Vulnerability Management – What You Need To Know

Vulnerability management is becoming increasingly important to companies due to the rising threat of cyber security attacks and regulations like PCI DSS, HIPAA, NIST 800-731 and more. Vulnerability management is a comprehensive process implemented to continuously identify, evaluate, classify, remediate, and report on security vulnerabilities.

While vulnerability management isn’t a novel concept for most companies, it’s become clear that formerly accepted practices — such as quarterly vulnerability scans and remediation management plans — are severely deficient means of defense.

Today, minimizing your attack surface and overall risk exposure requires a continuous approach that increases visibility over vulnerabilities and enables rapid remediation.

What is Vulnerability Management?

While the term vulnerability management is often used interchangeably with patch management, they are not the same thing. Rather, the decision to use a patch, or not, falls within the broader context of vulnerability management.

Vulnerability management includes much more than scanning and patching. It requires a holistic view in order to make informed decisions about which vulnerabilities to address first and how to mitigate them. Most vulnerability management programs focus on four stages.

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The 4 Stages of Vulnerability Management

#1 Identification

The first stage in your vulnerability management program will be to identify all of the vulnerabilities that exist across your IT ecosystems. In order to achieve this you will need to define your IT assets and find the right vulnerability scanners for each asset.

The vulnerability scanner you’ll use to identify vulnerabilities in your network and in your applications will not be the same. When it comes to application security, you will need to use at least two different technologies in order to detect vulnerabilities in your proprietary code and open source libraries.

This is an essential part of vulnerability management and one that is becoming increasingly challenging as organizations’ IT ecosystems become more expansive, complex, and interconnected. 

According to the Center for Internet Security, organizations should perform automated vulnerability scans at least once a week. More frequent scanning will give you greater clarity on the progress of your remediation and help you identify new risks based on updated vulnerability information.

#2  Evaluation

After you’ve identified the vulnerabilities that exist across your systems, the next step is to evaluate the risks they pose and determine how to manage them. While it’s important to understand the risk ratings that your vulnerability management solution provides, such as Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) scores, you will also want to understand other real-world risk factors.

Some additional factors to consider include:

  • How easily could someone exploit this vulnerability, and is there published exploit code available?

  • Does the vulnerability directly impact the security of our product?

  • What would the business impact be if this vulnerability was exploited?

  • Do we have any existing security protocols that would reduce the likelihood/consequence of these vulnerabilities being exploited?

It’s also important to know whether any identified vulnerabilities are false positives. With tools and techniques that enable vulnerability validation, such as penetration testing, you can identify false positives and focus on the vulnerabilities that pose the biggest risk to your organization.

#3 Remediation

After you’ve identified and evaluated vulnerabilities, the next step is to determine how to prioritize and address them.

Your vulnerability management solution will likely recommend which remediation technique you should use for each vulnerability. It’s best that your security team, system owners, and system administrators weigh-in to determine the right strategy.

There are three general routes you can take:

  1. Remediation: Completely preventing exploitation by patching, correcting, or replacing code that contains a vulnerability.

  2. Mitigation: Reducing the probability or impact of a vulnerability. This is usually a temporary solution that organizations use until they can remediate the vulnerability.

  3. No action: Acknowledging and accepting the vulnerability. Organizations typically only do this when the cost of remediating the vulnerability is much higher than the consequences of it being exploited.

After you’ve finished the remediation process, you can check to see that the vulnerability was completely resolved by performing another scan.

#4 Reporting

By making vulnerability assessments a routine practice, you’ll gain greater insight into the efficacy, speed, and cost of your vulnerability management program.

Most vulnerability management systems let you export the data from your various vulnerability scanners so your security team can more easily understand the security posture of each asset and track it with time to identify trends like increased vulnerability detection or decreased remediation velocity.

Consistent reporting will help your security team to comply with your organization’s risk management KPIs as well as regulatory requirements.

Setting Up a Vulnerability Management Policy

Compliance with cross-industry standards like ISO 27002 have required organizations to implement a vulnerability management policy for years. Today’s evolving threat landscape requires companies to ensure that their vulnerability management policy keeps up with security, as their software development and delivery ecosystems become more complex.

Vulnerability management policies must cover all four stages listed above, and include continuous security scanning across all parts of the software development life cycle, with both AST (application security testing) tools and runtime protection tools — but that’s just the start. Since most of these tools focus on vulnerability detection, organizations’ vulnerability management policy must also cover their prioritization and remediation strategy. 

Measurement and metrics are another important part of a vulnerability management policy — organizations must make sure that the detection and remediation tools that they are using are producing comprehensive and up-to-date reports. This helps teams make sure that they are keeping up with their KPIs and provides managers and stakeholders with the information that they need to keep up with their security profile and continue to perfect their security strategies. 

Vulnerability Management Excellence Depends on Continuity

Vulnerability management is difficult because it must be performed continuously to ensure that all of your applications and systems are constantly up-to-date and each new vulnerability is discovered as soon as possible.

Another important aspect you must take into consideration is that in order to change the mindset of your teams, you need to implement continuous processes that will impact their day-to-day work. Periodical testing and remediation are not enough if you want to ensure that you are on top of your security status, or to shift the mindset of your teams.

This type of continuity requires automation. Automating the repetitive tasks to carry out those practices can save you valuable resources and help avoid human error.

Prioritization Is Key

The goal of security teams is to fix all vulnerabilities detected in the company’s assets. 

The problem is that this is nearly an impossible goal, which overloads the system and makes many teams frustrated with vulnerability management processes. Therefore, prioritization is the key to a successful implementation of new vulnerability management programs. 

You need to ensure that clear guidelines are set for each asset regarding which vulnerabilities should be remediated and which should not. Many vulnerability management consultants can help define a risk based prioritization procedure based on the company’s assets and market.

Meet The Author

Ayala Goldstein

Ayala Goldstein is a writer at WhiteSource. She writes about everything open source, AppSec, and DevOps.

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