As technology continues to be more integrated into our personal and professional lives, it’s essential to ensure that our systems are secure. Unfortunately, malicious hackers often seek to exploit vulnerabilities in computer systems for their gain. Several high-profile security breaches of major corporations in recent years attest to this fact. In response, businesses and individuals alike need to be proactive in protecting their data and devices through the use of vulnerability assessments.
What is a vulnerability assessment?
A vulnerability assessment is a comprehensive evaluation of an organization’s computer security to identify security gaps or weaknesses that could be exploited by hackers. Vulnerability assessments help businesses comprehensively assess their security standing and determine the likelihood of a breach in their system.
A typical vulnerability assessment involves a review of an organization’s physical security, network security, and software security. The process often includes a combination of tests, including vulnerability scans, penetration testing, and vulnerability assessments.
Vulnerability scans are automated tests that probe an organization’s network or computer systems to identify known vulnerabilities. The results of these scans are typically presented as a report detailing the results of the scan, along with any recommended remediation steps.
Penetration testing is a more in-depth security test that involves the testing of an organization’s computer systems to identify vulnerabilities that haven’t been identified by vulnerability scans. Penetration tests are more comprehensive than vulnerability scans and typically provide a more detailed report, including recommended remediation steps.
Lastly, vulnerability assessments can provide a thorough evaluation of an organization’s security posture to assess the likelihood and impact of a security breach. This involves an analysis of the organization's systems, policies, and procedures to identify areas of weakness that can be exploited by hackers.
Why are vulnerability assessments important?
The primary goal of a vulnerability assessment is to identify potential security risks and vulnerabilities in an organization’s network, software, hardware, and operational procedures. These assessments also help identify potential threats and the measures necessary to protect the assets from future attacks.
Through vulnerability assessments, companies can identify weaknesses in their security posture before they are exploited by cybercriminals, while also identify the suitable steps to remediate found security vulnerabilities.
Additionally, conducting vulnerability assessments helps businesses to ensure they’re adhering to industry and regulatory compliance standards. Many compliance requirements favor vulnerability assessments, and some even require them. For instance, PCI (Payment Card Industry) requires yearly vulnerability assessment scans to validate an organization's PCI compliance.
Case studies of the risks associated with a lack of vulnerability assessments
Examples of organizations that have failed to conduct thorough vulnerability assessments and who have subsequently suffered massive data breaches or attacks include Equifax, Target, Capital One, and Anthem (Blue Cross-Blue Shield).
The personal information of more than 145 million Americans was breached in the Equifax data breach, the largest breach of personal information in U.S. history. Hackers took advantage of a known vulnerability in Apache Struts that the company had failed to patch, highlighting the critical role that vulnerability assessments can play in ensuring that known vulnerabilities are remedied.
In the Target data breach, hackers used stolen credentials to gain access to the company’s system through its network of vendors. It was later discovered that Target had failed to segregate its network to limit access to vulnerable systems, again highlighting just how important it is to identify potential risks before security threats occur.
In the Capital One data breach, a former employee of the AWS cloud computing company allegedly hacked into Capital One’s database using a known vulnerability in Capital One’s web application firewall. The attacker then accessed the personally identifiable information of roughly 100 million customers and applicants. The Capital One case underscores the importance of vulnerability assessments beyond just a company’s computer systems or network.
In Anthem’s case, a data breach resulted in the personal information of 80 million policyholders and former policyholders being stolen by attackers. The breach was the result of an advanced persistent threat malware attack, which the organization did not identify until after the attackers had gained access to the system. Subsequent investigations revealed that Anthem had failed to implement multi-factor authentication on all of its remote access channels, once again underscoring the importance of conducting thorough vulnerability assessments.
In today’s digital ecosystem, vulnerability assessments can help organizations minimize the risk of cyber attacks from hackers, data loss, and reputational damages. A thorough vulnerability assessment, executed in consultation with an experienced cybersecurity firm, is an essential step to ensure that a business’s system is secure and satisfies industry compliance standards. Ultimately, custom analyses and remediation practices based on the findings of comprehensive vulnerability assessments can help create a layer of protection that is tailored to a business’s vulnerability profile and thereby secure confidence in their security standing.