How to Reveal Your IT Weaknesses

vulnerability scanning cyber wise guy

A vulnerability assessment is a process to find and prioritize weaknesses in a computer system or network. Its goal is to fix security gaps before hackers can exploit them. Unlike penetration testing, which simulates attacks, a vulnerability assessment looks at an organization’s security from the outside in. It checks networks, systems, applications, and databases for weaknesses that could allow unauthorized access or denial of service.

These assessments help organizations find security flaws before they lead to breaches, service disruptions, compliance issues, or other problems. They are important for information security, as they reduce risk and improve overall security. With technology and threats always changing, regular vulnerability assessments help detect and address new risks quickly.

Why Perform a Vulnerability Assessment?

There are several key benefits to performing regular vulnerability assessments:

  • Reduce Risk – Vulnerability assessments help identify weaknesses in your IT infrastructure before cybercriminals can exploit them. By proactively finding and patching vulnerabilities, you greatly reduce your company’s risk and exposure to data breaches, malware infections, denial-of-service attacks, and other threats. Conducting assessments is a pillar of cybersecurity best practices.
  • Improve Security Posture – The results of assessments provide visibility into your current security gaps and weaknesses. This allows you to prioritize and focus your security efforts on the areas that need it most. As you remediate findings over time, your overall security posture continually improves.
  • Meet Compliance Requirements – Many regulations and standards like PCI DSS, HIPAA, and ISO 27001 require frequent vulnerability scanning and audits. Assessments demonstrate due diligence and help satisfy compliance mandates.
  • Benchmark Security – Repeating assessments over time lets you benchmark and measure security progress. You can compare results month-over-month or year-over-year to quantitatively track improvements.
  • Validate Controls – Testing for vulnerabilities determines whether your existing security controls are working as intended. It verifies that configurations, patch levels, firewall rules, and other defenses are effectively minimizing exposures.

Regular vulnerability assessments are crucial for cyber resilience. It’s better to evaluate your IT environment proactively rather than waiting for evidence of a breach. Assessments can uncover risks that you may not know about, allowing you to deal with them before they become a problem.

When to Conduct an Assessment

Organizations should regularly assess vulnerabilities to find new risks. Assessments are best done:

  • Quarterly or every 3 months
  • After any major infrastructure or application changes
  • After onboarding new software, systems, or cloud services
  • When new vulnerabilities are disclosed that impact your environment
  • After making configuration changes like opening new ports or services
  • Before a penetration test to provide a baseline of flaws

Conducting regular security assessments gives you an updated look at your organization’s security. Systems and applications change often, so these assessments help find new vulnerabilities over time. By identifying high-risk flaws, you can fix them before they are exploited.

Big updates, upgrades, migrations, or changes to the system introduce risk. Assessing after these events shows vulnerabilities that come from new features, integrations, or exposures. When the business adopts new services, it’s important to quickly check their security before using sensitive data.

Regular vulnerability scans, along with assessments after major events, give good coverage for dynamic IT environments. Focusing on managing vulnerabilities helps reduce the organization’s cyber risk.

Internal vs External Assessments

There are two main ways to do vulnerability assessments – inside and outside. Each has its own good and bad points.

Internal assessments are done by employees in a company. The main benefits of internal assessments are:

  • Internal staff have better knowledge of the organization’s infrastructure, systems, and applications. They know where potential vulnerabilities may lie.
  • It does not require bringing in outside consultants which reduces costs.
  • Internal staff are always available for re-testing and follow-up.
  • Assessments can be done on an ongoing basis more easily.

However, there are some downsides:

  • Internal staff may have blindspots and miss vulnerabilities that an external consultant would catch.
  • Staff may lack specialized expertise in security assessments.
  • There can be a lack of independence and impartiality when auditing one’s own organization.

External assessments are done by security experts who are not part of the company. The main benefits are:

  • External consultants bring specialized expertise running vulnerability scans and penetration tests.
  • They provide an unbiased, fresh perspective untainted by internal biases.
  • Consultants have broad experience across many organizations and industries to compare against.
  • Executive management often gives greater credence to findings from impartial external experts.

The disadvantages are:

  • External consultants are more expensive than internal staff.
  • External teams may not have as much context and visibility into internal systems.
  • Logistics like scheduling and availability can be more difficult with external resources.

Overall, it’s best for most organizations to use a mix of their own staff and outside experts. Have independent third parties check important systems and infrastructure once or twice a year. Let your own staff do more frequent checks on less important things.

Tools Used

Vulnerability scanners are important for doing good vulnerability assessments. There are lots of tools to choose from, but some of the most popular ones are:

  • Nessus – One of the most widely used vulnerability scanners, Nessus is a comprehensive tool that can scan for thousands of vulnerabilities across networks, operating systems, devices, and applications. It utilizes agent-based and agentless scanning, has low false positives, and provides detailed remediation guidance.
  • OpenVAS – An open source vulnerability scanner derived from Nessus. It is frequently updated and has a global community supporting its development. OpenVAS can perform network scans as well as configuration auditing.
  • Nmap – Primarily a network discovery and port scanning tool, Nmap has some useful vulnerability scanning features as well. It can integrate with Nessus and other scanners to map out networks and identify potential weak points. Nmap is highly customizable for advanced users.

These vulnerability scanners search for known weaknesses and misconfigurations in networks and systems. They compare the scan results with a database of vulnerability signatures to find security flaws. After scanning, they create detailed reports with the findings, risk level, and steps to fix any vulnerabilities. It’s important to set up the tools correctly and have the right access to get accurate scan results.

Vulnerability Scoring

Vulnerability assessments use a scoring system to help organizations prioritize the most important vulnerabilities for fixing. There are a few common scoring systems.

  • Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) – The most widely used system developed by the Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams (FIRST). CVSS provides a standardized way to assess and score the severity of software vulnerabilities. The scores range from 0 to 10, with 10 being the most severe. CVSS calculates scores based on several metrics like attack vector, complexity, and impact.
  • Common Vulnerability Exposure (CVE) – A dictionary that provides common identifiers for publicly known cybersecurity vulnerabilities. CVE entries will often include a CVSS score.
  • Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) – A community-developed list that provides a unified, measurable set of software weaknesses related to security. CWEs enable more effective discussion, description, selection, and use of software security tools and services.
  • Vulnerability Priority Rating (VPR) – Used by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), VPR combines CVSS and CWE to assign severity scores to vulnerabilities based on the ease and impact of exploitation.
  • Microsoft Exploitability Index – Used to prioritize patches for Microsoft products. Rates vulnerabilities as Low, Medium, or High based on factors like attack vector, complexity, and security features required for exploitation.

By using these standard scoring systems, companies can assess how serious the vulnerabilities are and concentrate on fixing the most critical ones. The scores make the evaluation process less subjective.

Reporting and Remediation

The vulnerability assessment report is a key deliverable that security teams use to understand and prioritize vulnerabilities discovered during the assessment. The report typically contains:

  • An executive summary with key findings and recommendations
  • A list of assets in scope and their OS, software, services, and other details
  • A vulnerability matrix categorizing findings by severity, affected assets, remediation difficulty, etc.
  • Detailed descriptions of each vulnerability, including instructions on how to reproduce it
  • Proof-of-concept exploit code or screenshots demonstrating the risk
  • References like CVE numbers and vendor security advisories

The report’s goal is to provide useful information to security and IT teams so they can effectively fix any issues. The most severe problems should be fixed right away to reduce risk. Other findings can be addressed gradually based on the importance of the assets.

Fixing the issues involves finding and making changes, such as installing updates, adjusting settings, turning off certain features, and making changes to the firewall, to deal with each problem. Security teams must make sure that the fixes are done correctly without causing problems for the business.

Automated tools can help with ongoing checks to make sure that the fixes have worked and that the vulnerabilities are no longer an issue. This is very important for ensuring that the management of vulnerabilities is effective.

Limitations

Limitations of Vulnerability Assessments

Vulnerability assessments have some limitations that are important to consider:

  1. Not Covering All Scenarios: Vulnerability assessments may not accurately simulate real-world attacks, potentially missing some vulnerabilities.
  2. Point-in-Time View: Results are only relevant at the time of the assessment and may quickly become outdated due to emerging threats and vulnerabilities.
  3. Not All Vulnerabilities Get Fixed: Identifying vulnerabilities is just the beginning, and fixing them can be challenging, leading to residual risk.
  4. Overlooking User-Installed Applications: Standard scans may miss security risks posed by user-installed applications and software.
  5. Lack of Social Engineering Testing: Vulnerability assessments do not address how users might be targeted by social engineering tactics.

Understanding these limitations helps organizations set realistic expectations and incorporate other risk assessment methods into their security strategy.

Automating Assessments

Automating vulnerability assessments offers many benefits over performing scans manually. Some key advantages include:

  • Increased frequency and consistency of scanning – Automated tools can be scheduled to run scans on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis to consistently monitor for new vulnerabilities. Manual scanning is often sporadic and inconsistently performed.
  • Improved efficiency – Automated scans are much less time and resource intensive compared to manual scans which require significant administrator time.
  • Better coverage – Automated tools can scan an entire network and all systems consistently. Manual scanning often involves sampling only a subset of assets.
  • Timely identification of new vulnerabilities – New vulnerabilities are frequently discovered and automated daily or weekly scans allow identification of these issues in near real-time. Manual monthly scans will lag in finding new threats.
  • Greater visibility into trends – Automated scanning allows organizations to track and monitor trends in vulnerabilities over time. This data is difficult to gather with infrequent manual assessments.
  • Scheduling around operations – Automated scans can be scheduled for off-peak hours to avoid disrupting normal IT operations. Manual scanning often conflicts with daytime operations.

Overall, automation is very important for vulnerability management. Organizations should automate regular scans to improve their security.

Conclusion

A vulnerability assessment is very important for evaluating and improving an organization’s cybersecurity. By scanning networks, systems, and applications in advance for security flaws, organizations can find and fix weaknesses before cybercriminals take advantage of them.

Key takeaways include:

  • Vulnerability assessments help find overlooked risks and provide an accurate picture of exposure levels. Without assessments, organizations are blind to many threats.
  • Assessments should be performed regularly as new vulnerabilities are discovered continuously. Both internal and external assessments provide unique value.
  • Powerful tools automate much of the process, checking for known vulnerabilities across the infrastructure. But human expertise is still required to validate and prioritize findings.
  • Discovered vulnerabilities are rated by severity scores like CVSS to focus remediation efforts on the highest risks. Fixing critical flaws reduces the attack surface.
  • Reporting provides evidence of due diligence and progress. However, assessments have limitations and cannot guarantee security. Defense-in-depth with layered controls is essential.

Regular vulnerability assessments are an important step to make sure your systems are strong. Focusing on fixing the most serious issues lowers the chance of problems and helps your organization get better at security.