While the current phase of rapid digital transformation has brought a significant number of benefits, the main drawback is the huge increase in the number of cyber security vulnerabilities that cybercriminals can exploit. New technologies, whether digital wallets, contactless cards, smart appliances, the Internet of Things (IoT), etc., mean more digital data to secure and a larger attack surface to protect. In light of this, companies need to develop a vulnerability remediation strategy.
Vulnerability remediation is the process of finding, assessing, and eliminating an organisation’s IT security gaps. The vulnerability remediation process is vital for preventing data breaches, protecting a company’s digital assets, and maintaining business continuity.
In this post, we look at the importance of vulnerability remediation for system security, and how to implement the vulnerability remediation process in your company.
What is a vulnerability?
A vulnerability, in the context of cyber security, is a flaw in an organisation’s IT infrastructure that a malicious actor can use to gain access to its network, data, and systems. After successfully exploiting a vulnerability and breaching the company’s cyber security defences, cybercriminals can install malware, access sensitive data, and undertake other malicious activities.
Here are the types of vulnerabilities that could be present within a company’s IT ecosystem, with a couple of notable examples of each:
- Software vulnerabilities: lack of validation, design flaws, backdoors
- Hardware vulnerabilities: unpatched firmware, default passwords
- Network vulnerabilities: weak authentication measures, lack of network segmentation
- Personnel vulnerabilities: poor password hygiene, lack of cyber security awareness training (resulting in increased susceptibility to social engineering attacks)
- Physical site vulnerabilities: lax access control, weak on-site security (increasing the likelihood of hardware theft
- Organisational vulnerabilities: non-compliance with data privacy legislation, not prioritising the importance of cyber security.
What is the importance of vulnerability remediation for system security?
Vulnerability remediation is important for an organisation’s security because it empowers it to be proactive, rather than reactive, about mitigating cyber threats. Considering that the average time required to contain a data breach in 2022 was just shy of 280 days, it’s far more time and cost-effective to prevent data breaches and cyber threats than to attempt to contain them after the fact.
Worse, during the most severe cyber attacks, your company will have to revert to panic mode to contain the threat. This will distract your company from its core, revenue-generating activities – which only drives up the cost of the breach. Subsequently, vulnerability remediation helps ensure business continuity and can significantly reduce the impact of cyber attacks.
Vulnerability remediation also helps your company comply with your supply chain partners’ vendor risk management (VRM) strategy, which sees them secure third-party access to their systems and data. Conversely, you may require your third-party, and fourth-party (companies used by your suppliers) vendors to develop their own vulnerability remediation strategies as part of your efforts to reduce your supply chain risk.
Additionally, many of the policies and controls you’ll implement for vulnerability remediation will ensure your company complies with the regulatory requirements is subject to.
What are the normal steps to remediate a vulnerable system?
The four steps involved in the vulnerability remediation process are:
1. Identify: discovering the vulnerabilities within an organisation’s IT infrastructure;
2. Prioritise: determining which vulnerabilities pose the most risk and need to be remediated first;
3. Remediate: fixing the most important vulnerabilities;
4. Monitor: ongoing observation of the IT ecosystem to determine if the remediation strategy was effective – and scanning for new vulnerabilities.
What is the vulnerability remediation process?
Let’s turn our attention to the four stages of the vulnerability remediation process.
The first step in the vulnerability remediation process is identification, sometimes called discovery, during which security teams seek out vulnerabilities in their company’s network and infrastructure.
To achieve this, security teams must use vulnerability management tools such as static application security testing (SAST) tools, for analysing code; dynamic application security testing (DAST) tools, for web applications; software composition analysis (SCA) tools, for open source software; and other types of vulnerability scanners.
Vulnerability scanners are automated tools that use up-to-date vulnerability databases, containing known coding errors, software misconfigurations, weak security controls, and other common IT security gaps to identify CVEs (common vulnerabilities and exposures) within a company’s IT ecosystem.
In contrast, penetration testing, sometimes referred to as vulnerability testing, is a manual process that’s typically conducted by ethical hackers. Through methods like SQL injections and buffer overruns, ethical hackers exploit vulnerabilities in a controlled environment, i.e., a sandbox, where they can’t damage the company’s assets or security controls.
The identification stage may uncover so many vulnerabilities that remediating each would take considerable time. More importantly, some vulnerabilities pose a more significant security risk threat than others. Prioritising vulnerability remediation ensures your company has a robust cyber security posture that protects you from the most potentially catastrophic cyber threats, while you work on remediating the remaining, and newly discovered, vulnerabilities
Now that you’ve identified and prioritised the vulnerabilities within your IT infrastructure, your security teams can begin remediating them.
Common remediation measures include:
- Patch management, i.e., updating vulnerable software and systems.
- Fixing software and system configurations
- Disabling or removing vulnerable assets
Now, while a long-term fix for the vulnerability is preferable, sometimes, only a short-term one is possible and merely buys security teams a little time until more robust remediation measures become available
Lastly, organisations must monitor their implemented remediation measures to assess their efficacy. Additionally, security teams must consistently scan their infrastructure for new vulnerabilities – starting the vulnerability remediation process again.
Plus, many continuous monitoring platforms provide powerful reporting tools that help to detail patching documentation and other remediation strategies. These reports are indispensable for satisfying the auditing requirements for compliance with information security regulations like PCI-DSS and GDPR.
Examples of common vulnerabilities
Here are some of the most common vulnerabilities to watch out for during the remediation process.
An SQL injection is a technique that malicious actors use to gain administrative access to a database. By entering a SQL query into an input field, on a web form, for example, a hacker can manipulate a company’s database server and steal, alter, delete, or encrypt (for ransoming purposes) the potentially sensitive data within. A database is susceptible to SQL injections if it doesn’t validate the user input before processing the query.
Seeing as a large number, if not the majority, of websites are database-driven, SQL injections are a commonly detected and easily exploitable vulnerability. SQL injections are so prevalent and pernicious that the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) consistently features them as one of its top ten web application risks.
Cross-site scripting (XSS)
Cross-site scripting (XSS) is another injection-based cyber attack that allows hackers to inject malicious, browser-side scripts into websites. As with SQL injections, XSS sees hackers injecting malicious code into input fields, but instead of being insertion into a database, the code is placed into trusted forums, message boards, and other web pages.
Unpatched operating systems
It’s common knowledge among cybercriminals that many companies don’t update their operating systems (Oss) frequently; consequently, an unpatched OS provide the perfect entry point into your network for malicious actors. For a prominent, and pretty recent, example, look no further than the EternalBlue exploit, which targeted vulnerabilities in Windows XP, 7, Windows 8 (and 8.1), and 10, as well as Windows Server 2003, 2008, and 2012.
The EternalBlue exploit eventually led to the infamous WannaCry ransomware attack that affected over 300,000 devices across 150 countries, with total damages estimated to potentially be in the billions of dollars. Alarmingly, this vulnerability was still seen being exploited as recently as 2020!
How RiskXchange can help you address your vulnerabilities
Vulnerability remediation is a race against time. Someone will find the vulnerabilities within your IT infrastructure, but, the question is, will it be your security teams who find them first – or cybercriminals?
Our free, comprehensive attack surface assessment is the first step in your improved vulnerability remediation strategy. Contact us to start the process of strengthening your company’s cyber security posture.