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Blog 5 min read

Vulnerability Management Lifecycle, Process, and Best Practices

by Emily Heaslip Published Aug 24, 2021

The vulnerability management lifecycle reflects the fact that cyber defense is a full-time occupation. Vulnerability management should be iterative, with constant monitoring, documentation, and review of your organization’s security protocols and defense. From updating your software to recording new patches, vulnerability management is a constant process that benefits from automated tools like Nightfall

Here’s how vulnerability management works, the ins and outs of the vulnerability management lifecycle, and best practices to implement at your organization.

Background: What is a vulnerability?

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

“A vulnerability requires three elements: a system weakness, an intruder’s access to the weakness, and the intruder’s ability to exploit the weakness using a tool or technique,” explained the CDC Data Security branch.

There are a few different types of vulnerabilities that hackers seek to take advantage of, according to Thomson Reuters. These include:

  • Unsecured configurations or misconfigurations of IT hardware and software
  • Gaps in business processes
  • Insider threat due to lack of training and awareness
  • Poorly designed user controls 
  • Design, implementation, or other vendor oversights

Vulnerability management programs define a process to identify, close, and track these types of security weaknesses. 

The vulnerability management lifecycle

Vulnerability management includes prioritizing limited IT resources to focus on vulnerabilities with the highest level of risk.  Vulnerability management requires constant monitoring and regular reassessment of IT assets to make sure protections are up-to-date against the latest threats. 

The vulnerability management lifecycle lays out how an organization identifies, prioritizes, and remediates weaknesses. It illustrates the vulnerability management process in an easy-to-digest format that lays the groundwork for a more in-depth vulnerability management program. 

[Read more: 5 Stages of the Vulnerability Management Process

There are many different designs demonstrating the key steps of the vulnerability management lifecycle, but every representation includes the same five essential activities. 

Source: Gartner

As the cycle illustrates, vulnerability management is iterative and ongoing. This is because new vulnerabilities are regularly identified, and those vulnerabilities that have been previously flagged may continue to present a security threat. 

The steps in the vulnerability management process are outlined as follows.

Assess and discover

Key activities: identify assets; create an inventory; regularly update your inventory; initial vulnerability scan. 

In this phase, create and maintain an asset inventory. Your inventory should include all operating systems, cloud programs, open services, hardware, and software, including current versions and existing patches. Try to crack down on shadow IT as much as possible by regularly updating this inventory. 

This step also involves scanning for existing vulnerabilities. The first time you go through the vulnerability management lifecycle, develop a baseline against which new weaknesses can be discovered. The risk profile should account for asset criticality, vulnerability threat, and asset classification. You can determine exposure levels for specific vulnerabilities by researching published risk ratings. Regularly revisit this inventory to include new assets (e.g., new devices or software) and update as needed. 

Prioritize 

Key activities: assign value; gauge levels of risk; consider the threat context and business continuity needs

In this step, 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. Hardware and software that support your core business functions should be at the top of the list. 

Prioritizing vulnerabilities helps your IT team work productively. “One of the most common ways to fail at VM is by simply sending a report with thousands of vulnerabilities to the operations team to fix,” wrote Gartner. “Successful VM programs leverage advanced prioritization techniques and automated workflow tools to streamline the handover to the team responsible for remediation.” 

Take action 

Key activities: remediate, mitigate, and deactivate

When you spot an issue, take corrective action as soon as possible by fixing your security weakness, managing user access permissions, or adding new software to help address a persistent threat. Remediation options typically include updating hardware or software, applying patches, updating configurations to be more secure, or isolating vulnerable systems to protect other critical components. 

Managing threats 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. Follow the principle of least privilege (PoLP) to ensure that only users who need regular access to files, platforms, and devices have it. 

Verify your work

Key activities: rescan and test your work

Verify that measures you have taken to eliminate or reduce a threat have been successful. 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. This is not a single-step process; organizations should scan and assess their environments regularly. 

“New installs or changes to an organization’s IT environment may leave specific network elements, servers, laptops, or other devices unprotected from known vulnerabilities. For example, some updates may inadvertently remove previously applied patches or change secure settings,” wrote Thomson Reuters

This is where a tool like Nightfall can prove invaluable. Nightfall’s AI-powered DLP software can scan for threats, prevent unwarranted access, and identify nefarious attacks to 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 constantly monitor and manually look for vulnerabilities. 

Report and improve

Key activities: document your work; report any incidents; implement business continuity as needed

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 can help teams continuously monitor weaknesses for potential hacks.

Next, create or update a security plan for your assets according to the risks and their level of importance. If there was a breach of any sort, start implementing your business continuity plan to recover your data and lock down your defenses.  

Vulnerability management best practices 

Revisit your vulnerability management lifecycle often to find ways to improve your processes. The threat landscape is constantly evolving; it’s worth checking to see if your scanning tools and remediation techniques are equipped to find and fix the latest security risks. In addition, consider some of these vulnerability management best practices.

Follow a framework

There are a number of tools and frameworks that can help organizations improve vulnerability management. The NIST Cybersecurity Framework is a comprehensive tool that can help an IT team set up and customize vulnerability management effectively. OWASP has a similar toolkit designed to walk IT professionals through the details of the vulnerability management process.

Don’t forget the human element of vulnerability management

Many security weaknesses are the result of human error. As a result, it’s important to equip your colleagues and senior leaders with basic information about vulnerability management. Recruit buy-in from senior leadership to allocate sufficient resources for patching and monitoring threats. Communicate potential risks to help employees spot and prevent some of the most common types of security threats

Prioritize wisely

The second phase of the vulnerability management lifecycle can often be the most confusing — and critical — step in the process. IT teams faced with a variety of competing priorities and levels of risk may struggle to determine where to start remediations. 

Fortunately, there are resources to help you find specific vulnerabilities and risk ratings.  In addition to joining various industry groups online, there are resources issued by international groups and industry analysts. Try reports from groups such as: 

These resources, combined with your company’s specific business priorities, can help you design an approach that satisfies security and operations.

Vulnerability management is part of a holistic approach to security

Ultimately, it’s important to treat vulnerability management as one facet of a comprehensive information security program. This important process is actionable, repeatable, and measurable: and by automating the monitoring function with machine learning, IT teams can stay on top of vulnerabilities with little effort. 

Learn more about how Nightfall can keep your information secure by scheduling a demo at the link below.

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