How to Integrate Threat and Vulnerability Management into Security Operations

In today’s cybersecurity threat landscape with its ever-growing volume of incidents, it is remarkable to think that proactive threat and vulnerability management remains a challenge for companies to address effectively. Organizations are adopting threat exposure management techniques to manage business risks stemming from developing and applying technology such as Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, quantum computing and augmented reality. Vulnerability management practices represent the most common method to proactively limit exposure to damaging cyber breaches and exploits resulting from these technology adoptions.

A well-designed vulnerability management program provides enterprise transparency into publicly known vulnerabilities, weaknesses and misconfigurations, which are then prioritized for remediation based on possible business impact and likelihood of successful exploitation. Ideally, the program’s output is then passed on to operational technology and security teams to apply security patches to known vulnerabilities, which in directly reduces business cybersecurity risk.

Organizations often struggle, however, to integrate threat and vulnerability management programs into security operations. Without proper integration, there is significantly greater risk of leaving critical vulnerabilities exposed to cyberattacks such as data theft or ransomware.

Following are some of the common challenges preventing the proper integration of vulnerability management programs into security operations:

Lack of full visibility into the environment
For vulnerability management programs to effectively reduce risk, organizations must have visibility into the systems and applications that exist within their technology environment. After all, it’s not possible to patch, remediate or protect something that’s not visible.

Lack of appropriate scanning technologies and scan misconfigurations
Identifying critical exploitable vulnerabilities on time is crucial to bridging security gaps effectively and reducing the unprotected attack surface. Behaviors and actions creating security gaps and cause visibility issues include not deploying appropriate scanning tools across the enterprise, not validating the scanning coverage against a defined and often centralized asset inventory on a regular basis, and/or scanning misconfigurations (like running unauthenticated scans) — any of which could result in inaccurate vulnerability reporting.

Conflicting goals between IT and security teams
Conflicting goals often create friction between IT and security teams making proper vulnerability and patch management difficult.

IT’s success is often measured in technology uptime, which is negatively impacted when systems or applications require scheduled remediation which requires application maintenance windows to apply patches or changes. Consequently, security teams responsible for safeguarding organizations’ systems and protecting data may not be granted the necessary time and resources to apply changes or patches to protect business-critical technologies.

Too much to handle
Large networks can have hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of vulnerabilities. Many organizations struggle to appropriately visualize, analyze and prioritize vulnerabilities when identified by vulnerability management tools. This can result in limiting the scope and avoiding necessary actions to address the most critical security remediations which remain unfixed while less important updates are remediated.

Lag time between vulnerability scans
For most organizations, vulnerability scans are executed outside of core business hours, typically once per week. However, there is a lag between the identification of a positive vulnerability and the next vulnerability scan that creates a visibility gap for security teams. In the typical one-week period between regular scans, a security team often is unable to verify that a patch has been applied successfully, and therefore must assume that the host is still vulnerable. Unfortunately, newly discovered critical vulnerabilities often are rapidly weaponized, and a week may be too long for potentially exploitable security gaps to remain unaddressed This visibility gap often leaves security teams uncertain of the validity of their security controls.

To overcome these common challenges and receive the most value out of a threat and vulnerability management program, organizations must consider how to incorporate vulnerability management into their overall security operations strategy. Start by following these best practices:

Maintain an asset inventory. For any organization to assess and understand its risks, it first must understand the current technology landscape. Companies should maintain an up-to-date asset inventory or configuration management database and regularly compare it to the scope of their vulnerability management program. Any differences between the asset inventory and scanning scope should be addressed quickly to reduce or remove visibility gaps. For example, systems such as hardware can be missed during network-based scans (rather than agent-based) since the scans occur off-hours and many laptops are off the network during this time. This is especially true in the work-from-home (WFH) environment that has resulted with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leverage threat intelligence to prioritize remediations. Companies should research threats and indicators of compromise (IOCs) most common to their industry and correlate these to corresponding vulnerabilities. Organizations should start by focusing on the vulnerabilities that may be most accessible to outside attackers — typically, the external-facing systems and demilitarized zone (DMZ) are the most easily targeted, while systems accessible to only the internal network may require an attacker to bypass several layers of security first.

Organizations can then map known vulnerabilities to risk frameworks such as MITRE ATT&CK, and organize these in attack “chains” that demonstrate how attackers may leverage multiple lower criticality issues to gain access. These mappings help companies determine the true criticality of vulnerabilities. Additionally, the security team can use threat hunting to determine if critical vulnerabilities have been exploited in the environment prior to the vulnerability being identified and remediated.

Apply automation. Embracing security automation can help organizations minimize the duration of time-consuming tasks between vulnerability identification, prioritization, communication and remediation. Automation can help enable immediate risk-reduction steps, such as quarantining systems that are identified as immediately exploitable from the remaining internal network. These steps can provide IT teams more time to test and deploy patches while simultaneously reducing the possible exposure of exploitable vulnerabilities.

As an example, consider the scenario that phishing attacks deploying ransomware are a common threat for an organization’s industry. In this case, the threat is ransomware, and the vulnerabilities could be configuration weaknesses such as allowing macro-enabled Word documents through email gateways and an unpatched system. While a vulnerability management tool could detect the vulnerability, it may get lost and be overlooked in the shuffle of reporting, or simply not be reported on for a week or more. With a unified threat detection platform, once the vulnerability is detected by the vulnerability management tool, an automated response would begin, locking down the email gateways and preventing a breach.

Complement with breach and attack simulations. Vulnerability management platforms discover known vulnerabilities and potential exploits, while breach and attack simulation capabilities highlight configuration weaknesses, detection and prevention gaps, and architectural issues. Organizations should ensure that an effective response and recovery plan is properly evaluated through tabletop exercises and is tested periodically and adjusted as the threat landscape, people, systems and business processes change. By combining threat and vulnerability management, organizations can increase their security confidence and decrease their overall risk.

Communicate success metrics to the board. A well-designed vulnerability management program can help an organization visualize how security risks are being addressed and paint a vivid picture of progress over time. Presenting vulnerability metrics to the board and senior leadership will demonstrate continual improvement and ROI on vulnerability management efforts or highlight the need for additional investment.

By integrating the vulnerability management platform with a unified threat detection and response platform, an organization’s analysts can trigger ad-hoc scans without needing to pivot to another technology. Not only does this integrated approach save time, but it also enables the team to take further remediation actions quickly, limiting the exposure of the vulnerability and reducing risk.

Protiviti’s Nick Britton and Anup Vasisth, along with Casey Martin and Martin Cook of ReliaQuest, also contributed to this blog. 

Shinoy George

Managing Director
Security and Privacy

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