Repairing a weakness in your IT environment is always easier than dealing with the consequences of that weakness — like, say, a massive data breach — sometime later. This means your security team must be proficient at finding those weaknesses and assessing your IT environment’s vulnerabilities.
Those vulnerabilities can include weak passwords, poor patch management, and lax security training. As a result, users could fall victim to malware, ransomware, phishing attacks, and endpoint breaches — all while the antivirus software, intrusion detection, and firewalls are working perfectly. Even with all those precautionary measures in place, an unknown vulnerability can still lead to cybersecurity disaster.
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 those weaknesses. It provides information the security team can use to improve the company’s threat mitigation and prevention processes.
Even the most secure IT infrastructure likely has one or more security vulnerabilities lurking somewhere in its software code. Vulnerability assessment tools can bring those threats to light, whether they’re network security vulnerabilities or host security vulnerabilities.
Generally, vulnerability assessments identify thousands of new vulnerabilities and rate them according to technical severity. The assessment, however, should also consider how security vulnerabilities could affect business processes.
Since many organizations consider vulnerability assessments to be highly technical, they perform such assessments primarily for compliance purposes. The flaw in that thinking is that it doesn’t connect your vulnerability assessments to the organization’s business risks (nor to the decisions executives make about the security function’s budget). You’ll only assess whether your IT systems comply with regulatory obligations. That’s no longer enough.
How Are Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities Measured?
There are several metrics available for measuring vulnerability. Standard key performance indicators (KPIs) are not always applicable to cybersecurity, so consider using options such as:
- Mean Time to Detect (MTTD): How long does it take for your team to identify a potential cyberattack?
- Mean Time to Resolve (MTTR): Once the attack has been identified, how long does it take to remediate the issue?
- Mean Time Between Failures: What is the frequency of past attacks?
- Number of Previous Attacks/Success Rate of Previous Attacks: How many security attacks have there been, and how much access was gained?
- Number of Users/Devices: Every new user or device that connects to your network increases the chance of a breach. Are there any unknown devices on the network? Have all credentials for former employees or vendors been removed?
Determining which metrics are most appropriate for your company will make it easier to conduct the assessment and judge the success of the security system as a whole.
Why Undergo a Cybersecurity Vulnerability Assessment?
Performing regular security vulnerability assessments allows you to:
- Identify known security exposures before attackers find them.
- Create an inventory of all the devices on your network, including critical vulnerabilities associated with specific devices.
- Use that inventory of all devices to help you plan upgrades and future vulnerability assessments.
- Define the level of security risk that exists in the IT environment.
- Help you evaluate risks versus benefits so that you can better allocate your security budget.
10 Most Common Web Application Vulnerabilities
The following are the ten most common web application cybersecurity risks:
1. Injection flaws
Injection flaws allow attackers to insert malicious code onto your web-facing applications. These vulnerabilities, such as SQL injections, can compromise systems and clients. To guard against this, rigorously validate user data, use secure APIs, apply object-relational mapping, enforce server-side validation, use SQL query constraints, and limit error message details.
2. Broken access controls
Cyber attackers use tricks such as reusing access tokens or manipulating tokens’ revocation to gain unauthorized access or privileges, which undermines access control. The repercussions are serious, including compromised sensitive information, unauthorized permissions, or even account takeover attacks by malicious outsiders.
To prevent such issues, start with robust coding practices, assuring strong password management and identity verification. Apply uniform access control measures across the application to minimize unauthorized access, and use domain models to set boundaries on business applications, preventing overreach. You should also consider restricting access to APIs and controllers to counter automated attacks.
3. Sensitive data exposure
This web security issue deals with keeping sensitive data safe. This includes using encryption for data when it’s moving around or being stored, so things like credit card information and passwords are never exposed in an unprotected form. Use strong encryption methods such as AES or RSA to bolster data security further. Also, avoid putting sensitive information in web addresses (URLs), and make sure cookies with sensitive data are marked as “secure.”
4. Insecure design
A recent addition to the OWASP Top 10 vulnerabilities, insecure design focuses on flaws in the initial design of digital systems. Without a solid foundation, even the best security measures can fail.
To prevent design weaknesses:
- Collaborate with experts to create a secure development process to assure robust security.
- Use threat modeling to test access control, application logic, and core flows rigorously.
- Conduct penetration testing to find security loopholes from code to networks, detecting design weaknesses early.
- Include security terms in user stories, assuring that everyone understands the importance of security.
5. Security misconfiguration
Misconfigured web servers and applications are another significant risk. Instances such as running debug in production, leaky directory listings, outdated software, unnecessary services, default keys/passwords, and revealing error information are frequent. Preventive measures include establishing a robust (ideally automated) “build and deploy” process or using post-commit hooks to catch vulnerabilities before they become threats. Addressing security misconfigurations is essential in our rapidly evolving digital landscape.
6. Cryptographic failures
Cryptographic failures stem from errors in cryptography (or from its absence entirely), unintentionally exposing critical data such as passwords, health records, and credit card information.
To shield against these risks when transferring sensitive information, avoid outdated protocols such as Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) or File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Instead, opt for authenticated encryption, which offers a higher level of security comparable to the distinction between a casual agreement and a legally binding contract.
Assure that cryptographic keys are generated and stored as cryptographically random arrays of bytes. If passwords are part of the equation, consider replacing them with a key using a password-based key generation algorithm.
7. Software and data integrity failures
Web applications relying on third-party components must assure source code integrity to avoid malicious code and unauthorized access. Automated updates, while convenient, can be exploited, so it’s essential to implement digital signatures and fortify your code deployment process.
Here are a few mitigation measures:
- Digital signatures: Use them to confirm data/software origin and to prevent tampering.
- Strengthen CI/CD: Employ robust access controls, segmentation, and parameterization.
- Thorough checks: Especially when sharing unencrypted data with untrusted parties.
These actions bolster your defenses, reducing the risk of software and data integrity failures and creating a safer digital ecosystem.
8. Vulnerable and outdated components
Online applications are frequently built using third-party frameworks, which can contain hidden codes that might unexpectedly cause security issues. These vulnerabilities include accent control breaches, unauthorized access, and SQL injections.
When software elements lack security, become outdated, or remain unsupported, web application vulnerabilities can emerge unnoticed. Think of the application as a complex ecosystem — from servers to databases, APIs to runtimes — where a single compromised part can trigger a chain reaction of issues. To shield against such risks, use secure sourcing of components, stay cautious of abandoned modules, and adopt a lean approach by eliminating unnecessary features.
9. Security logging and monitoring failures
When protecting the web application, security logging and monitoring are essential tools. They give you a clear view of what’s happening, alert you to incidents, and help with investigations. If these systems fail, it’s like sailing without radar: your ability to detect and respond to breaches is seriously compromised. Without proper monitoring, the web app becomes an easy target, exposing vulnerabilities that can lead to disruptions or major breaches.
10. Server-Side Request Forgery (SSRF)
SSRF can sneak into supposedly secure systems, even ones protected by VPNs, firewalls, or network access control. This attack fools web applications into sending requests to unintended places, potentially manipulating internal servers or grabbing sensitive info.
To fend off SSRF attacks:
- Divide your network into separate sections, each with a specific role, to reduce the impact of an SSRF attack.
- Set your firewall to a “deny by default” mode or create rules that only allow necessary internal exchanges, adding another layer of protection.
- Always question the authenticity of URLs to shield against sneaky attacks like DNS redirection, and stay cautious of scenarios where the check and use times differ.
How to Perform a Network Vulnerability Assessment
An effective vulnerability assessment should include the following steps:
First, determine which systems and networks will be part of the vulnerability assessment, including cloud and mobile. You also need to identify where any sensitive data resides and determine the data and systems that are most critical.
Confirm that everyone involved has the same expectations about what the vulnerability assessment will provide. Keep the lines of communication open throughout the vulnerability assessment process.
Next, scan the system or network using an automated vulnerability scanning tool. Then you can identify security vulnerabilities and filter out false positives using threat intelligence and vulnerability databases. 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 and your budget.
Conduct a detailed analysis of the security vulnerabilities identified by the scanning tool. Review the causes of the vulnerabilities, their potential impacts, and suggested methods to remediate them.
Next, rate each security vulnerability on the type of data at risk, the severity of the vulnerability, and the damage that could be caused by a data breach.
The goal is to quantify all of the threats, as well as their effects on the network and the business.
Based on the vulnerability assessment rankings in the analysis step, administrators should first patch the most critical flaws. This can be done in several ways, including updating software, installing new security tools, or enhancing security procedures.
Some security vulnerabilities, 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 to fix them.
You should conduct vulnerability assessment scans regularly (at least monthly or even weekly) because a single vulnerability assessment is merely a snapshot of a particular moment. When you have a series of snapshots or reports over time that you can study, you’ll understand how your security posture has developed.
You should also conduct a vulnerability assessment whenever you make major changes to the network or systems.
What’s the Difference Between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Assessment?
Penetration testing is not the same as a vulnerability assessment. Testing involves 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, pen testing should follow a network vulnerability assessment. It makes no sense to conduct penetration testing 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 work.
What’s the Difference Between Vulnerability Assessment and Vulnerability Management?
A vulnerability assessment is a specific task that’s done often because vulnerabilities can change quickly. Vulnerability management is a strategy to manage the organization’s security vulnerabilities over the long term.
Unlike a vulnerability assessment, a vulnerability management program doesn’t have a specific start and end date. Rather, it’s an ongoing process that helps the company better manage security vulnerabilities long-term.
Vulnerability assessments and vulnerability management are important parts of an effective cybersecurity plan. But always consider the results of that work within the context of the business and the 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 strengthen their 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.
In a vulnerability assessment, an organization will review its corporate environment to identify all potential vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure that a hacker could exploit. Then you will determine what you can do to fix those security vulnerabilities.
In contrast, vulnerability scanning is a continuous assessment of your security. A risk assessment then shows whether you can accept those security vulnerabilities or prioritize them for remediation.
Together, vulnerability assessment, vulnerability scan, and risk assessment play important roles in enhancing your company’s security.
Performing Risk Assessment Along with Vulnerability Assessment
A risk assessment is also critical for understanding the various threats to 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 the organization assess and manage third-party risks.
A risk assessment is a more comprehensive look at the 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 ROAR Helps With Vulnerability Assessments
Regular vulnerability assessments, scanning, and penetration tests should be routine parts of the company’s security assessment plan because the risk environment changes over time.
The RiskOptics ROAR Platform is a governance, risk management, and compliance tool that can support routine vulnerability assessments and penetration testing. It collects documentation, streamlines workflows, and eliminates the need for constant follow-up while tracing outstanding tasks.
ROAR 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; it also makes organizations more efficient at the ongoing task of governance and continuous monitoring.
Schedule a free demo today to see how ROAR can improve your vulnerability assessments and penetration testing strategies.