web safety and antivirus 3D conceptMaintaining cybersecurity is a critical component of any business model, and most companies take steps to protect their proprietary and consumer data from cyberattacks. Traditionally, the evolution of cybersecurity has been reactionary, evolving in response to successful attacks after data has already been stolen. As data breaches become more common and attacks more sophisticated, the business world has come to recognize the need for a more proactive approach to risk mitigation.

For new businesses trying to determine their IT network security needs or established companies that wish to keep their security measures up to date, performing a vulnerability assessment is one of the most powerful tools available when attempting to protect sensitive data.

What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?

A vulnerability assessment is exactly what it sounds like. Companies put their systems through a comprehensive evaluation to determine if there are any security weaknesses that can be exploited or create a risk for data loss. The assessment should be performed to help guide security decisions for new enterprises, any time a system experiences significant changes or additions and on a periodic basis to consider new criminal tactics or changing environmental factors. There are several options available to identify information security vulnerabilities, and businesses can attempt to perform the assessments themselves using web applications, hire outside help or take a blended approach.

Benefits of Vulnerability Analysis

Performing regular vulnerability assessments will provide a business with far-reaching benefits that go beyond updated security measures. Companies that examine their systems closely will have a better understanding of how those systems work, granting them the ability to react quickly and effectively if a breach does occur. Reducing the risk of exploitation will also have a positive financial impact, saving the company money by eliminating outdated security measures and protecting revenue by preventing the negative reputation that comes when unauthorized access is discovered. The assessment can also ensure your organization is compliant with any regulatory requirements, such as HIPAA or PCI DSS, and will provide a baseline to which future assessment results can be compared. Finally, the measures put in place in response to the vulnerability assessment can help your company avoid going off-line due to a cyberattack and help protect your data from competitors.

How Is a Vulnerability Assessment Conducted?

Before an assessment can be scheduled, it’s important to have a conversation with the stakeholders who may be affected, such as management, board members, the IT department, your security team or anyone else in a relevant position. This is an opportunity to discuss the size and scope of the vulnerability assessment process, identifying all the systems that will be included and determining when and how often the vulnerability scans should take place. Since some portions of the assessment may require certain systems to go off-line, communicating with any stakeholders who use those systems is critical to limit any disruption to their productivity. This is also the time to discuss whether the company will conduct its assessments in-house using vulnerability assessment tools or choose to outsource them. Then you can begin working through the five basic vulnerability assessment steps.

1. Identify Assessment Targets

When prioritizing elements to be included in the assessments, start with parts of the system that contain sensitive data, the systems that are most critical to daily operations and any known vulnerabilities such as points of access. If your company relies heavily on mobile devices to conduct business or stores data on the cloud, these areas will need to be included in your assessment plan.

2. Conduct Scans and Testing

Scans can be conducted using an automated vulnerability scanner or manually by professional security analysts. Open source vulnerability scanning tools are available for companies with a tight budget. The scanner is simply a program that takes inventory of any systems within your network, such as desktops, printers, servers and firewalls. It then determines the operating system for each device along with any installed software. Once it’s mapped out your network, it will begin testing the system by checking everything inventoried against known vulnerability databases. This will help identify any common vulnerabilities, like viruses and malware, that will need to be addressed.

The next step is penetration testing. While vulnerability scans can help identify known security risks that are common to a particular system component, OS or software, a penetration test will actively test for weaknesses and misconfigurations created within your organization’s particular setup. These vulnerabilities will be unique to your system and are a product of how the various components interact with one another.

3. Perform a Full Analysis

Once you’ve completed your scans and tests, you’ll be left with a list of areas that need to be addressed. If this is your first risk assessment, the list is likely to be long and overwhelming. This is the point when your vulnerabilities must be analyzed for potential exploitation risk and prioritized by threat level. Determine how easily each flaw can be exploited and the damage to your company and customers should a breach occur. This is also the time to identify any false positives in your assessment results. Sometimes assessment tools will identify a security threat that either isn’t there or is insignificant. Although identifying tiny threats can seem like a more thorough approach, it can become a waste of time and effort when there are larger network security issues that must be addressed.

4. Implement Remediation

This is the vulnerability management phase of the process. Work through your prioritized list and identify the source of each vulnerability along with the action needed to correct it. Sometimes this can be as simple as updating your OS or software. Other times it may require the addition of security tools or a change in security protocols. Focus on the most urgent vulnerabilities first and weigh the cost and downtime of the resolution against the threat level the flaw presents.

5. Schedule Your Next Assessment

Vulnerability assessments must be repeated on a regular basis to keep up with evolving cybersecurity trends. You should have already determined how often your organization will conduct the assessments, so now is the time to schedule your assessments accordingly. This can be done as often as you’d like, but you’ll get the most benefit if you conduct them weekly or monthly. Keep in mind that scheduling them less than once per quarter increases network vulnerability and puts your organization at serious risk for data loss. Continue to work through your assessments and address new vulnerabilities as they arise to ensure your system is most protected from the threat of malicious actors.