Building a Foundation

Building a Foundation

Taking a look at a holistic information security perspective

Now more than ever, major network vulnerabilities are making national and international news headlines. Heartbleed, Shellshock and POODLE are considered by many to be among the worst bugs present on the Internet and, in recent months, have all formed their own unique paths of destruction across networks everywhere. These vulnerabilities, as well as countless others, are extremely harmful when used to attack companies and can be detrimental to a company’s future success if not addressed properly.

Although understanding the global impact of these vulnerabilities can be both interesting and useful, the primary concern for network security professionals must be the impact of these vulnerabilities on the specific IT environments that they oversee. At some point, all companies—regardless of size or industry—must develop information security programs to protect both themselves and their customers from these vulnerabilities and other IT-related threats. From creating policies and vendor contracts to performing risk assessments and audits, organizations are recurrently faced with the challenge of securing their data from internal and external exploitation.

Additionally, most company security practices may need to comply with the standards of different governing bodies, authorities, or regulations, depending upon the industry. This requirement for the synchronization of a company’s security efforts has made way for the emergence of the information security model known as IT GRC (Governance, Risk and Compliance).

One of the best strategies by which companies can develop a secure and comprehensive IT GRC program begins with a thorough and vigilant vulnerability management process. Network vulnerability scans and the results that they yield offer a plethora of information about network devices and can be employed in many different ways. Leveraging vulnerability data when creating IT GRC practices is crucial to developing a comprehensive, consistent, and sustainable information security program.

Problems Emerge Without Proper Vulnerability Management

Attempting to mature an information security program without integrating vulnerability data can cause several different problems over time. Without an understanding of the vulnerabilities of a network’s devices, network oversight becomes limited. If network oversight does not include vulnerability management, those making security-related decisions cannot cultivate best practices to combat the specific vulnerabilities that pose the greatest threats to the organization’s unique environment.

Without incorporating well-managed vulnerability data to improve upon a company’s security program, inconsistencies in security posturing will inevitably occur. For instance, an IT audit of company systems may verify that the configuration settings of workstations or servers do not reflect those defined in the security policy. While this inconsistency may result in a citation or fine in the context of an audit, it may be discovered and mitigated beforehand if the company is utilizing a vulnerability management tool or software.

Contrastingly, vulnerability management can validate claims made in company policies, during risk assessments and audits, or when verifying compliance with a given authority. If the vulnerability data is consistent with the claims made in other areas of the company’s IT GRC program, vulnerability data serves as context to the other areas of the information security program. Problems that result from the absence of vulnerability management in an organization’s IT GRC program prove that vulnerability management is not only beneficial but also critical to a holistic and viable information security program.

Vulnerability Management is the Cornerstone for a Consistent IT GRC Practice

Proper vulnerability management generates a database of information about the hardware and software of devices that comprise a network. The types of information gathered from a vulnerability scan vary greatly from hardware manufacturer information to software versioning data and even serious exploitable settings of devices on a network.

Vulnerability management efforts not only verify areas of the network that are secure but, more importantly, highlight potential threats to network security before the threats escalate to major company-wide incidents or issues. Making use of vulnerability data when executing security-related tasks, such as completing a risk assessment or compliance assessment, creating vendor or third party contracts, or performing an audit or training course allows for consistent, company-wide security posturing. Once network devices are scanned, vulnerability data as well as software and hardware versioning are populated into a centralized location. This data can then be applied in several different aspects of both network and operations management:

  • Patch management: Vulnerability management will identify the weak aspects of network devices and provides information on which devices need to be patched. Patch management practices can then be established based on the frequency with which different types of systems require patches as reported by vulnerability data.
  • Asset management: Vulnerability data will provide details as to which types and versions of hardware and software are active on the network. Vulnerability data managers are then able to identify the devices that are outdated and can eliminate potential problems with these devices before they cause serious issues if otherwise unnoticed or unaddressed. For example, vulnerability data can deliver password configuration information, minimum password requirements, and versioning information of device operating systems, applications, and programs before weaknesses to the devices are exploited and cause harm to a network.
  • Vendor management: Vulnerability scans may be run on network equipment that is either owned or maintained by a third party. Vulnerability management provides insight to network administrators as to whether or not a vendor is maintaining their systems on your network and will alert administrators if vendor systems are forming weaknesses in the company’s network.
  • Policy management: Vulnerability scan data and management offers context to claims made within company policies and can prove that requirements defined in a company’s policies are being implemented properly. For instance, if an organization’s configuration management policy states that certain configuration standards must be adhered to on all company equipment but vulnerability scan results indicate that the devices do not meet the described standards, these inconsistencies can be addressed (either by adjusting the policy to accurately outline the configurations of company systems or by updating the devices to meet the standards prescribed in the policy). This consistency creates a well-defined configuration management policy that can be more easily adhered to and maintained.
  • Risk assessment: Vulnerability management proves most valuable when conducting IT risk assessments because the data provided may then be utilized to identify, prioritize, and implement security controls to minimize the overall risk of an organization.
  • Verifying compliance: Data provided through fastidious vulnerability management may also provide useful information when an organization must adhere to different compliance regulations for their industry. For example, outdated JBoss versions on network systems will cause a company to be out of compliance with today’s PCI standards. Most regulating bodies clearly define the versions of software that networked systems must maintain and, if outdated versions are found on company systems, the company cannot be considered in compliance with the authority. While companies who do not fully integrate vulnerability management information into other aspects of their information security program will be either fined or reprimanded by regulators, network administrators and security professionals who manage vulnerability data on a regular basis will recognize the need to update their systems and will initiate a process to accomplish the task and remain in compliance when reviewed by regulators.
  • Audit: Finally, vulnerability management data can be utilized during an audit to verify security controls, policies, and practices of an organization. Maintaining a structured and welldefined IT GRC program based on vulnerability management will result in shorter audits that require fewer company resources to perform and yield positive findings and results.

Sustainable Information Security Programs for Continued Company Success

Vulnerability management is a core practice of a well-maintained IT GRC space. Identification, prioritization, and mitigation of vulnerabilities dictate how information security processes flow throughout a company and create viable processes for secure and efficient IT environments.

The results of a vulnerability scan reveal potential flaws in the network as well as a plethora of other information about the different devices connected to an organization’s network. This information should be applied to other key areas of an information security program to standardize the data that is used throughout the company and establish a holistic, wellmanaged, and sustainable IT GRC and security program.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Security Today.

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