A network vulnerability assessment is the reviewing and analyzing of an organization’s network infrastructure to find cybersecurity vulnerabilities and network security loopholes. The assessment can be carried out either manually or by using vulnerability analysis software — although the latter is preferred because it’s less susceptible to human error and usually delivers more accurate results.

The goal of a vulnerability assessment is to determine the strength of a company’s network security, and along the way to uncover any security vulnerabilities that might compromise overall business operations, cybersecurity, and privacy of a computer network.

Vulnerability assessments should not be confused with penetration tests (also known as “pen tests”), which simulate a cyber attack. A penetration test typically focuses on firewalls and their vulnerabilities, as it attempts to gain unauthorized access to your computer systems via phishing emails, malware attacks, or other tactics to install malware.

It may help to think of a network vulnerability assessment as inspection done from the inside, searching for and reporting vulnerabilities in your networks and operating systems. A penetration test is more like a mock security attack conducted from the outside, to see how well your defenses work.

Some businesses must conduct both pen tests and vulnerability assessments on an ongoing basis to remain in compliance with regulations. For example, this is true for credit card and payment processors that must comply with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).

The benefits of a network vulnerability assessment

No matter what type of business is being analyzed, the assessment itself can be broken down into several steps:

  1. Identify risks; then analyze and rank the effect a worse case scenario could have on your business.
  2. Develop procedures for how and how often you will perform vulnerability scanning. This includes researching and identifying which vulnerability assessment tools you’ll use and how often you’ll do so.
  3. Identify the type of vulnerability scan you need. This sounds simple, but many types of vulnerability scans are available:
    • Host-based vulnerability scan: This looks for vulnerabilities at endpoints and searches computers, laptops, and shared servers for misconfigurations and dormant vulnerabilities.
    • Wireless-based vulnerability scan. This identifies vulnerabilities associated with devices connected to your wi-fi systems and routers. This scan will expose unauthorized users and give you a chance to isolate and get rid of them.
    • Application-based vulnerability scan. Many application vulnerability scanning tools are out there, including some that are open source. Application security should not be overlooked and it can be automated with the right tool.
  4. Perform the scan and analyze the results of the scan. This may take hours or days, depending on the size of your system and how much detail your chosen vulnerability scanning tool provides. When you look at the results, be especially aware of false positives. False positives occur when the scanner doesn’t have the right credentials to access all the data needed to complete the vulnerability tests. You may have to reconfigure the vulnerability scanning tool to make sure the results are correct.
  5. Develop a plan for mitigation and remediation. This can be done by your own IT staff or by hired security experts. It is important to follow up on security issues detected by your scan, and to identify security measures that can mitigate potential threats.

Ultimately, a solid network vulnerability assessment will help to update and shape your security policy, and leave your business better protected against data breaches.

Make vulnerability assessment part of your risk assessment policy

A network vulnerability assessment provides a better understanding of a network environment and delivers feedback on any cybersecurity flaws. Like all risk analysis, this is not a one-and-done type assessment; rather, it should be performed on an ongoing basis. When conducted regularly, the resulting assessment report will help the information security team improve its cybersecurity threat mitigation and prevention processes.

This leads to a high level of network security, and significantly reduces the chance that unauthorized cybercriminals will gain access to your sensitive data.

In addition, you will also know if your organization is complying with the cybersecurity standards that apply to your industry such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).

Penetration testing combined with network vulnerability assessment

Typically, a network vulnerability assessment is followed by penetration testing. During penetration testing, so-called ethical hackers (hired by a security company to attempt to hack into your system, and who will do no harm) manually conduct a cyberattack against your network, system, or web applications. The goal of the pen test is to find cybersecurity vulnerabilities that a hacker could exploit. Penetration testing can also be automated with software, but typically it involves people.

Once the network vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are completed, the combined assessment will show you where to mitigate cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

Unlike a network vulnerability assessment, a comprehensive network vulnerability management program doesn’t have a definite start and end date. Rather, it is a continuous process that aims to manage a company’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities over the long term.

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