Vulnerability assessment refers to the process of identifying and analyzing cyber risks and vulnerabilities in computer networks, systems, hardware, applications, and other IT assets, both on premise and in the cloud. Vulnerability assessments provide security teams and other stakeholders with the information they need to assess and prioritize risks for potential remediation in the proper context.

Vulnerability assessments are a fundamental piece of the vulnerability management and IT risk management lifecycles, helping protect systems and data from unauthorized access and data breaches.

Vulnerability assessments typically leverage tools like vulnerability scanners to identify threats and flaws within an organization's IT infrastructure that represent potential vulnerabilities or risk exposures.

This blog will cover the basics of vulnerability assessments, including how they help identify and reduce cyber risk, and how they complement other components of the vulnerability management framework.

What is a Vulnerability?

First, let’s take a step back and characterize the basic IT definition of a vulnerability as a security weakness or flaw that could potentially be exploited by a threat actor (i.e., malware, external attacker, or malicious insider). Some common types of vulnerabilities include bugs in code, configuration weaknesses, weak passwords and hardcoded credentials (especially those that are vendor-deployed defaults), excessive privileges, and other weaknesses or deficiencies.

Known, unpatched vulnerabilities continue to rank as the leading point of compromise for the initial exploit stage of almost all cyberattacks.

Zero-day vulnerabilities are particularly dangerous because they are vulnerabilities that are published and known, but for which no patch yet exists.

Key Benefits of Vulnerability Assessments

Vulnerability assessments enable IT security teams to apply a consistent, comprehensive, and clear approach to identifying and resolving security threats and risks. This confers several benefits across the organization, including:

  • Early and consistent identification of threats and weaknesses in IT security
  • Remediation actions (patching, systems hardening, etc.) to close any gaps and protect sensitive systems and information
  • Addressing cybersecurity compliance and regulatory needs for areas like HIPAA and PCI DSS
  • Protecting against data breaches and other unauthorized access

Vulnerability assessments can even help an organization make adjustments to mitigate the impact of a zero-day vulnerability. For instance, with knowledge in hand regarding a zero-day, the organization could segregate applications or parts of the affected system and layer on additional controls (i.e. implementing additional restrictions around privilege elevation) to bolster its cyber resilience in the interim until a patch is available.

How Vulnerability Assessments Relate to IT Risk and Vulnerability Management

Most vulnerability assessments assign a risk-level to each cyberthreat. These risks can have a priority, urgency, and impact assigned to them, which helps to channel focus on those cyberthreats that could create the most impactful issues for an organization. This is an important part of vulnerability management, as IT security team are typically stretched for time and resources, and must concentrate on the areas that could cause the most damage to the business.

Vulnerability assessment data helps IT teams, as well as automated third-party tools (i.e. patch management), to prioritize vulnerabilities and chart the path for action, which often means remediation. However, sometimes organizations choose to accept continuance of the risk. For instance, if the uncovered vulnerability is of low potential impact and of low likelihood for occurring, but on the other hand, fixing it would require downtime or potential breaking of other systems, IT may determine the vulnerability risk itself is less than the risk posed to ongoing IT or business operations. This is how vulnerability assessments fall into an overarching IT risk management framework.

How Vulnerability Assessments are Performed

One of the most common approaches to performing vulnerability assessments is by using automated vulnerability scanning software. These tools leverage databases of known vulnerabilities to identify potential flaws in your networks, apps, containers, systems, data, hardware, and more.

The vulnerability assessment tool will comprehensively scan every aspect of your technology. Once the scans are completed, the tool will report on all the issues discovered, and suggest actions to remove threats. The more full-featured tools may quantify the tradeoffs to security and business operations of remediating the risk versus accepting the risk. Organizations commonly integrate vulnerability scanning into a SIEM, which combines it with additional threat data to provide more holistic threat analytics.

Since IT environments are in constant flux (for example, software updates or system configuration changes could result in a new vulnerability), vulnerability assessments and scans should be performed at regular.

Vulnerability scanning is only part of a vulnerability assessment — other processes, such as penetration testing, can identify different types of threats to IT in your organization. Penetration testing complements vulnerability scanning, and is useful for determining if a vulnerability can be acted on, and whether that action would cause damage, data loss, or other issues. Some organizations also apply a manual vulnerability assessment methodology. The more overlapping methods used in vulnerability assessment, the higher the likelihood loopholes, backdoors, software and application flaws, and other threats will be uncovered.

Overview of Vulnerability Assessment Tools

The most vital part of vulnerability assessment is a vulnerability scanning tool. This tool can be used to execute various types of scans, such as:

  • Credentialed and non-credentialed scans
  • External vulnerability scans
  • Internal vulnerability scans
  • Environmental scans

When evaluating a vulnerability scanning tool, consider the follow characteristics and capabilities as well:

  • Frequency of updates
  • Quality and quantity of vulnerabilities, including minimizing false positives and false negatives. Elimination of false positives
  • Actionability of results
  • Integrations with other vulnerability management and IT security tools (patch management, SIEM, etc.)

Vulnerability assessments should always provide clear, actionable information on all identified threats, and the corrective actions that will be needed. This allows IT security teams to prioritize fixes against the overall cyber risk profile of the organization. A mature vulnerability assessment approach will significantly minimize your cyber risk exposure, and enhance your baseline of protection across your organization’s systems and data.

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Additional Vulnerability Assessment Resources