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Blog 4 min read

Vulnerability Management: Process, Life Cycle, and Best Practices

by Emily Heaslip Published Aug 24, 2021

Vulnerability management is a full-time occupation. This cybersecurity function is iterative and involves constant monitoring, documentation, and review. 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 life cycle, and best practices to implement at your organization.

What is vulnerability management?

Vulnerability management is a program that 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. 

“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. Vulnerability management includes prioritizing limited IT resources to focus on vulnerabilities with the highest level of risk. Likewise, 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 life cycle

The vulnerability management life cycle is a graphic that 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. Here’s what the vulnerability management life cycle looks like: 

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.

Discover

Create and maintain an asset directory. This step involves inventorying all assets, including operating systems, open services, hardware, and software including current versions and existing patches. Develop a baseline against which new vulnerabilities can be discovered. Regularly revisit this inventory to include new assets (e.g., new devices or software) and update as needed. 

Prioritize

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 most core business functions should be at the top of the list. 

Assess

Next, create a baseline risk profile and determine exposure levels for each specific vulnerability. 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

“Set remediation priorities according to risk and exposure levels. For example, a low-risk advisory that applies to one or two internally facing servers likely does not require the same level of urgency as a high-risk advisory that affects all laptops and desktops,” explained the CDC.

Where can 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: 

Report

Next, create a security plan for your assets according to the risks and their level of importance. Document the steps you will take to remediate known vulnerabilities, monitor suspicious activity, or lower risk to your overall system. 

Remediate

Take action! Implement your security plan and fix vulnerabilities according to business risk. 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.

Verify

The final phase in the vulnerability management life cycle is verifying that the measures you have taken to eliminate or reduce the threat have been successful. This is not a single-step process: rather, 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. 

Vulnerability management best practices 

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.

Other vulnerability management best practices include recruiting buy-in from senior leadership; allocating sufficient resources to patching and monitoring threats; and communicating potential threats across the organization to mitigate human error. Good documentation is key: recording incidents and patches along the way help teams continuously improve and monitor weaknesses for potential hacks. 

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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