Agent technology is nothing new. In fact, many organizations wrestle with quantity, conflicts, and updates for the wide variety of agents they have today. So why should a vulnerability assessment agent be anything special? It is not—except that the usage is not widespread and not all vendors are equal in their agent offerings and their accompanying management capabilities. It becomes a conscious choice for many organizations to network scan or use agent technology based on use cases, frequency, and device access.
Common use cases
To simplify the problem, below are the most common use cases in support of vulnerability assessment agents:
- Platform support for agent technologies (Windows, Linux, and macOS) that are air-gapped, hardened, short time-to-live, cloud, virtual, etc. In other words, you need to scan this asset, and accessing it with a network scanner may not be possible due to routing, location, hardening, or even credentials. A local agent accomplishes the task even if the instance will be short-lived. Think containers.
- Immediate assessment results via API, Scripts, or CLI to support context-aware integration initiatives such as NAC and Adaptive Response.
- Deployment architectures that do not easily support network scans – remote devices, cloud, and mobile (notebooks and tablets) and mobile employees.
- DevOps certification of assets before deployment. If it can be assessed rapidly, automated, and without increasing the risk surface, it should be a part of every Secure DevOps
- Standalone assets, like point of sales systems, ATMs, or embedded devices that require assessments for security best practices or regulatory compliance and may not be routable, have collision domains, or do not permit remote authenticated scans.
Two types of agents
With these use cases in mind, there are two types of vulnerability assessment agents:
- Local – Agents are installed persistent on the asset and managed. Key management features include:
- Binary version updates
- Signature or audit database updates
- Job scheduling
- Ad-hoc assessments via the management console, API, or CLI
- Store and forward of scan results
- Scriptable installation and minimal resource consumption
- Dissolvable – Agents are installed on-demand via a script or trigger. Once the assessment is complete, the agent automatically uninstalls. Key management features include:
- Installation is complete with latest versions. No need to update before an assessment
- Minimal resource consumption
- Uninstall does not leave any files or fingerprints behind
- Installation, operation, results, uninstall, and fault analysis is available via API or CLI
Agent technologies for vulnerability assessments offer a viable alternative to network scans. The results are comparable to credentialed scans and offer a method to obtain results without the potential problems and nuances of traditional network scanners.
Morey J. Haber, Chief Security Officer, BeyondTrust
Morey J. Haber is the Chief Security Officer at BeyondTrust. He has more than 25 years of IT industry experience and has authored four books: Privileged Attack Vectors, Asset Attack Vectors, Identity Attack Vectors, and Cloud Attack Vectors. He is a founding member of the industry group Transparency in Cyber, and in 2020 was elected to the Identity Defined Security Alliance (IDSA) Executive Advisory Board. Morey currently oversees BeyondTrust security and governance for corporate and cloud based solutions and regularly consults for global periodicals and media. He originally joined BeyondTrust in 2012 as a part of the eEye Digital Security acquisition where he served as a Product Owner and Solutions Engineer since 2004. Prior to eEye, he was Beta Development Manager for Computer Associates, Inc. He began his career as Reliability and Maintainability Engineer for a government contractor building flight and training simulators. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.