What is a Vulnerability Management Program and How to Build It

The menacing danger posed by data breaches has made it inevitable for many organizations to pursue more robust and proactive measures to manage vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities are particularly driven by business infrastructures that are getting increasingly complex, buoyed by  new technologies like cloud computing - a super good technology but also one where vulnerabilities thrive. This means that businesses of all sizes now find it more challenging to achieve complete visibility across their ecosystems. It’s here that a vulnerability management program finds use, but first you need to build it and you’ll find out how in a bit. 

A disturbing statistic to show why this program is significant,  more than ever: According to Statista, the first quarter of 2022 alone saw approximately 18 million data breaches worldwide. This may surprise you, but you will be shocked to learn that this was actually a 58 percent drop compared to the fourth quarter of 2021. Dear business owner/manager, if you have not been thinking about a vulnerability management program, the “warning bell'' is here. 

This article will discuss what a vulnerability management program is, why it is essential, and the key steps involved in building one. You’ll also learn some tips to help you set up a robust vulnerability management program.

What is a vulnerability management program?

A vulnerability management program is a system that helps organizations identify, prioritize, and remediate vulnerabilities in their systems and networks. By implementing such a program, your organization can reduce the risks posed by vulnerabilities and improve your overall security posture.

Vulnerability management is a continuous process of identifying, assessing, and mitigating vulnerabilities before cyber criminals take advantage. It aims to reduce the risk of security breaches by preventing or minimizing the exploitation of vulnerabilities.

Often at the heart of these programs is a threat intelligence system that automatically conducts a vulnerability scan and understands the threat landscape across the entire infrastructure. Apart from doing vulnerability assessments, the security program also generates easy-to-understand reports that assist security experts to rapidly and properly prioritize the risks they must mitigate or remediate. 

Why is a vulnerability management program so important?

The need for vulnerability management has never been greater. With the proliferation of devices and applications plus the ever-increasing dependencies on external services, the attack surface for organizations has grown exponentially. At the same time, the skills and resources needed to carry out sophisticated attacks have become more readily available. As a result, organizations must now devote significant time and resources to managing vulnerabilities.  

Your business can benefit from a vulnerability management program in the following ways:

  • Keeps your network and data safe: The main role of a vulnerability management program is to safeguard your business from potential attacks. It will analyze your network for software vulnerabilities, missed updates, incompatibilities, and other common vulnerabilities.
  • Intelligent management of vulnerabilities: Different vulnerabilities carry different risks. A better vulnerability management program can intelligently prioritize risks and allocate security resources effectively. 
  • Expands your employees' vulnerability awareness: One of the most proactive approaches a vulnerability management program takes is educating the staff on identifying risk areas. One of these risk areas is passwords. Unfortunately, many people rely on bad password practices, such as using their names and birth dates or sharing the same password on different accounts. These practices introduce vulnerabilities that make it extremely easy for hackers to access data. Creating awareness also involves educating employees on how to identify phishing emails. In 2021, 83 percent of organizations reported being attacked by phishing emails.      
  • Meet regulatory requirements: The program helps business and system owners to comply with relevant regulations. In addition to being compliant, the system will provide reports and ongoing due diligence during audits and help you avoid fines for non-compliance.   

The key steps involved in building a vulnerability management program

It is vital for every organization, no matter the size or type, to invest in a strong vulnerability management program. This program is the starting point to deterring cyber attacks by eliminating weaknesses.

Here are the key steps involved in building a successful vulnerability management program.

Step 1: Set up the team

The first step to building an effective vulnerability management program is identifying all the key players. The team will be responsible for all the roles of the program. Therefore, you must ensure that you get the people with the right education, skill, and experience. Most importantly, the team members must be self-driven continuous learners because cybersecurity threats are always advancing.

Most organizations have an IT or security department in charge of these tasks. The department could have a director or manager and one or more analysts who detect, track, analyze, and fix vulnerabilities.

However, some organizations hire cyber security companies or security experts to manage the program on their behalf. These third parties may offer advanced vulnerability management solutions.

Of course each of these approaches have their pros and cons. You should do a needs assessment before deciding which vulnerability management solution works for you.  

Further reading: Dark web threats

Step 2:  Assemble the right tools

A vulnerability management program will need tools to function.  Security experts and teams use various tools to scan and assess vulnerabilities. As soon as the risks are identified, the hardware and software assets of the organization are stored in a configuration management database.

Vulnerability management tools are used to identify, classify, and track vulnerabilities in systems and software. The right tools should identify the top vulnerabilities that pose greater risks and feed them to the remediation workflow in order of priority.

While there are a multitude of different vulnerability management tools available, they can broadly be categorized into five main categories:

  1. Asset Discovery and Classification: These tools help organizations to inventory their assets and identify which systems are most vulnerable.
  2. Vulnerability Scanning: These tools scan systems for known vulnerabilities and generate reports that can be used to prioritize patching.
  3. Threat Intelligence: These tools allow organizations to track the latest threats and ensure that their systems are protected against them.
  4. Configuration Management: These tools help organizations to track configurations and ensure that they are in line with security best practices.
  5. Vulnerability Remediation: These tools help organizations to patch vulnerabilities in a timely manner and prevent attacks.

Step 3: Identify the vulnerabilities

Once you have the right team and tools, you can start identifying vulnerabilities. This process is essential as it detects all your system and network vulnerabilities. 

A vulnerability scanner scans all the accessible systems, including servers, desktops, laptops, firewalls, switches, databases, and printers. With modern technology, most organizations have started using the Internet of Things (IoT) devices to collect and share data. Such devices are also scanned for vulnerabilities. 

The vulnerability scanner identifies all open ports and services, logs into them, and collects detailed information. After it gathers all the data, it correlates the information with known and common vulnerabilities to create reports, dashboards, and metrics for various users.    

Further reading: Common vulnerabilities

4. Evaluate the vulnerabilities

After identifying all the vulnerabilities, you need to assess them to properly deal with all the risks they pose to your organization. Evaluating vulnerabilities enables you to deal with them following the company’s risk management frameworks.

One commonly referenced framework is the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS). However, various vulnerability management solutions have different risk scores and ratings for vulnerabilities.  

These scores and ratings help you to prioritize the detected vulnerabilities, which is vital in understanding the risks. Nevertheless, security experts rely on other factors to understand the risks thoroughly. In rare instances, vulnerability scanners can produce false positives; thus, vulnerability teams must rely on other considerations in the evaluation process.     

Step 5: Treat the vulnerabilities

After evaluating and prioritizing the vulnerabilities, it is critical to take quick remedial action. The vulnerability management team treats the vulnerabilities in collaboration with the system owners and network stakeholders. 

Depending on the vulnerability, treatment may take any of the following approaches:

  • Remediation: This involves patching or fully fixing the vulnerability and ensuring that attackers cannot exploit it. Whenever possible, it's the best option. 
  • Mitigation: If remediation is not possible, the team chooses the next best option; mitigation. However, it is a temporary solution to buy more time for the team to remediate the vulnerability. It involves using compensating tools to reduce the likelihood of attackers exploiting the vulnerabilities.
  • Acceptance: The organization may decide to take no action if the vulnerability is low security risk or the cost of remediation is higher than if hackers exploited it.

Before deciding on the best treatment approach, it is best for the system owners, system administrators, and the organization's security experts to come together and determine the right course. 

Once remediation is complete, it is advisable to run another scan to confirm that the vulnerability has been treated effectively.         

Step 6: Reporting vulnerabilities

Armed with all the insights, the security team should create regular comprehensive reports of the capabilities of the vulnerability management program. Such statements are vital in continually assessing the efficacy of the program. 

Organizations, security experts, and system owners can use the reports to improve the accuracy and speed with which the program detects and treats vulnerabilities. Ultimately, the organization will have a better vulnerability management program. 

In addition, the reports will help the security teams determine which remediation approach fixes the most vulnerabilities. Security experts can use the information to monitor vulnerability trends and communicate their risk mitigation progress to system owners. 

Common mistakes to avoid when implementing a vulnerability management program

The key to a successful vulnerability management program is working smart, not hard. If the threat intelligence system identifies and prioritizes vulnerabilities correctly, you can mitigate and prevent risks from escalating.

Avoid these common pitfalls:

  • Limited scanning: Avoid limiting your scans to only internal or external systems. Both internal and external assets are critical to examine.
  • Incomplete scanning: Ensure you use an updated Configuration Management Database. If it is not up-to-date, the scanner could skip vital assets.
  • Wasted scanning: This occurs when you run scans and ignore the results. It is a waste of time and resources.
  • Improper scanning cadence: This involves running scans too frequently or infrequently. It undermines your vulnerability management efforts. Your program should spell out a scanning frequency that suits your organization.
  • Restricted scanning results: If you don’t safelist your vulnerability scanner, you could get inaccurate reads on potential vulnerabilities. 

Who needs a vulnerability management program?

Any organization, business, or individual with assets connected to the internet or even private networks requires a vulnerability management program. Of course most industries need one to comply with regulations. However, this should not be the sole reason to set up the program. You need to approach this as a matter of necessity, because as we speak every business is at risk. A risk vulnerability can lead to irreparable damages. Complying is part of the bigger goal which is to secure your business. 

If an asset on your network is not regularly patched with the right patch management tools, you need a vulnerability management program. Always remember that seemingly small vulnerability can lead to incidents such as data breach and cost your business.      

Tips for an effective vulnerability management program

Make use of these tips to ensure that your vulnerability management program is effective.

  • Perform comprehensive scans: Today's rapidly growing and complex IT environment needs a program that is comprehensive in approach. Scans should cover the entire attack surface.
  • Assess your vulnerabilities continually: Your program should be driven by the principle that the vulnerability management process is a continuous endeavor. Since IT applications and infrastructure change all the time, your vulnerability management solutions ought to offer real-time visibility.
  • Introduce automation: You can accelerate your vulnerability management program by leveraging automation, which can help streamline repetitive tasks.
  • Address your team's weaknesses: Security vulnerabilities exist in humans as well; they are not limited to technology. 

Final thoughts

Organizations of all sizes are threatened by the growing risk of vulnerabilities as high end technology becomes the norm. Unfortunately the threats are not going to go away, yet you cannot do without the tech tools that have come to define the business landscape. 

Clearly there is no way out of this and management is the best bargain. As a business owner, the choice is binary: invest in an exceptional vulnerability management program or take a costly gamble. A sound vulnerability management program is the only guarantee you have that while the vulnerabilities will not cease to knock, the negative impact on your organization will be negligible to none. Build the program.

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