What Is Vulnerability Assessment?

Vulnerability assessment in cybersecurity refers to the process of identifying risks and vulnerabilities in computer networks, systems, hardware, applications, and other parts of the IT ecosystem. Vulnerability assessments provide security teams and other stakeholders with the information they need to analyze and prioritize risks for potential remediation in the proper context.

Vulnerability assessments are a critical component 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 represents potential vulnerabilities or risk exposures.

Why Vulnerability Assessments are Important

Vulnerability assessments allow security teams to apply a consistent, comprehensive, and clear approach to identifying and resolving security threats and risks. This has several benefits to an organization:

  • Early and consistent identification of threats and weaknesses in IT security

  • Remediation actions to close any gaps and protect sensitive systems and information

  • Meet cybersecurity compliance and regulatory needs for areas like HIPAA and PCI DSS

  • Protect against data breaches and other unauthorized access

How Vulnerability Assessments Relate to IT Risk and Vulnerability Management

A vulnerability assessment explores a wide range of potential issues across multiple networks, systems, and other parts of your IT ecosystem, on-prem and cloud. It identifies weaknesses that need correction, including misconfigurations and policy non-compliance vulnerabilities that patching and maintenance alone may not address.

Most vulnerability assessments assign a risk to each threat. These risks can have a priority, urgency, and impact assigned to them, which makes it easier to focus on those that could create the most issues for an organization. This is an important part of vulnerability management, as your IT security team will have limited time and resources, and must concentrate on the areas that could cause the most damage to your business.

The information provided by a vulnerability assessment 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 organization choose to accept the continuance of the risk. For instance, if the uncovered vulnerability is of low potential impact and of low likelihood, but on the other hand, fixing it would require downtime or potential breaking of other systems, IT may determine the vulnerability risk is less than the risk posed to ongoing IT operations. This is how vulnerability assessments fall into an overarching IT risk management framework.

How Vulnerability Assessments are Performed

There are various ways to perform vulnerability assessments, but one of the most common is through automated vulnerability scanning software. These tools use 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 offer insight into the security and operational impact of remediating a risk, versus accepting the risk. Vulnerability scanning data may also be integrated into a SIEM along with other data for even more holistic threat analytics.

Vulnerability assessments and scans should be performed on a regular basis — IT environments are changing all the time (for instance, a software update or system configuration change could result in a new vulnerability), and new threats continue to emerge, so it’s essential to identify and address vulnerabilities quickly to limit cybersecurity risk.

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.

Tools to Use for Vulnerability Assessment

The most vital part of vulnerability assessment is a vulnerability scanning tool. This tool should be able to carry out various types of scans, such as:

  • Credentialed and non-credentialed scans

  • External vulnerability scans

  • Internal vulnerability scans

  • Environmental scans

When you’re choosing a vulnerability scanning tool, emphasize the following areas:

  • 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 risk managers to prioritize fixes against the overall cyber risk profile of the organization. A good vulnerability assessment approach can significantly reduce your exposure to cyber threats, and boost your baseline of protection across your organization’s systems and data.

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