How to Conduct a Vulnerability Assessment

Published April 9, 2020 by 5 min read

A vulnerability assessment or vulnerability analysis is the process of identifying the security vulnerabilities in your network, systems, and hardware and taking steps to fix those security vulnerabilities. 

A vulnerability assessment can provide information that your IT and security teams can use to improve your company’s threat mitigation and prevention processes.

As you most likely know, it’s a lot easier to prevent problems in your IT environment than deal with the consequences of those problems, such as cyberattacks, later.

The only way to protect your company’s IT infrastructure from a possible attack is by identifying, locating, and fixing the security holes. Even if you have other cybersecurity measures in place, including updated antivirus software, an intrusion detection system, and a well-managed firewall, an attacker can still exploit the cybersecurity vulnerabilities in an attempt to access your network and your systems.

Many cybercriminals will take advantage of your company’s security vulnerabilities, such as weak passwords, poor patch management, and lax security policies, to infiltrate your organization. One of the best ways to protect your sensitive corporate data from cybercriminals is through a vulnerability assessment.

Even the most secure IT infrastructure likely has some hidden security vulnerabilities. But vulnerability assessment tools can identify network security vulnerabilities as well as host security vulnerabilities. 

Since many organizations consider vulnerability assessments highly technical, they perform them primarily for compliance purposes. And as such, they rarely connect their vulnerability assessments to their business risks and the decisions their executives make regarding the companies’ security budgets.

Generally, vulnerability assessments identify thousands of security vulnerabilities and rate them according to technical severity. However, vulnerability assessments should also take into account the business processes that could be affected by the security vulnerabilities. 

Performing regular vulnerability assessments enables you to:

  • Identify known security exposures before attackers find them.
  • Create an inventory of all the devices on your network, including the security vulnerabilities associated with specific devices.
  • Create an inventory of all devices in the enterprise to help you plan upgrades and future vulnerability assessments.
  • Define the level of security risk that exists in your IT environment.
  • Establish the business risk/benefit so you can better allocate your security budget.

To be effective, a vulnerability assessment should include the following steps:

Planning

The first thing you should do is determine which systems and networks the vulnerability assessment will assess, including cloud and mobile. You also need to identify where any sensitive data resides and determine the data and systems that are most critical. You must be sure that everyone involved has the same expectations about what the vulnerability assessment will provide. And you should also keep the lines of communication open throughout the vulnerability assessment process.

Scanning

The next thing you should do is scan the system or network using an automated vulnerability scanning tool. Then using threat intelligence and vulnerability databases, you can identify security vulnerabilities and filter out false positives. 

Performing a vulnerability assessment with automated vulnerability scanning tools will give you a list of vulnerabilities, typically in order of their severity. There are two types of network vulnerability scanning tools, commercial and open source.

Web application vulnerability scanning tools scan web applications, usually from the outside, to look for security vulnerabilities, including SQL injection, cross-site scripting, and insecure server configuration. 

The type of vulnerability scanning tool you select will depend on your needs as well as your budget.

Analysis

You should then conduct a detailed analysis of the security vulnerabilities identified by the vulnerability scanning tool. This analysis will provide you with the causes of the security vulnerabilities, their potential impacts, and the suggested methods you should use to remediate them. 

Next, rate each security vulnerability on the data that’s at risk, the severity of the vulnerability, and the damage that could be caused if the affected system suffers a data breach. The goal is to quantify all of the threats as well as their impacts on the network and the business.

Remediation

Finally, based on the vulnerability assessment rankings in the analysis step, administrators should patch the most critical flaws first. This can be done in a number of ways, including updating software, installing new security tools, and/or enhancing security procedures. However, some security vulnerabilities identified by the vulnerability scanning tools may not have much impact on the network or the systems. In those cases, it might not be worth the money and the downtown that’s necessary to fix them. 

Repeat

You should conduct vulnerability assessments regularly, at least monthly or even weekly, because a single vulnerability assessment is merely a snapshot of a particular moment in time. But if you have snapshots or reports you can refer to over a period of time, you’ll have an understanding of how your security posture has developed. You should also conduct a vulnerability assessment any time you make major changes to your network or systems.

Cybercriminals will always try to take advantage of your security vulnerabilities. Consequently, you need to implement a process to continuously find and remediate your security vulnerabilities. 

Typically, a network vulnerability assessment is followed by penetration testing. It doesn’t make sense to conduct penetration testing before you fix the security vulnerabilities identified by the network vulnerability assessment. The goal of penetration testing isn’t just trying to get into the network, but also examining the network environment and doing vulnerability testing after you remediate the security vulnerabilities. 

But penetration testing is not the same as a vulnerability assessment. A vulnerability assessment focuses on uncovering as many security vulnerabilities as possible. During penetration testing, a person manually simulates a cyberattack against a company’s network, system, or web application to check for security vulnerabilities that a cybercriminal could exploit. Penetration testing can also be automated with software. 

As opposed to the usually one-time vulnerability assessment project, a vulnerability management strategy refers to an ongoing, comprehensive process that aims to continuously manage your organization’s security vulnerabilities.

Unlike a vulnerability assessment, a comprehensive vulnerability management program doesn’t have a specific start and end date. Rather, it’s a continuous process that ideally helps your company better manage your security vulnerabilities in the long run.

Conducting vulnerability assessments regularly is an important part of an effective cybersecurity plan. However, you should also ensure that you consider the results of your vulnerability assessments in the context of your business and your existing cybersecurity infrastructure. 

That means you should analyze the results of the vulnerability assessment keeping the risk to the business in mind and use those results to develop a thorough cybersecurity strategy. Doing so will enable your chief information security officer and IT executives to spend their security budgets wisely and strengthen their overall cybersecurity and compliance postures.

It’s important to note that a vulnerability assessment is different from a vulnerability scan. Typically, with a vulnerability assessment, an external information security consultant will review your corporate environment and issue a detailed report identifying a variety of vulnerabilities in your IT infrastructure that a hacker could potentially exploit.

The report will list the security vulnerabilities that have been identified and provide recommendations for what you can do to fix those security vulnerabilities. Once the consultant issues the final report, the vulnerability assessment ends. 

While vulnerability scanning means continually assessing your security, a risk assessment for information security shows whether you can accept those security vulnerabilities or prioritize them for remediation. Together, the vulnerability assessment, vulnerability scan, and risk assessment play important roles in enhancing your company’s security. 

In addition, a risk assessment is critical for understanding the various threats to your IT systems, determining the level of risk these systems are exposed to, and recommending the appropriate level of protection. A risk assessment can also help your organization assess and manage third-party risks.

A risk assessment will offer you a report on your risk rating and recommend controls to reduce that risk. A risk assessment is a more comprehensive look at your company’s security vulnerabilities and details the complete view of its exposure. A risk assessment process is a thorough look at your risk threshold that includes an analysis by a professional. It’s a key part of risk management.

A vulnerability assessment isn’t a solution to all of your cybersecurity problems. But it is one of the main methods to prevent hackers from attacking your network and systems by exploiting their security vulnerabilities. A vulnerability assessment does this by focusing on the critical assets of your IT infrastructure and revealing its weaknesses.

Regular vulnerability assessments along with vulnerability scanning and penetration testing should be routine parts of your company’s security plan because the risk environment changes over time. Additionally, a risk assessment should be implemented on an annual basis to assess and address new risks that could threaten your company. 

All of these proactive cybersecurity measures will help you mitigate data breaches and cybersecurity-related disruptions that could damage your company’s reputation and bottom line.

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