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What is a Vulnerability Assessment?

Aug 24, 2021

Cybersecurity is important to businesses— especially those heavily reliant on technology—to operate more smoothly. One of the ways IT professionals determine the overall security of a business’s systems is by performing a vulnerability assessment, which determines where technological vulnerabilities lie and how they need to be dealt with. The vulnerability assessment can determine the severity of tech and data weaknesses, ranging from opportunities for a larger scale coding attack to smaller issues like weak passwords that are used across the company.

Without vulnerability assessments, businesses may leave themselves open to cyberattacks and a variety of other security issues that can shake public confidence and create financial woes. This is why well-trained IT professionals are crucial to the security and success of many of today’s top companies. Without a knowledgeable IT pro to properly conduct a vulnerability assessment, businesses can find themselves vulnerable to attack.

What Types of Vulnerability Assessments Are There?

While the end goal of a vulnerability assessment is always the same, there are different kinds of vulnerability assessments to help IT professionals locate problem areas. Some of these assessments include:

  • Host scans to identify vulnerabilities in critical servers, network hosts, and even workstations. This type of vulnerability scan will be critical in ensuring specific areas of your system aren't at risk.
  • Network vulnerability scans on both wired and wireless networks, to locate access vulnerabilities, security configurations, and vulnerabilities on systems linked to both networks.
  • Application scans to test source code, websites and web applications, and configurations of both network and web applications.
  • Database scans to spot insecure dev/test environments in data systems, weaknesses in the database that could lead to cyberattacks, and more.

Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Testing

A vulnerability assessment may include penetration testing, but the two are different processes. A penetration test is a simulated cyberattack against a computer system to find exploitable security vulnerabilities. It helps organizations manage risk, protect clients from data breaches, and increase business continuity. It also helps companies in highly regulated industries like banking, service, and healthcare stay compliant.

But penetration testing alone isn’t enough to determine vulnerabilities; while penetration testing often zeroes in on a focused or specific form of attack, a vulnerability scans on a larger scale to identify all vulnerabilities. This approach offers a more comprehensive and preventative approach to cybersecurity.

Vulnerability Assessment vs. Security Assessment

A security assessment includes a vulnerability assessment as part of its process, but the two approaches also have their differences. While a vulnerability assessment is an automated scan that offers a pinpointed look at system weaknesses, a security assessment identifies future issues along with current vulnerabilities. Security assessments are a more intensive and thorough form of scanning for vulnerabilities, using a manual approach to gain more detailed information.

Security assessments look for issues such as active directory misconfigurations, penetration accessibilities, poor mail hygiene, and more. Think of a vulnerability assessment as the overview of vulnerabilities throughout a system. A security assessment gets into the nitty gritty details of those vulnerabilities and where they live, while offering comprehensive information on how to solve those issues before they escalate.

What Tools Are Used for Vulnerability Assessments?

There are many valuable vulnerability assessment tools that IT professionals can use as a part of vulnerability management, including:

  • Network scanners that can identify issues such as spoofed packets, stray IP addresses, and more.
  • CMS web scans for applications such as Drupal, WordPress, and other like-minded programs.
  • Best scans for popular ports and most common ports best scan for 65,535 ports.
  • Full scans that can determine vulnerabilities to DDoS attacks and similar brute force attacks.
  • Protocol scanners that can identify weak spots in network services, protocols and ports.
  • Aggressive, firewall, stealth, and quick scans.
  • Web application scans that can simulate attack patterns and test for their penetrative abilities.

Vulnerability Assessment Methodology

A vulnerability assessment contains several steps to determine weaknesses. These steps are:

1. Initial Assessment

First, it’s important to identify and prioritize what needs to be tested, whether it’s a device, network, or another aspect of the company’s system. Once the asset, or assets, are identified, the IT professional needs to know who has access to the device or system and how often the device or system is accessed by those users. With this information, the IT professional can determine the appetite and tolerance level for risk associated with the network or device and determine mitigation and remediation for the associated vulnerabilities. They can also determine the impact those vulnerabilities can have on the business.

2. System Baseline Definition

The next step is to get more information about the device or system prior to starting the vulnerability assessment. This means learning more about open ports and processes, device configurations, approved drivers, and software that may or may not be installed. If possible, it’s also helpful to gain access to system or device logs that can share public information including where and how those logs are stored, vendor and version information, and more.

3. Vulnerability Scan

Then, it’s time to perform the scan. The vulnerability scanner may be an automated system or it may be a person conducting a manual process. Make sure to look for compliance requirements and optimal scheduling before starting the scan so there’s no down time. This may mean performing the scan in segments, but every situation is different. Scans can be configured as needed to determine the depth and breadth of the scan. The vulnerability scanner should also be aware of network security requirements, recent updates you've done, things you're concerned about hackers finding, and any open source code that could be at risk.

4. Vulnerability Assessment Report

Finally, a report will need to be created at the end of the scan. The report should offer as much detail on system or device vulnerabilities as possible, which can help determine the recommended steps to solve those vulnerabilities. These details should include the name and description of the vulnerability, the date it was located, a CVE (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures) score, and details on what systems are affected and how to correct the vulnerability. If possible, it’s helpful to provide a vulnerability proof of concept. This allows for mitigation, remediation, updates to vulnerability management, and improvements to the overall security system. 

Using this information, IT professionals can then offer more detailed recommendations on how to address the vulnerabilities, and help companies gain more understanding of their security capabilities and how to strengthen them. To learn more about how you can strengthen your IT skills to perform accurate vulnerability assessments, click here.

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