A vulnerability assessment refers to performing a systematic review of the security gaps in an information system (IS). It determines if a system is vulnerable to any known exploits, assigns a severity level to each vulnerability, and recommends the necessary remediation or mitigation steps.
You can compare a vulnerability assessment to the set of rigorous tests applied to software during development to ensure attackers can’t compromise it and the computers it will get installed on.
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Effective vulnerability assessment can prevent threats like SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and other code injection attacks. It can also alleviate privilege escalation due to insufficient authentication.
Vulnerability assessment prevents manufacturers from shipping software with inadequately secured default settings, including easy-to-guess admin passwords.
What Are the Types of Vulnerability Assessment?
Companies can run various vulnerability assessments, including:
- Host assessment: This involves assessing critical servers for vulnerabilities that can stem from insufficient testing on a computer before release. Bugs can also result from failure to generate an accurate tested machine image.
- Network and wireless assessment: This assesses an organization’s policies and practices to prevent unauthorized access to the network and connected resources.
- Database assessment: This refers to assessing databases for weaknesses and misconfigurations. Identification of rogue databases or unsecured dev/test environments also occurs here. Database assessment also requires sensitive data classification throughout the company’s infrastructure.
- Application scans: This involves the identification of security vulnerabilities in web applications and their source code. It uses automated scans to assess source code.
How Does Vulnerability Assessment Work?
The vulnerability assessment process has four steps—testing, analysis, assessment, and remediation.
1. Vulnerability Identification
This step aims to create an exhaustive list of an application’s vulnerabilities. In it, security analysts assess the security health of an application, a server, or any other system using automated scanning tools or manual tests. They can also utilize vulnerability databases, vendor vulnerability announcements, asset management systems, and threat intelligence feeds to identify security weaknesses.
This step aims to identify the sources and root causes of the vulnerabilities identified. Security analysts determine the system components responsible for each weakness, along with its root cause. As such, they get a clear path for remediation.
3. Risk Assessment
This step aims to prioritize vulnerabilities. Security analysts assign rank or severity scores to each bug by asking questions, such as:
- Which systems does the vulnerability affect?
- Which data is at risk?
- Which business functions are at risk?
- Is the vulnerability easy to exploit?
- How severe can an attack targeting the bug be?
- What potential damage can result if the vulnerability is exploited?
This step aims to close security gaps. Security staff and development and operations teams should determine the most effective ways to remediate or mitigate issues, including introducing new security procedures, measures, or tools; updating operational or configuration changes; and developing and implementing vulnerability patches.
The vulnerability assessment process is not a one-off. You should do it over and over to ensure security.
Why Is Vulnerability Assessment Important?
Vulnerability assessment allows security teams to identify and resolve security threats and risks consistently. It allows organizations to:
- Identify IT security threats and weaknesses as early as possible
- Take the necessary actions to protect sensitive systems and information
- Meet cybersecurity compliance and regulatory requirements, especially for specific industries (e.g., HIPAA for the healthcare industry and PCI DSS for the financial services sector)
- Protect against data breaches and other attacks that stem from unauthorized access
What Tools Aid in Vulnerability Assessment?
A vulnerability scanning tool is critical to vulnerability assessment. Choose one that performs various scans, including credentialed and non-credentialed, external and internal vulnerability, and environmental scans. Consider how frequently the tool gets updated, how good its bug identification capability is (i.e., it should have very few false positives and negatives), how actionable its findings are, and if it can be easily integrated into vulnerability management and IT security tools (e.g., patch management, SIEM solutions, etc.) as well.
Vulnerability assessment should not be a one-off activity. Companies must regularly perform it.