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Software vulnerability management: How ‘intelligence’ helps reduce the attack surface

Tue 22 Nov 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Each year, thousands of software vulnerabilities are detected in thousands of products. While Chief Security Officers probably don’t need to be reminded of the extensive damage that can be inflicted through vulnerabilities, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2015, there were 16,081 vulnerabilities discovered in 2,484 vulnerable products.

For organisations that must deal with a successful vulnerability exploit by a hacker, the cost is enormous. According to PWC, the average financial loss attributed to cyber security incidents was $2.5 million in 2015, not taking into account the brand and reputational damage caused by a successful hack.

The good news for businesses was that 84 percent of all registered vulnerabilities in 2015 had patches available on the day of disclosure.1 By proactively patching known vulnerabilities before they are exploited and, in the process, minimising the attack surface, businesses can have the greatest impact reducing their risk profile.

But this is easier said than done, so what is the fastest and most cost effective way of doing so? It starts with Vulnerability Intelligence.

Which threats are relevant to your organisation?

With a high number of software vulnerabilities reported every day, security departments can easily become overwhelmed. Even handling the most basic aspect of the problem, such as answering the question, which vulnerabilities apply to us, can be difficult and time consuming.

To answer this companies must sieve through identified vulnerabilities and focus only on those impacting their business. That entails a comprehensive asset discovery and inventory to determine which systems are potentially threatened by the known vulnerabilities. Only once the full list of known vulnerabilities is narrowed down to the subset impacting the organisation, can security teams truly focus their attention.

Getting an accurate picture of IT assets inventory is easier said than done. Most companies cannot accomplish this without implementing Software Asset Management (SAM) processes and technology.

Fortunately, SAM has emerged in recent years as a bulwark against wasteful software spend – and many leading organisations around the world either have already implemented SAM or are in the process of doing so. Among other things, SAM solutions enable organisations to automate the process of discovering and inventorying their software (and hardware) assets – wherever they reside.

It is key for security and IT operations teams within organisations to recognise their mutual need for asset discovery and inventory, and work together (and not in silos) to collect this data.

Refining security efforts with vulnerability intelligence

Once the company’s asset inventory has been identified, security teams need to match their own environment with those vulnerabilities, assess the risk the vulnerability poses, and then prioritise mitigation of the vulnerability.

This step has become increasingly important as business IT environments become further interconnected with the thousands of different applications and systems. This step has also been made more difficult by the some 300 new vulnerabilities notices that are reported globally every day, of which only about eight percent turn out to be real.

This is a daunting task to say the least and most companies do not have the resources or the motivation to employ a full team of people whose only purpose is to monitor and curate vulnerability information. As such, they must find a trusted Software Vulnerability Management resource whose function is to perform this work, providing Vulnerability Intelligence – not just information.

Vulnerability Intelligence means that reported vulnerabilities are actually verified, with additional intelligence, delivered in a format security teams can use and quickly act upon. Moreover, it means that the intelligence has been tested, vetted and is relevant to the business. For instance, beyond verification of a vulnerability’s existence, vulnerability intelligence should detail what the security teams need to know to mitigate the risk posed by the vulnerability.

Good Vulnerability Intelligence will not only verify the existence of a vulnerability, but it will also rate the vulnerability’s criticality. This is important because with limited time and resources available, security teams need to know which vulnerabilities are the most important.

Flexera Software’s Secunia Research team provides Vulnerability Advisories in this manner. Beyond verifying and detailing the vulnerability, these advisories assign to it a criticality rating of 1 to 5.

The rating is based on the assessment of the vulnerability’s potential impact on a system, the attack vector, mitigating factors, and if an exploit exists for the vulnerability and is being actively exploited prior to the release of a patch.

It is critical for security teams to be armed with reliable intelligence covering 1) reported and verified vulnerabilities, 2) which of those verified vulnerabilities apply to an organisation’s own hardware, software and systems, and 3) of those that apply, which are more critical and which are less – enabling them to establish an effective remediation plan.

The proactive nature of Software Vulnerability Management presumes that it is least costly to avoid successful attacks than to fix the problem after an attack has occurred. With this in mind, organisations need to understand what IT assets exist within their environments that could be the target of attack.

A complete picture of the vulnerability landscape must be drawn – and more importantly, a picture of which vulnerabilities apply to them. Finally, organisations need an accurate and reliable assessment of the criticality of those vulnerabilities, so they can prioritise remediation. A thorough program founded upon Vulnerability Intelligence will help minimise the attack surface, reducing the risk that a successful exploit can occur.

Article by Steve Beards, vice president APJ & India at Flexera Software.

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