Guide to Vulnerability Scanning Tools

A vulnerability scanning tool scans a network or system for weaknesses and security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a threat actor. By using automation, an organization can systematically strengthen its security posture by uncovering and addressing potentially threatening issues.

What Can Vulnerability Scanning Tools Detect?

A vulnerability is any kind of security gap that could give a bad actor unauthorized or privileged access to an enterprise network, system, application, or data. There are many different kinds of vulnerabilities, and they all pose different levels of risk.

Different vulnerability scanning tools look for different vulnerabilities. For instance, network vulnerability scanners scan enterprise networks to look for vulnerable and unknown systems — servers, devices, endpoints, and so forth — that a potential attacker might exploit. On the other hand, web application vulnerability scanners look for vulnerabilities and common flaws in websites and web-based applications. These include:

  • Cross-site scripting (XSS)
  • SQL injection
  • Command injection
  • Path traversal
  • Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack
  • Malicious code (malware)

These scanners mainly look for software vulnerabilities, coding flaws, and misconfigurations in web applications. They generally work off of a known list of common exploits, such as the OWASP Top 10.

Benefits of Vulnerability Scanning Tools

Proactive Security

Vulnerability scanning can detect vulnerabilities and cybersecurity threats early, identify unauthorized devices, and find indications that a system has been compromised. They can also pinpoint the operating system being used, the last firmware update that was applied, and the last time any patching was done.

Many data breaches are the result of unpatched vulnerabilities. It’s critical to identify and eliminate any security gaps that leave the door open for threat actors to attack. Vulnerability scanning tools are vital to seek out and eliminate security flaws to strengthen the IT ecosystem.

Legal or Industry Mandates

Some laws mandate secure systems to protect sensitive data, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In other cases, industry standards require organizations to perform external and internal vulnerability scans quarterly and immediately after specific activities, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).

Vulnerability scanning is crucial to assure compliance with mandates like these.

To Stay Ahead of Cybercriminals

Cybercriminals also use vulnerability scanning tools to find opportunities to gain access to enterprise systems. It’s vital to carry out scans and take timely, preventive actions to stay ahead of them.

Types of Vulnerability Scanning Tools

Network-Based Scanners

A network vulnerability scanner monitors enterprise networks to find vulnerable devices, web servers, operating systems, web server daemons (HTTPDs), and any services that are open to the Internet, such as database services.

These security tools usually rely on a publicly disclosed database of known vulnerabilities, such as NIST’s National Vulnerability Database (NVD) or Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs), to find and reveal vulnerabilities.

Network vulnerability scans can cause network congestion; that’s why they are only carried out periodically, such as once a week. It’s critical to carry them out against a reliable database that provides comprehensive information of both new vulnerabilities and known vulnerabilities to assure that these discrete scans consistently deliver good results.

Wireless Scanners

A wireless vulnerability scanner monitors wireless networks to find vulnerable devices and passwords and to identify rogue access points. It validates whether an organization’s network is securely configured by scanning for security weaknesses and hidden backdoors.

Host-Based Scanners

A host-based vulnerability scanner identifies vulnerabilities in network hosts, such as servers and workstations. It can find vulnerabilities on a single host (such as an individual computer) or on network devices (such as routers or switches).

These scanners are vital to enterprise security. They highlight the damage that can be caused by a threat actor after attaining some level of access, whether internal or external.

Application Scanners

Application vulnerability scanners test the code of web applications and websites to detect known vulnerabilities and configuration issues that pose a security threat. These scanners can also find previously unknown vulnerabilities that may be unique to the application being tested, an approach known as dynamic application security testing (DAST).

Static application security testing (SAST) is used to analyze the source code of web applications during the development stage of a secure development lifecycle (SDLC).

An interactive application scanner (IAST) can do both static and dynamic scanning and is usually used to identify vulnerabilities before an application is pushed into production. Finally, software composition analysis (SCA) scanners scan for open source vulnerabilities in components like libraries and frameworks.

Database Scanners

Database vulnerability scanners identify weaknesses in the database so an organization can mitigate and prevent malicious attacks.

How Vulnerability Scanners Work

Vulnerability scanning tools detect system weaknesses across the network. These weaknesses are categorized and prioritized by severity, business criticality, exposure, and the like. The tool may also compare the cybersecurity flaws it identifies to the updated database(s) of known cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

Not all vulnerability scanning tools can both uncover and automatically address cybersecurity issues. Some focus only on monitoring rather than management, which means that the organization’s security professionals must take separate actions to address the cybersecurity issues found by the tool.

Some scanners address problems with devices, such as misconfigurations, likely reaching many devices simultaneously. In addition to saving administrators time, these tools automate responses, so organizations can better mitigate cybersecurity risks across their networks.

When the scanning is complete, the tool details its findings in a report. The organization can then fix the issues in-house, or it may choose to hire an external company to remove these vulnerabilities and help reinforce its cybersecurity.

Many vulnerability scanning tools are compatible with various operating systems, including Microsoft Windows, Linux, and Mac OS. Both open-source and commercial vulnerability scanning tools are available.

Examples of open-source tools include Nikto2, W3AF, Arachni, Acunetix, Nmap, OpenSCAP, and the Metasploit Framework. Popular commercial network security scanners include SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager (NCM), Paessler PRTG, and ManageEngine Vulnerability Manager Plus.

What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?

Both vulnerability scanning and vulnerability assessments are essential for network security. But unlike a scan that occurs periodically (such as weekly), a vulnerability assessment is a project with a planned start and end date.

A vulnerability assessment tool identifies, quantifies, and ranks different cybersecurity vulnerabilities that may exist within a system, network, or web application. That provides the information required to analyze and prioritize cybersecurity risks for remediation.

A comprehensive vulnerability assessment is a crucial part of a vulnerability management plan that helps companies identify potential current and future vulnerabilities.

What Is Penetration Testing?

While vulnerability scans are automated, penetration testing involves manual probing and exploitation by a human tester. The tester simulates the actions of a real hacker by using penetration testing tools to identify security weaknesses and pinpoints how those weaknesses could be exploited.

By thinking like a hacker, a penetration tester (and pen testing) helps to create a more accurate picture of the organization’s risk profile.

Since penetration tests are more comprehensive and complicated than automated vulnerability scans, they are conducted less often. Security teams should still do both to strengthen the organization’s security posture.

What Is Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability management includes ongoing cybersecurity vulnerability assessments. The goal is to identify anything that has changed since the last vulnerability assessment. Vulnerability scan reports can be used as evidence of an effective vulnerability management program in the context of an audit.

Vulnerability management auditing requires aggregating and reviewing large volumes of evidence sourced from disparate systems and owners. Some vulnerability scanners fully automate security assessments for compliance auditors and can reduce the time between audits from once a year or once a quarter to monthly, weekly, or even daily.

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