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Complete Guide to Vulnerability Assessments

Wondering about vulnerability assessments? We provide a comprehensive explanation of what vulnerability assessments are, how they work, and how they help prevent cyber attacks.

What is Vulnerability Assessment?

Vulnerability assessments systematically examine your system, looking for security weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The assessment provides information for the security team to classify, prioritize and remediate weaknesses.

The assessments go beyond what you would find in a typical vulnerability scan, usually involving a dedicated team or group of external ethical hackers to carry out the assessment.

What Types of Threats Do Vulnerability Assessments Discover?

A vulnerability assessment can uncover vulnerabilities with varying degrees of severity. It can also confirm that your IT environment complies with industry and government standards. Here are some common vulnerabilities found during a typical assessment.

  • Weak passwords, easily guessed or brute-forced

  • Code injection vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit via SQL injection or XSS attacks

  • Outdated applications or operating systems

  • Incorrect configurations, such as default settings not changed or vulnerable open ports

The Four Steps of a Vulnerability Assessment

  1. Define Scope: Before beginning an assessment, the network owner must establish scope to determine which networks, systems and applications to test. The scope is usually further defined and separated for different domains or subdomains.

  2. System Feature Review: Before performing the vulnerability assessment, the security team will review several systems and applications in scope. The review phase helps determine how an exploited vulnerability could impact business functions.

  3. Perform Vulnerability Scan: Testers use various tools and techniques to test the integrity of a system. Testers often start with automated scans that look for the most common vulnerabilities first, including applications, network infrastructure, and host machines.

  4. Create the Vulnerability Assessment Report: The assessment report outlines the vulnerabilities identified by the scan and highlights steps for remediating them. These recommendations are paired with a severity rating, allowing the security team to determine which vulnerabilities to patch first.

Vulnerability Assessment Tools

Hackers use a variety of tools to find vulnerabilities in different systems and parts of a network.

  • OpenVAS

  • Nmap

  • Burp Suite

  • Nessus

Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Test

Vulnerability assessments identify vulnerabilities but do not exploit these flaws. Many vulnerability assessments use a scanning tool that classifies vulnerabilities allowing security professionals to prioritize remediation.

Bug Bounty Programs vs. Vulnerability Assessment

Bug bounty programs use human testers to search for bugs, discover vulnerabilities, and classify their severity. Bug bounties incentivize hackers to successfully discover and report vulnerabilities or bugs and are a way for companies to leverage the hacker community to improve the security posture of their systems over time.

If your goal is more complete vulnerability disclosure and security testing, bug bounty programs are a better choice, but don't rule out vulnerability assessments.

The two types of tests complement each other. While bug bounties leverage hacker-powered security to uncover more complex vulnerabilities, vulnerability assessments offer consistency and convenience, allowing security teams to pre-empt focused, time-bound security testing for major initiatives such as product and feature releases . A combination of these approaches allows security teams to better address all vulnerabilities, improve their security profiles and minimize exploits.

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