Vulnerability Assessments: Definition, Types and Steps
By Indeed Editorial Team
Published July 21, 2021
The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.
In the information technology (IT) sector, it's important to perform regular reviews of systems to assess their functionality and security. One popular method of evaluating the security of an information system is through performing consistent vulnerability assessments. These assessments allow organizations to determine whether systems are susceptible to risks and design interventions for mitigating potential threats before they affect users or a system's integrity. In this article, we outline what a vulnerability assessment is, why they're important for organizations in the IT field, four main types and the six essential steps of running an effective vulnerability assessment.
What is a vulnerability assessment?
A vulnerability assessment is a way of identifying, understanding and remediating a system's vulnerabilities. The term vulnerabilities encompasses potential hazards, security risks, threats or other gaps that can negatively impact the functionality of a system. Through a vulnerability assessment, organizations can locate potential risks and mitigate them proactively. With this, these assessments are an integral part of disaster management procedures within a variety of industries. While vulnerability assessments can apply to any type of system, including transportation systems, water supply systems, communication systems and energy supply systems, they are most commonly conducted by professionals working with IT systems.
Most technology-based organizations include vulnerability assessments as a part of their overall risk management efforts. This is because vulnerability assessments are crucial for success within the IT field—there's a wide range of possibilities for risk available in IT systems, as they rely on a variety of components to function properly. For instance, vulnerability assessments performed on IT systems may pinpoint risks in multiple assets like computer networks, database systems, hardware, applications, software and other technological components. By performing regular vulnerability assessments, IT organizations can keep track of any gaps in systems, quantify potential risks, protect system functionality and maintain safety.
Why is a vulnerability assessment important?
Vulnerability assessments are important because they can provide valuable insight that may guide risk and security management practices. These assessments allow IT security teams to evaluate gaps and threats accurately. From here, such professionals can take the steps necessary to remediate risks identified by an assessment. This process can make a significant difference in the ability of an IT organization to offer users an adequate level of protection against data breaches and cyberattacks. Therefore, vulnerability assessments can offer organizations many key benefits, including:
Consistency: Vulnerability assessments can offer IT organizations a consistent approach to risk and security management. Many organizations that perform vulnerability assessments do so regularly as a part of their standard procedures.
**Early detection:** When IT organizations run vulnerability assessments consistently, they can provide a pathway for early detection of system gaps and risks. Being able to identify gaps early on can allow organizations to mitigate security issues before they tangibly impact systems or users.
****Protection:**** Increased protection is an essential benefit provided by vulnerability assessments. When IT organizations can easily locate gaps within systems, they can more efficiently reconfigure systems to obstruct data breaches and protect against unauthorized access.
****Comprehensiveness:**** Since vulnerability assessments can scan any number of assets within an IT organization for gaps, they can provide a more comprehensive method of identifying risks and security threats than alternative processes.
****Compliance:**** Organizations can use vulnerability assessments to more effectively adhere to cybersecurity regulations. This is especially beneficial for organizations with specific regulatory needs stipulated by legal standards like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).
Types of vulnerability assessments
There are various types of vulnerability assessments that offer specific functions related to the systems they evaluate. Here are the four primary types of vulnerability assessments outlined:
Organizations can run host assessments on critical servers, or those that contain or serve restricted data. This type of vulnerability assessment searches for gaps like insecure file permissions, bugs and backdoor installations. Due to the nature of the data they handle, these servers may be particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks if organizations don't consistently evaluate them.
Network and wireless assessment
Network and wireless assessments are those that evaluate a system's existing policies, practices and protections. The information gathered through these assessments can help organizations prevent unauthorized access to networks and the resources that users can obtain through network access. This type of vulnerability assessment locates any known gaps by analyzing data about all the systems operating on a network and what services are currently in use.
These assessments evaluate databases or systems that handle large quantities of data for vulnerabilities, misconfiguration and other gaps that may impact functionality or security. Database assessments may allow organizations to identify rogue data—or inaccurate, incomplete or inconsistent data—within systems. In addition, this type of vulnerability assessment may allow organizations to organize their data and classify it into sensitivity rankings for greater security.
Application scans can identify security gaps within web-based applications. Organizations may use this type of assessment to analyze the source code of any applications installed on their websites. This type of vulnerability assessment can help organizations keep applications updated and improve any weaknesses.
6 steps of a vulnerability assessment
Performing a vulnerability assessment can be a challenging task for novice IT professionals or new organizations working on integrating technological components. Despite this, though, you can perform vulnerability assessments can through a fairly straightforward process and optimize it over time to better meet particular organizational needs. Here are the six primary steps involved with running a vulnerability assessment:
1. Asset discovery
The first step in performing a vulnerability assessment is asset discovery, in which organizations can identify what system components it wants to scan. Organizations need to undergo asset discovery to gain a better understanding of their system's digital landscape. It's common for organizations to overlook assets like mobile devices, Internet of Things (IoT) objects and cloud-based infrastructure and how such assets contribute to a system's integrity.
2. Asset prioritization
With an inventory of existing assets, organizations can prioritize the evaluation of specific assets. While it can be beneficial to run an assessment on all assets, this isn't always financially feasible, especially for smaller organizations. When faced with prioritization decisions, organizations often choose to evaluate integral assets like internet-facing servers, employee devices, customer-facing applications and databases with highly sensitive information.
3. Vulnerability identification and testing
After an organization determines what assets to evaluate, it can begin vulnerability identification and testing procedures. Security analysts may test the security levels of servers, applications, devices and other assets through manual or automated methods. From these evaluations, analysts can gather data necessary for understanding system gaps.
4. Vulnerability analysis
With the data gathered through vulnerability testing, analysts can identify the source of specific vulnerabilities. Through this process, analysts may be able to detect the exact system components responsible for gaps. Understanding the cause of vulnerabilities can allow analysts to more easily establish a pathway toward remediation.
5. Risk assessment
After analysts have collected information about the sources of vulnerabilities, they can perform a risk assessment. Through this process, security analysts and risk managers can prioritize vulnerabilities by assigning them a severity score based on several factors. When ranking vulnerabilities, analysts may consider what systems are impacted, the type of data at risk, functionalities at risk, the potential for an attack and the damage that may result from a vulnerability.
With a clear prioritization of vulnerabilities, security professionals, operations team members and developers can collaborate on remediation efforts. This process focuses on ridding systems of security gaps. Organizations may choose to remediate vulnerabilities through solutions like introducing additional security measures, configuration changes or vulnerability patches.
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