Types of Vulnerability Assessment, Methodology & Best Practices

Cybercrime is a serious and growing threat to businesses globally and it's not hard to see why. As technology advances and world economies become increasingly interconnected, cyber criminals are finding new ways to access sensitive data and inflict damage. According to industry projections, the world will suffer up to $10.5 trillion in losses due to cybercrime by 2025 — a staggering figure that underscores the urgency of understanding cyber threats and investing in protective measures now before it's too late.

Having been in this industry for over a decade now, we can authoritatively state that using vulnerability assessment to understand the potential threats against your organization is an essential starting point in preventing cyber attacks.

Learn about the most effective types of vulnerability assessments, the associated methodology, and best practices to ensure your business stays protected.

First, some fundamental definitions:

What is vulnerability assessment?

Vulnerability assessment is the process of identifying, classifying, and prioritizing security vulnerabilities in an IT system. This evaluation basically examines if the system is prone to any threats, classifies each found vulnerability in terms of severity and offers remedial solutions. It's an important security practice that helps identify potential areas of risk in a network or system so that potential threats can be identified and addressed to protect the data and systems that an organization relies on. Vulnerabilities are documented in technical detail for each potential area of risk, allowing for informed decisions about how to remediate the security gaps identified.

Vulnerability assessments involve a wide range of processes including the collection of information on existing systems, analyzing details of configuration settings, and testing any discovered weaknesses. Ultimately this allows organizations to gain insight into the overall security posture while protecting valuable data assets.

Also Read: How to build a vulnerability management program

What is used for vulnerability assessment?

Vulnerability assessments are usually conducted using a combination of automated tools and manual processes. A vulnerability scanner, for example, is a piece of software that automates the process of identifying network vulnerabilities. Automated vulnerability scanners can quickly scan for system weaknesses, including server misconfigurations, missing patches and outdated software. The scanner generates an inventory of all IT assets connected to your network, like servers, desktops, laptops, firewalls, etc. It supplies details on each asset as well, such as the OS and version it has installed, the number of user accounts it has and any open ports. This data allows you to evaluate your entire system for weaknesses. On top of that, the scanner also suggests remedies for any vulnerabilities identified.

Manual vulnerability assessments involve experienced professionals who use their expertise to analyze configurations, architecture and code for potential security risks.

Common types of vulnerability assessment

These are the most prevalent types of vulnerability assessment:

1. Host vulnerability assessment

Just as the name suggests, a host-based vulnerability assessment (HBVA) identifies and evaluates the vulnerabilities of hosts on a network. The purpose of HBVA is to provide a prioritized list of hosts that need to be secured and the specific vulnerabilities that should be fixed.

The term «host» in this context refers to any device on a network that can be used to access information or resources, including computers, servers, routers, etc. In order to identify vulnerabilities, HBVA uses various scanning techniques such as port scanning and banner grabbing. These will identify open ports and services on a host as well as the software version running on each service. This information can then be used to determine which known vulnerabilities could be most dangerous in the hosts.

If you choose to do an internal scan, you'll need to have authentication credentials for each device on the network. An external scan does not require authentication credentials, but it will only show you information about open ports and services that are publicly available.

A host vulnerability assessment can be conducted manually or by using an automated tool. If you choose to do it manually, it's a good idea to use a checklist so that you don't forget any steps.

Some things that you'll want to look for when conducting a host vulnerability assessment include: missing patches, open ports, weak passwords, and default accounts.

If you are not able to do this in-house, you can hire a company that specializes in cloud security, who can help you assess your host risks and create a plan to mitigate them.

Also Read: The difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing

2. Database vulnerability assessments

Database vulnerability assessments involve analyzing database configurations and architecture for security flaws. Databases contain sensitive information that must be protected from malicious actors, so a thorough assessment of the system is essential.

The most important tasks include inspecting authentication protocols, server OS versions, application code, firewall rules and antivirus software to identify potential vulnerabilities.

One of the benefits of database vulnerability assessments is that they can be conducted remotely, which means they can be done without interrupting business operations. However, these assessments can be more difficult to conduct if the database server is not well-documented or if the scanners do not have sufficient access to the server.

3. Application vulnerability assessments

Application vulnerability assessments involve searching through application code and architecture designs to identify potential security weaknesses. Professionals use methods such as code reviews to inspect applications for any opportunities that malicious actors could exploit. Additionally, they will check authentication protocols, OS versions, firewall rules, and antivirus software to ensure that the application is secure.

The Open Web Application Security Project® (OWASP) regularly ranks the top 10 application vulnerabilities. The latest ranking was done in 2021, and these are the top 10 vulnerabilities to look out for:

  • Broken access control
  • Cryptographic failures
  • Injection
  • Insecure design
  • Security misconfiguration
  • Vulnerable and outdated components
  • Identification and authentication failures
  • Software and data integrity failures
  • Security logging and monitoring failures
  • Server-side request forgery

Naturally, there may be additional vulnerabilities that don't appear on this list; however, these are usually the most common and widespread vulnerabilities you'll encounter.

4. Social engineering vulnerability assessments

Social engineering is when someone uses psychology to trick you into doing something or divulging information. So, a social engineering vulnerability assessment involves testing employees to see if they're susceptible to this type of attack. By understanding how attackers might use social tactics to gain access to restricted data, you can better defend your systems.

This type of assessment usually involves an ethical hacker trying to trick employees into giving them sensitive information, like passwords or credit card numbers. They might pose as a customer or client, or even as someone from upper management.

The goal of a social engineering vulnerability assessment is to see if your employees are aware of the dangers of social engineering and if they know how to spot it. It's a good way to see if your employees need more training on security protocols.

5. Network vulnerability assessment

Network vulnerability assessments involve scanning the organizational network for potential security weaknesses. By assessing network configurations, firewall rules, and installed software versions, you can identify potential vulnerabilities within the computing environment that could be exploited by hackers.

There are two main types of network vulnerability assessments: active and passive.

Active assessments are more invasive, as they involve actually trying to exploit vulnerabilities to see if they can be exploited. Passive assessments, on the other hand, just involve scanning for vulnerabilities and don't actually try to exploit them.

6. Cloud security assessment

Cloud security assessments involve analyzing the security and configuration of cloud-based services to identify any potential weaknesses or vulnerabilities. This assessment should include testing access control, encryption protocols, as well as identity and authentication procedures to ensure that cloud environments are secure.

To do a cloud security assessment, you'll need to have a good understanding of the cloud platform you're using, as well as the security controls that are in place. You'll also need to know how to assess the risks associated with cloud services and applications. Consider utilizing competent cloud service providers to guide you.

Vulnerability assessment methodology

It's not necessary for you to commit to a single methodology for your vulnerability assessment. After all, this is more of a process that needs to be tailored to your organization's needs. You can modify the methodology to align with the specific environment and systems in your organization. However, typically, this generally acceptable methodology can be used. Follow these steps:

1. Asset discovery

The initial phase of a vulnerability assessment is asset discovery, where the IT squad figures out which items need to be evaluated. This is essential so as to evade the typical issue where assets that are assumed to be potentially low risk are neglected, like mobile devices and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

2. Asset prioritization

Now that you have your inventory of assets, it's time to prioritize them. It may not be cost-effective, especially for smaller organizations to assess every asset. So focus on the ones that directly influence business operations such as databases, employee devices, customer-facing applications, and internet facing servers.

3. Vulnerability assessment

This is the big one. Once you have organized your assets in order of importance and chosen which ones to assess, you can now do the assessment. You can use manual or automated techniques, or even a combination of the two, depending on the individual asset.

4. Analysis and risk assessment

This step validates the gravity of any found vulnerabilities and possible repercussions in terms of business continuity or data loss. During analysis, the analysts identify the source of specific vulnerabilities and narrow down to the exact areas of the system that are responsible for gaps. Once the analysis reveals the root causes of the vulnerabilities, it's easy to match each vulnerability with the right remediation solution.

When evaluating vulnerability risk, the risk of each vulnerability is given a severity rating. This rating is based on a number of considerations like the degree of potential harm, the expense of restoration, attack feasibility and so on.

5. Remediation

We are now aware of the vulnerabilities, and they have been analyzed and prioritized based on their level of risk. It is time to address them — remediation requires collaboration between Security & IT, operations, developers, and key business teams. Our aim is clear: to eliminate the most pressing vulnerabilities. The specific solutions will vary based on the vulnerability in question.

6. Reporting

File a thorough report summarizing activities performed during each phase. The report should outline a plan forward for implementing additional security measures.

These reports provide vital information on the various remediation solutions that have been implemented and where improvement can be made. The reports should also explain how each remediation was chosen.

7. Repeat

Vulnerability assessment should not be a one-time event; assessments should be conducted on a regular basis to keep up with any changes in the technology or organizational structure.

The industry best practice is to have regular vulnerability scans conducted at least once every three months or quarterly if you like, allowing you to stay ahead. 

With regular scans, you can reduce your organization’s risk exposure, minimize the attack surface area, and stay one step ahead of malicious actors.

Vulnerability assessment best practices

Implement these best practices for a successful vulnerability assessment and remediation process.

1. Know your assets

To adequately assess vulnerabilities, you must strive to have a comprehensive understanding of your network, systems and data assets. Use asset management processes and tools to identify all IT assets (and associated attributes) within the organization. 

2. Automation 

Automated vulnerability assessment scanning tools are highly effective at quickly detecting possible vulnerabilities in an organization’s systems while relying on a much lower cost-per-scan than manual testing operations would require. 

Automated scans offer good coverage when used consistently in conjunction with manual reviews of system configurations, code reviews or valuable inputs from end users who can detect anomalous events.

3. Formulate KPIs

KPIs  will help you to measure the effectiveness of the vulnerability assessment  process and identify areas in which further improvements may be necessary.  Track  key performance indicators (KPIs) such as time to detection, compliance levels, and cost per scan. This is the best way to ensure that your vulnerability assessment program is an effective tool for detecting potential threats.

4. Build a Vulnerability Management Database

A vulnerability management database is a system that stores information about the security vulnerabilities. This information can include the specific vulnerabilities, their CVE identifiers, patches or workarounds that address them, and other relevant information.

This is the database you use to easily track vulnerabilities, prioritize them according to risk, and determine which ones need to be addressed first. You could also publish this information publicly as part of your disclosure responsibilities.

5. Integration with other security protocols

Vulnerability assessment is an important, but only one part of the larger security protocols. It is therefore essential that it be integrated into the rest of the organization's security processes in order to ensure optimal security coverage. 

6. Share executive reports

Ensure you are always creating an executive summary for all vulnerability reports. Make sure to share this summary with the key decision makers within the organization. This summary can act as a basis for management to devise strategies that will help improve and constantly secure the infrastructure. 

Conclusion

It is clear that vulnerability assessments are essential for organizations to remain secure in an ever-changing digital landscape.

Not only do these assessments guard against potential attacks, they also encourage confidence in customers and stakeholders. Most importantly, don't get complacent just because one assessment shows no weaknesses; make it a habit to conduct regular vulnerability assessments.

If you have a complex system and highly sensitive data, you should consider having a trusted Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP) manage your security functions. This will benefit you with their advanced detection capabilities, swift responses to threats, and the ability to more effectively address issues without straining your IT personnel.

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