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Blog 4 min read

5 Stages of the Vulnerability Management Process

by Emily Heaslip Published Oct 26, 2022

The threat landscape in IT is ever-evolving, with new risks arising practically daily. Trying to anticipate the next type of threat can feel a little like playing whack-a-mole. Instead, IT teams are focusing on vulnerability management: reducing the opportunities for hackers and other bad actors to find a weakness in cyber defenses. 

[Read more: Vulnerability Management: Process, Life Cycle, and Best Practices

Vulnerability management is an iterative process that allows companies to proactively defend valuable assets, no matter how the threat landscape changes. Vulnerability management usually takes place in five stages, which are repeated as often as possible across devices, platforms, and networks.

What is vulnerability management?

Vulnerability management addresses common cybersecurity weaknesses in an organization’s IT software, hardware, and systems. These vulnerabilities can be exploited by hackers, government-sponsored groups, unhappy employees, and other bad actors online. 

Vulnerability management requires identifying, fixing, and tracking security weaknesses such as misconfigurations of hardware and software; insider threats; poorly designed IAM practices and controls; and gaps in business processes.

Some IT teams define vulnerability management narrowly and seek to patch or reconfigure insecure settings. This is a key element of vulnerability management: proactively managing the defenses you’ve set up to prevent a data leak. However, vulnerability management encompasses a bigger mindset, too. It’s a disciplined process that requires continual discovery and remediation. Vulnerability management is a process, rather than a task.

Vulnerability management follows a set of steps to identify, close, and track security weaknesses. There are also many resources dedicated to defining vulnerabilities that IT teams can use throughout the process. Try the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) to start.

The vulnerability management process

The vulnerability management process can vary from organization to organization. In some companies, the process is four steps or six. Generally, however, experts use five stages to continuously monitor for weaknesses in your tech stack and to protect data from exfiltration.

Step 1: Assess your IT environment

The first step in the vulnerability management process is to create a list of assets that should regularly be scanned for weaknesses. Inventory and assess your operating systems, cloud programs, open services, hardware, and software, including current versions and existing patches.

This step may require multiple approaches. A tool like Nightfall can be configured to scan your cloud environments, including IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS platforms. With more than 100 detectors, Nightfall automatically scans for routing numbers, taxpayer IDs, ICD codes, and more within your cloud apps. It can discover, classify, and protect data leveraging machine learning, quickly escalating instances where your data may be at risk.

For legacy IT, you might need a network-based solution. Connect all endpoints to the same network and use a tool that queries those devices and then conducts a scan. There are limitations to this approach; some IT teams break down the assessment step into isolated scans that investigate a portion of the network at a time.

Step 2: Prioritize vulnerabilities

Once you have received the results of your scan and can clearly tell where there are weaknesses in your assets and systems, determine where to start remediating the situation. There are three steps you can take to prioritize your vulnerabilities.

  1. Assign value: Group assets together, depending on how critical they are to your business operations. Assign a business value to each group based on their level of importance.
  2. Gauge the threat level: What’s the threat exposure of each asset? For instance, you may determine that your company mobile devices are both unlocked and subject to frequent phishing attempts. Rate the level of risk across your asset groups.
  3. Add context: The business context should also be a key consideration in your vulnerability management process. For instance, hardware and software that support your core business functions should be at the top of the list.

With this information, you can determine which critical IT assets are at the highest level of risk, and prioritize vulnerability management to ensure business continuity.

Step 3: Take action

When you spot an issue, take corrective action as soon as possible. Remediation typically includes activities such as updating hardware or software, applying patches, updating configurations to be more secure, or isolating vulnerable systems to protect other critical components. It may also mean deactivating certain user accounts, providing updated employee training, or adding new technology to take on some of the manual tasks required by the IT team.

Step 4: Check your work

Did the action you take actually remedy the problem? Re-scan your IT environment using the same method as Step 1 to see if your solution is working. If there are new issues around the same assets, you may need to go back and check your work.

Ideally, you’ll find tools that automatically scan your environments no matter where you are in the vulnerability management process. You can set up Nightfall to continuously scan your environment and flag any issues that may arise. Get alerts when data is potentially exposed and notify users to take corrective action. Schedule scans for all your cloud applications, configure custom notifications, and review violations in a single pane of glass.

Step 5: Report and improve

Lastly, create a log of the security issues you resolved and the patches you made to correct those issues. This can be helpful for audits and compliance, as well as to give your team the metrics it needs to improve. Good documentation is key: recording incidents and patches along the way help teams continuously monitor weaknesses for potential hacks.

Getting started with vulnerability management

Vulnerability management is a central component of cybersecurity. This important process is actionable, repeatable, and measurable. Tools like Nightfall can help automate this practice, so it functions with little effort on behalf of the IT team.

Nightfall’s AI-powered DLP software can scan for threats, prevent unwarranted access, and protect your data via your network, devices, and storage. Nightfall leverages machine learning to scan both structured and unstructured data and its surrounding context with high levels of accuracy. This takes the burden off IT and security teams to manually monitor for vulnerabilities.

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