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A Comprehensive Guide to Vulnerability Assessment Methodology

The process of finding risks and vulnerabilities in computer networks, systems, hardware, applications, and other aspects of the IT ecosystem is known as vulnerability assessment. Vulnerability assessments give security teams and other stakeholders the data they need to identify and prioritize threats for possible remediation in the right context.

Vulnerability assessments are an important part of the vulnerability management and IT risk management lifecycles since they assist safeguard systems and data against unauthorized access and data breaches.

Vulnerability assessments use tools like vulnerability scanners to find threats and faults in an organization’s IT infrastructure that could lead to vulnerabilities or risk exposure.

Why Vulnerability Assessments are Important

Security teams can use vulnerability assessments to discover and resolve security threats and risks in a consistent, thorough, and unambiguous manner. This has various advantages for a company:

1:- Early and consistent detection of IT security risks and weaknesses
2:- Corrective steps to address any holes and secure critical systems and data
3:- Meet HIPAA and PCI DSS cybersecurity compliance and regulatory requirements.
4:- Protect against data breaches and other unauthorized access

Differences between Vulnerability Assessment & Vulnerability Scanning

Both vulnerability assessment and vulnerability scanning are important processes that are used in network security to make sure that a system functions smoothly and does not get attacked and penetrated by incoming Trojans & viruses.

However, even though they look quite similar, both vulnerability assessment and vulnerability scanning have major differences in actuality.

In the following few paragraphs, you will learn about what vulnerability assessment and vulnerability scanning are and how it is used to provide protection and security to the network.

Here is a brief guide regarding both the different processes:

(A):- Vulnerability assessment information

Vulnerability assessment is basically a major process that comprises a range of different sub-processes.

Vulnerability assessment basically deals with the identification, quantification as well as ranking of the different vulnerabilities that might be present within a system.

As a result, vulnerability assessment is not only restricted to use in network-based companies.

Instead, a vulnerability assessment can be carried out on an energy supply system, a transportation system as well as communication systems, among various others.

Vulnerability assessment is a very important step for any company that wants to prevent unauthorised access to its systems by outsiders.

The first step in vulnerability assessment is to catalog all of the different assets as well as the capabilities of the system.

Then, a quantifiable value, such as a rank is given to each different asset or resource in order to be able to estimate their importance to the company.

Then, a thorough vulnerability scan is carried out on the different resources that have been catalogued in order to determine where most of the vulnerabilities lie.

As a result, this allows the company to find out whether its crucial resources are vulnerable or not.

A vulnerability assessment also deals with remedial situations, as it helps in the mitigation or elimination of different kinds of serious vulnerabilities that might be found within a system linked to its most valuable resources.

(B):- Vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scanning on the other hand is a much simpler process.

Basically, this is completely automatic software that is being run in order to figure out the different vulnerabilities or flaws within a system.

Vulnerability scanning is quite simple actually, and scanning services are provided by numerous network security companies.

Vulnerability scanners are created by companies and are linked to a set database of known flaws.

As new flaws are found, they are usually added to the database.

However, the vulnerability scanner then runs through the network in a way to discover whether any flaws exist or not.

It matches any flaws with the ones that are available in the database in order to determine whether any exist or not.

Once the vulnerability scan is complete, a detailed report is made of its findings, which allows the company to hire a network security company that can help them in reinforcing the company’s defenses and removing all sorts of flaws that might exist.

Vulnerability Assessment Methodology:

Getting maximum benefit from a vulnerability assessment requires an understanding of your organization’s mission-critical processes and underlying infrastructure, and applying that understanding to the results. To be truly effective, it should include the following steps:

1:- Take an active role

Once the business decides to perform a vulnerability assessment, it should take an active approach to find out what the current state of security is. It is important to actively screen potential vendors, engage in the scoping process, provide security consultants with what they need to do the job, and engage in the process to facilitate success. When key stakeholders decide to get involved in the process as participants and students, the knowledge gained from that collaboration will allow the business to consume the results more effectively and put them on a better footing to face the issues of tomorrow, having been guided through the process by an experienced professional today.

2:- Identify and understand your business processes

Identify and understand your organization’s business processes, focusing on those that are critical and sensitive in terms of compliance, customer privacy, and competitive position. There is no way for IT to do this in a vacuum. In many organizations, it requires collaboration between IT and representatives of the business units, the finance department, and legal counsel. Many organizations put together security strategy task forces with representatives from each department, who work together for several weeks to analyze business processes and the information and infrastructure they depend on. Those with significant domain knowledge are the most valuable resources in this discovery process. The primary objective is to document “the way it’s done” and understand what the true process is.

3:- Pinpoint the applications and data that underlie business processes

Once the business processes are identified and ranked in terms of mission criticality and sensitivity, the next step is to identify the applications and data on which those mission-critical processes depend. Again, this can be accomplished only through collaboration between IT and other business players. From extensive collaborative discussions, you may discover applications that are more crucial than expected. For example, email may be a critical application for one department but overshadowed by in-house instant messaging in another.

4:- Find hidden data sources
When searching out applications and data sources, make sure you consider mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, as well as laptops and desktop PCs. While some data may reside in a static location, the overwhelming majority will exist and interact in an ecosystem of devices and information pathways. Collectively, these devices often contain the most recent, sensitive data your organization possesses. Work with the business units to understand who is using mobile devices for accessing and sharing corporate applications and data. Understand the data flow between these devices and data center applications and storage.

While considering the internal workings and movement of data, thought should be given to information that has migrated outside of the organization’s figurative four walls. Office 365 allows any employee to access mission-critical information on any device, in any location, at any time. In order to understand this external footprint, determine if your business users are sending business emails over public channels such as Gmail or Yahoo mail. Another often hidden category to investigate is your software development environment, as they are inherently less secure than production environments. Software developers and testers often use current, sometimes mission-critical data to test new and upgraded applications.

5:- Determine what hardware underlies applications and data

Continue working down the layers of infrastructure to identify the servers, both virtual and physical, that run your mission-critical applications. For Web/database applications, you may be talking about three or more sets of servers — Web servers, application middleware,and database — per application. Identify the data storage devices that hold the mission-critical and sensitive data used by those applications.

6:- Map the network infrastructure that connects the hardware

Develop an understanding of the routers and other network devices that your applications and hardware depend on for fast, secure performance. It is important to determine if specific subnets are designed to contain sensitive assets such as Windows domain controllers, or a particular business unit, such as Development or Human Resources. Understanding how data gets from point A to point B is essential — and knowing where a particular type of data lives is critical.

7:- Identify which controls are already in place

Document the security measures you already have in place — including policies, technical controls such as firewalls, application firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems (IPS/IDS), virtual private networks (VPNs), data loss prevention (DLP), and encryption — to protect each set of servers and storage devices hosting mission-critical applications and data. Understand the key capabilities of these protections and which vulnerabilities they address most effectively. This is the heart of the “defense in depth” strategy and may require some fairly extensive research, including scanning websites and reviews and speaking with security company representatives.

8:- Run vulnerability scans
Only when you’ve understood and mapped out your application and data flows and the underlying hardware, network infrastructure, and protections does it make sense to run your vulnerability scans. The intellectual exercise that has been performed to this point is what allows security analysts to interpret the results of the scan clearly and with an objective focus on the critical aspects of the business.

“One of the biggest mistakes companies make is using a scan to determine what to patch, instead of scanning to verify successful patching. This sets the organisation up for more vulnerability rather than less.” —Ben Holder, Senior Principal Consultant, Sirius Security

9:- Apply business and technology context to scanner results

Your scanner may produce scores of hosts and other vulnerabilities with severity ratings, but since results and scores are based on objective measures, it’s important to determine your organisation’s business and infrastructure context. Deriving meaningful and actionable information about business risk from vulnerability data is a complex and difficult task. After evaluating your staff’s level of knowledge and workload, you may determine that it would be helpful to partner with a company that is well-versed in all aspects of security and threat assessment. Whether undertaking this task internally or getting outside assistance, your results need to be analyzed to determine which infrastructure vulnerabilities should be targeted first and most aggressively. Consider the following:

The number and importance of assets touched by the vulnerabilities

Existing controls
Available security technologies

10:- Conduct penetration testing

Once the vulnerability assessment is complete, and the business feels it has remediated enough findings to improve its security posture, it’s critical to have a new set of eyes examine the environment and challenge assumptions. Penetration testing is designed to push upon your security practices to determine whether a malicious actor can leverage a vulnerability that can be exploited to gain access to valuable information.

While the technical attack is played out, penetration testers will challenge the assumptions you’ve generated as part of your vulnerability assessment. Is the group of servers behind firewalls being monitored by anti-virus protected enough? Is the list of discovered entry points into critical applications complete, or can the penetration testers find a new method of access you weren’t aware of?

It is common for the business to be too close to the subject matter. A comprehensive evaluation with specific goals should be conducted by experienced testers to help the business gain perspective on which areas may not have been considered previously, and what the next area of growth should be as part of the security assessment life cycle.

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