Vulnerability remediation is the process of finding, addressing, and neutralizing security vulnerabilities within an organization’s IT environment, which can include computers, digital assets, networks, web applications, and mobile devices.
Modern-day digital risk management and increasing data volumes significantly affect how organizations approach their vulnerability management process. Reports from the National Vulnerability Database state that CVEs (Common Vulnerability Exposure) in systems, networks, and devices have significantly increased since 2016, creating a cyber “playground” for threat actors and hackers.
Many organizations still do not have the proper measures, policies, and strategies to conduct efficient vulnerability remediation. Businesses struggle with remediation challenges, often using all their resources in the wrong areas and slowing down their systems.
This article will take a closer look at how businesses should approach the remediation of their vulnerabilities. The process consists of assessing the threat landscape, understanding risk tolerance, and implementing attack surface management strategies.
What is a Vulnerability?
A vulnerability is an exploitable weakness that exposes potential attack vectors to an organization’s cyberspace, IT infrastructure, software applications, and digital assets. Cybercriminals often exploit vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to an organization’s system, compromise the data, and steal valuable information.
After successfully exploiting a vulnerability, attackers can run malicious codes, install malware, access user accounts, and steal sensitive data. Cyber attackers often use many ways to exploit vulnerabilities, like SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), web shell attacks, and open-source exploit kits in a targeted system to find exploitable vulnerabilities.
Depending on the IT infrastructure and organization, vulnerabilities can be broken down into multiple categories:
- Hardware vulnerabilities
- Software vulnerabilities
- Network vulnerabilities
- Personnel vulnerabilities
- Physical site vulnerabilities
What Does Remediation Mean in Cybersecurity?
Remediation is the process of neutralizing or eliminating active vulnerabilities or security risks, which limits the potential damage a vulnerability can do to operating systems.
In contrast to remediation, which focuses on addressing potential weak spots in an IT ecosystem, mitigation is the process of limiting a threat’s potential impact rather than directly removing it.
How Does Vulnerability Remediation Work?
Remediating vulnerabilities involves fixing and neutralizing potential security issues through the organization’s risk assessment process. An organized remediation procedure can significantly reduce the chance of data loss, data breaches, DDoS attacks, malware, and phishing.
Remediation efforts should be a cross-functional collaboration between an organization’s development, operations, compliance, risk management, and security teams, who decide on a cost-effective path to fixing each vulnerability.
Modern vulnerability remediation incorporates innovative new data science methods, threat intelligence, and automated predictive algorithms that help organizations determine and prioritize the most important vulnerabilities for remediation.
The current process for remediation steps includes the following:
- Finding or identifying vulnerabilities via scanning software
- Prioritizing vulnerabilities according to their risk levels, starting from the highest to the lowest
- Directly neutralizing the vulnerability until it poses minimal or no risk to systems.
- Active monitoring of the systems, devices, and networks regularly -- includes using software with real-time features that alert teams of newly discovered vulnerabilities
The first step of vulnerability remediation is to find vulnerabilities like inadequate code and software misconfiguration. More common software vulnerabilities include poorly implemented authentication processes or security controls.
For example, some organizations still use single-factor authentication, an easily exploitable weakness for most cyber attackers, compared to the significantly more secure multi-factor authentication method.
Security teams must conduct regular scans for new vulnerabilities on a consistent schedule. The latest vulnerability management software uses a “shift-left” DevSecOps (development and security operations) check. The term “shift left” refers to the testing principles of DevOps, discovering and fixing bugs and vulnerabilities from the beginning of the development cycle and applying the best security practices.
This has proven an excellent approach for thorough vulnerability scanning, saving time and resources because the developers won’t have to remember what they did with the code.
For a streamlined vulnerability test, organizations should use the following:
- Open-source vulnerability scanners
- Predictive algorithms and data science software
- Real-time threat intelligence
- White-box static application security (SAST) tools
- Black-box dynamic application security tools
- Software composition analysis (SCA) tools
Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing
While vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are both important for network security, companies often interchangeably use these terms due to their close similarities in vulnerability assessment.
Vulnerability scans are automated testing processes that monitor and assess applications, systems, and networks for known vulnerabilities or CVEs. By using a database of coding flaws and misconfigurations, organizations can generate thousands of reports identifying possible vulnerabilities, which is required for specific compliance standards like PCI-DSS or GLBA.
While vulnerability scans work via automation, penetration testing is a manual method of vulnerability assessment. Penetration testing, or vulnerability testing, is a detailed, hands-on examination process conducted by an ethical hacker. By using hacking tools like SQL injection, password crackers, and buffer overrun tools, hackers can simulate exploiting weaknesses in a system to identify and resolve them. Ethical hackers can discover ways to steal data in a controlled sandbox environment without damaging security controls.
All vulnerabilities have a level of risk impact, ranked from critical to low. A good vulnerability management program can identify and prioritize vulnerabilities, sorted by considerations of severity, resolvability, and coverage. Implementing a risk-based approach in prioritizing vulnerabilities helps IT and DevOps remediation teams work together, optimize resources, and target the correct vulnerabilities.
Most vulnerability management programs have skilled remediation teams with insight into contextual risk-based prioritization that can easily focus the organization’s resources. That allows the entity to efficiently use the resources to treat the most important vulnerabilities before others.
Almost 80% of found vulnerabilities are false positives, and the other 20% present a low risk. However, there is a minuscule but dangerous percentage of high-severity risk vulnerabilities that can severely impact an organization negatively.
One of the important KPIs (key performance indicators) of a vulnerability management program is how many high-risk vulnerabilities are remediated before critical systems and assets are affected. Organizations must prioritize their found vulnerabilities by determining risk scores based on vulnerability databases, academic analyses, and threat intelligence data sources.
Risk-based vulnerability management (RBVM) prioritizes vulnerability on granular internal and external threats, vulnerability data, and the organization’s own risk tolerance.
When a vulnerability is flagged as an acceptable cybersecurity risk, the IT team needs to decide what to do with it:
- Remediate - Resolve the vulnerability and make sure it cannot be exploited.
- Mitigate - Minimize the risk exposure of a vulnerability, and reduce the chance of it being exploited.
- Accept - Ignore the vulnerability if the risk level is minimal or deemed not necessary to patch or resolve.
The third step in the vulnerability remediation process is to fix or neutralize weaknesses via patching, upgrading, updating, disabling, or entirely removing inactive components.
The affected vulnerability that typically needs to be patched is a software component, which can be a challenging step, as deploying patches is costly and time-consuming. Patches and upgrades are supplied by software vendors or a company’s IT department, and it can take time before the right solution for the corresponding vulnerability is prepared.
- Automated updates and patching
- Patch management tools like Microsoft’s SCCM (System Center Configuration Manager)
- Manual updating is a last-resort effort but is otherwise essential for resolving vulnerabilities with cascading dependencies between security controls.
Additionally, a business may be required to shut down systems and networks entirely during the patch deployment. In some cases, fixing a weakness includes buying time via updating software and service configurations, which may be the best solution until a proper patching method is ready for deployment.
Once all identified vulnerabilities are remediated, security teams must facilitate continuous, real-time network monitoring, data logging, exporting of vulnerability data, and scanning for new potential vulnerabilities. Organizations can use monitoring tools and software to be able to respond quickly, including an alert and notification system.
Many monitoring tools and software also offer an in-depth, contextualized prioritization. These tools also help with the first two steps: identifying vulnerabilities and prioritizing the vulnerabilities’ risk severity levels.
Sometimes, multiple monitoring sessions may yield different results, leading to restarts of the testing process, where security teams repeatedly scour the system for vulnerabilities. More importantly, proper monitoring software can also provide detailed patching documentation and compliance reports, which can also help an organization comply with regulatory standards.
How Can Organizations Improve Their Vulnerability Remediation Process?
To improve the vulnerability remediation process, organizations should employ the following strategies to improve their security:
Vulnerability Management Solutions
Organizations should consider implementing vulnerability management solutions that offer an efficient self-service environment for the DevOps and IT security teams to work together and save time and resources.
Many vulnerability management systems function based on the best remediation practices. Modern vulnerability assessment software combines remediation intelligence programs, risk-based vulnerability management, and contextually-based threat prioritization.
They can even use customized lists tailored to a company’s needs, which help eliminate guesswork, making it easier for the teams to understand the “which, why, and how” of resolving vulnerabilities.
Organizations without vulnerability management software can optimize their vulnerability remediation process by regularly patching their components, updating their software and operational dynamics, and implementing a strong configuration management process.
Implementing Vulnerability Metrics and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
A company can protect its sensitive data, prevent data breaches, and detect cyber attacks by following a checklist using specific KPI metrics. Common vulnerability scoring systems can track progress by measuring the following:
- Overall progress (percentage of resolved vulnerabilities)
- Efficiency (success rate of remediation of high-risk vulnerabilities)
- Velocity (how quickly vulnerabilities are remediated)
- Capacity (time spent fixing vulnerabilities & approximating the net gain or loss)
Deploying Tools for Reporting
While risk scores and metrics help security teams understand vulnerability remediation, an organization must have suitable tools and software to communicate and report vulnerability priorities.
The proper reporting software can show a detailed list of the progress of vulnerability remediation teams to executives, staff, employees, and compliance auditors. This will ensure everyone is on the same page regarding decision-making and understanding what can be done in the future to reduce the attack surface and potential vulnerabilities.