Fixing weaknesses in your IT environment is always easier than dealing with the consequences of those weaknesses — like, say, a massive data breach — later. This means your security team must be proficient at finding those weaknesses and assessing how vulnerable your IT environment truly is. Even when you have other security measures in place, such as up-to-date antivirus software, an intrusion detection system, and a well-managed firewall, attackers can still exploit vulnerabilities in your IT environment to access your network without authorization.  Those vulnerabilities might include weak passwords, poor patch management, and lax security training. As a result, you could fall victim to malware, ransomware, phishing attacks, and endpoint breaches — all while your antivirus software, intrusion detection, and firewalls are working perfectly.  How do you prevent such threats? You conduct a vulnerability assessment.

What is vulnerability assessment in cybersecurity?

A vulnerability assessment (or vulnerability analysis) is the process of identifying the security vulnerabilities in your network, systems, and hardware and then taking steps to fix them. It provides information that your IT and security teams can use to improve your company’s threat mitigation and prevention processes. Even the most secure IT infrastructure likely has one or more security vulnerabilities lurking somewhere. Vulnerability assessment tools can bring those threats to light, whether they’re network security vulnerabilities or host security vulnerabilities.  Since many organizations consider vulnerability assessments highly technical, they perform the assessments primarily for compliance purposes. The trap in that thinking is that you won’t connect your vulnerability assessments to the organization’s business risks — nor to the decisions executives make about the security function’s budget.  Generally, vulnerability assessments identify thousands of security vulnerabilities and rate them according to technical severity. The assessment, however, should also consider how business processes could be affected by security vulnerabilities. 

Why undergo a cybersecurity vulnerability assessment?

Performing regular vulnerability assessments allows 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-versus-benefit so you can better allocate your security budget.

How To Perform A Successful Network Vulnerability Assessment

An effective vulnerability assessment should include the following steps:

Planning

First, determine which systems and networks the vulnerability assessment will review, including cloud and mobile. You also need to identify where any sensitive data resides and determine the data and systems that are most critical.  Be sure that everyone involved has the same expectations about what the vulnerability assessment will provide. And keep the lines of communication open throughout the vulnerability assessment process.

Scanning

Next, 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 scanning tools will give you a list of vulnerabilities, typically in the order of their severity.  There are two types of network vulnerability scanning tools, commercial and open source. Web application 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

Conduct a detailed analysis of the security vulnerabilities identified by the scanning tool. This analysis will provide you with the causes of the vulnerabilities, their potential impacts, and suggested methods to remediate them.  Next, rate each security vulnerability on the data that is 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

Based on the vulnerability assessment rankings in the analysis step, administrators should patch the most critical flaws first. This can be done in several ways, including updating software, installing new security tools, or enhancing security procedures. Some security vulnerabilities identified by the scanning tools, however, may not have much effect on the network or the systems. In those cases, it might not be worth the money and the downtime 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 when you have snapshots or reports you can examine 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.

What’s the difference between penetration testing and a vulnerability assessment?

Penetration testing is not the same as a vulnerability assessment. Testing involves someone simulating a cyber-attack, using specific techniques to examine the network environment, test defenses, and find holes in those defenses. A vulnerability assessment focuses on uncovering as many security vulnerabilities as possible.  Typically, penetration testing should follow a network vulnerability assessment. It makes no sense to conduct penetration testing first before you identify and fix the vulnerabilities you find in a vulnerability assessment. Once those vulnerabilities are found and remediated, however, penetration testing is a great way to see if your improvements actually work. 

What’s the difference between a vulnerability assessment and vulnerability management?

A vulnerability assessment is a task you do — ideally, one you do frequently because your vulnerabilities can change quickly; but still a task that you do. Vulnerability management is a strategy you implement to manage your organization’s security vulnerabilities on a continuous basis.  Unlike a vulnerability assessment, a vulnerability management program doesn’t have a specific start and end date. Rather, it’s a continuous process that helps your company better manage its security vulnerabilities for the long term. Vulnerability assessments and vulnerability management are an important part of an effective cybersecurity plan. But always consider the results of that work within the context of your business and your existing cybersecurity infrastructure.  That is, 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 allow the CISO and IT executives to spend their security budgets wisely and to strengthen their overall cybersecurity and compliance postures.

What’s the difference between a vulnerability assessment and a vulnerability scan?

A vulnerability assessment and a vulnerability scan are not the same thing.  Typically in a vulnerability assessment, an organization will conduct a review of its corporate environment to identify all potential vulnerabilities in its IT infrastructure that a hacker could potentially exploit. Then you will determine what you can do to fix those security vulnerabilities.  In contrast, vulnerability scanning means continuously 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. 

Performing Risk Assessment Along with Your Vulnerability Assessment

A risk assessment is also critical for understanding the various threats to your IT systems. It determines the baseline level of risk these systems are exposed to and informs an appropriate level of protection you might want to take. A risk assessment can also help your organization assess and manage third-party risks. A risk assessment is a more comprehensive look at your company’s security vulnerabilities and offers a more complete view of its exposure. It is a thorough look at your risk threshold that includes an analysis by a professional. It’s a key part of risk management.

How ZenGRC Can Help With Vulnerability Assessments

A vulnerability assessment isn’t the solution to all of your cybersecurity problems—but it is one of the main methods to prevent cyber threats and exploitation of IT security vulnerabilities.  Regular vulnerability assessments, scanning, and penetration tests should be routine parts of your company’s security assessment plan because the risk environment changes over time.  Additionally, new security controls should be implemented as needed to address new risks or misconfigurations that could threaten your company.  ZenGRC is a governance, risk management, and compliance tool that can help to support your routine vulnerability assessments and penetration testing.  It collects documentation, streamlines workflows, and eliminates the need for constant follow-up while tracing outstanding tasks.  ZenGRC lets organizations focus on the fundamental issues of risk management and compliance while eliminating the tedious tasks that often make the process feel like a burden.  Not only does this help compliance officers feel more effective at their jobs, but it also makes organizations more efficient at the ongoing task of governance and continuous monitoring. To see how ZenGRC can improve your vulnerability assessments and penetration testing strategies, schedule a free demo today.