management Best Practices

Define a Vulnerability Management Strategy

Vulnerability Management is a continuous process that depends on some crucial factors to succeed in an organization. One of the crucial factors for successful Vulnerability Management is a well-planned strategy. A strategy plan organizes and combines people, technology, and processes to work effectively against security risks.

Maintain Vulnerability Database

Vulnerability Management Database gives a clear picture of the business’s IT assets, applications, infrastructure, devices, databases, content management systems, servers, etc. It is imperative to gather all information and update the database consistently. A well-maintained Vulnerability Management Database gives you clear visibility on your assets, systems, and processes.

Automate

Organizations should automate scanning and event-based response systems, making the organization agile to handle threats better. Various tools help to identify or scan vulnerabilities regularly. These tools automate the process of vulnerability management by scanning and generating reports periodically, which gives a clear idea of the kind of security threat.

Incident Response Plan

The processes involved in vulnerability management should be sustained and repeated for effective implementation. For any kind of security breach, there should be a plan of action in organizations. On the verge of a security breach, a response plan saves time and acts quickly to mitigate risk and safeguard digital assets.

Training

Skillsets are vital for vulnerability management. Trained employees with updated knowledge on CVSS score, vector-based criticality, etc. improve vulnerability management process. Regular training and updates on vulnerability dwell time, qualitative metrics, to what extent SLAs are being met, etc., are also important.

Effective Reporting and Remediation Policies

The normal scanning process and maintaining logs are critical for network security. In addition, the generated scan reports are generated and given to the relevant people for identification and remediation of vulnerabilities.

Remediation is a crucial process compared to patching a vulnerability. It also includes disabling or uninstalling services, deploying new security components, uninstalling, or upgrading software, modifying configurations, completely taking out the asset from the equation, etc.

Vulnerabilities Management Practice-continuous Approach

The success of effective vulnerability management came with a continuous approach and organized practice. Organizations need yearly planning and practice than once or twice a year. Companies should avoid “vulnerability debt” to prevent cyberattacks and prevent network susceptibility. Vulnerability debt can be referred to as the cumulative cost of neglecting vulnerabilities. These are the known non-critical vulnerabilities that are ignored or accepted temporarily. Although it is critical to maintaining the momentum to be effective, a vulnerability management program must identify responsible parties, assets, alterations in scan or reporting, etc.

Vulnerability Debt

Vulnerability debt can be referred to as the cumulative cost of neglecting vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities considered non-critical, ignored, or left untreated eventually impact financially. It becomes difficult and sometimes impossible to secure data and systems from cyberattacks for the long-term accumulation of vulnerabilities in your software.

As the older version remains untreated, the new ones are also detected, increasing the effort to secure the system. Even after the decision taken for upgrades, challenges do exist. As the software evolves and advances with time, temporary vulnerabilities become complicated for the system’s reliance on old version libraries. Sometimes the vulnerabilities considered as non-critical prevents the healthy development of a system. As per the latest cyberattacks, vulnerability debt is not limited to monetary damages but also litigations, loss of brand equity, regulatory penalties, and more. Therefore, it is a good decision or investment to keep weaknesses away and avoid vulnerability debt on your business.

Conclusion

The cyberworld will always face threats, and vulnerabilities are part of it. Vulnerability management can be considered a best practice that works on overall management from identifying to remediation of vulnerabilities in an organization. Security tools are always better for high-scale and complicated tasks and make things easier. Vulnerability Management gives an organized approach to managing cybersecurity systems and mitigating risks from large to small companies.