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These Are the Building Blocks of Effective Vulnerability Management

High-performing cybersecurity teams base their actions and investments on actual risk to the business — not theoretical scores or news headlines. 

If you're like most cybersecurity professionals I talk to, you're likely buried with more vulnerabilities than you can possibly handle, so you can't keep up with your organization's policies and service-level agreements (SLAs). You also likely have blind spots across some of the most dynamic areas of your network, including cloud assets, operational technology (OT) and web apps, leaving them vulnerable to attack.

If so, there's a Gartner research report that I think you'll find valuable: The Essential Elements of Effective Vulnerability Management.1

If you think about it, it's no secret that vulnerability management (VM) has become significantly more challenging over the past several years, for a variety of reasons:

  • There's been a nearly threefold increase in the number of new vulnerabilities discovered each year since 2016
  • The attack surface proceeds to expand beyond the means of legacy scanners, which weren't built for today's modern network environments 
  • Most organizations have historically relied upon the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) to prioritize their remediation efforts, but these theoretical scores lack the real-world context required to effectively prioritize what matters most

Vulnerability management, infrastructure and operations and application teams can solve this challenge by taking a risk-based approach to vulnerability management, enabling them to focus on the vulnerabilities and assets that matter most, so they can address the organization's risk instead of wasting their valuable time on vulnerabilities that have a low likelihood of being exploited.

Evolving to a risk-based approach requires several steps across a comprehensive lifecycle. These steps are:

  1. Discover: Determine and prioritize your business-critical services and applications, identifying service and application owners and other stakeholders, and establishing and evaluating existing security and applicable IT policies and processes. 
  2. Assess: Commit to a rigorous scanning program. You can't effectively defend what you can't see, so you have to regularly scan as much of your network as possible to eliminate critical blind spots. That means the breadth of scanning, as well as the frequency. Many organizations employing legacy VM methods scan monthly or less frequently. As a result, they're basing their remediation decisions on old, outdated information. 
  3. Prioritize: Understand your vulnerabilities in the context of business risk and use that data to prioritize your team's efforts, so you can focus on the vulnerabilities and assets that matter most. You'll need a vulnerability management platform that's capable of analyzing vulnerability data together with other essential contextual elements, such as asset criticality, threat intelligence or exploit availability. Of course, that means significantly more data to analyze — which simply isn't practical to do on your own. So your VM platform will need to employ automation and machine learning, so it's capable of rendering an accurate decision right away.
  4. Remediate: Don't try to remediate everything. First, determine if remediation is feasible, or if mitigation factors are needed to reduce or neutralize the threat exposure. If a low-severity vulnerability is on a non-critical asset, or remediation runs the risk of breaking critical processes, you may choose to accept the risk and take no action at all. When you do remediate, get agreement on your response plan before you take any action. And once you perform the remediation, validate its effectiveness before moving on to the next vulnerability.
  5. Measure: Develop a rich set of reporting and analysis tools to effectively communicate your team's efficiency, and gain and maintain management's confidence in your abilities. Once you have the right tools, work with the various security groups throughout your organization to develop common dashboards to ensure consistent reporting. 

Taking a risk-based approach to vulnerability management dramatically improves your team's efficiency and effectiveness by allowing you to focus on the vulnerabilities and assets that matter most. By cutting through the noise of every vulnerability across your attack surface and honing in on those that pose the most risk, your team is able to make the biggest impact on risk with the least amount of effort.

1Gartner, The Essential Elements of Effective Vulnerability Management, Shilpi Handa, October 5, 2020.

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