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How to Perform a Cybersecurity Vulnerability Assessment

Cybersecurity vulnerability assessments are not easy, but there are steps you can take to simplify the process and improve the effectiveness of your assessment. This blog discusses the top six steps to simplify your cybersecurity vulnerability assessment.

Define Clear Objectives and Scope for the Cybersecurity Vulnerability Assessment

The complexity of cybersecurity vulnerability assessments depends on several factors, such as the complexity of the business operations, the size and diversity of the organization’s network, the types of assets and data, available resources and tools, and the expertise of the assessment team.

The first step is defining the organization’s objectives and scope for cybersecurity vulnerability assessment. This facilitates decision-making and sets the overarching direction for this assessment. The objectives should clearly state what is being evaluated and how success will be measured.

Objectives may be wide-ranging, such as running a cybersecurity vulnerability assessment to identify the greatest threats to an organization’s IT networks and systems, to assess the effectiveness of current security measures and controls, and to meet regulatory compliance requirements. Alternatively, they might be more limited, such as protecting customers’ data, safeguarding intellectual property, or shielding critical infrastructure.

Equally important is defining the scope. For example, in corporate locations, the scope of the cybersecurity vulnerability assessment may cover a wide range of interconnected systems, servers, databases, applications, and cloud-based services. On the other hand, branch offices typically have simpler networks, where the scope can be limited, perhaps just focused on the systems and resources within a specific location.

Develop a Security Risk Profile for the Organization’s Compute and Networking Assets

The next step is to develop a security risk profile for the organization’s IT systems and networks. The risk profile is based on the defined objectives and scope of the cybersecurity vulnerability assessment. For example, a corporate data center may have more IT assets and a more complex network than a branch office. At a minimum, a risk profile should:

  • Create an inventory of the organization’s IT infrastructure, network assets, and location
  • State regulatory compliance requirements, if any
  • Categorize the sensitivity level of business data and identify where it is stored
  • Describe the implemented security controls
  • Identify potential threats to the organization’s IT infrastructure and network
  • Quantify the business impact of a security breach

The risk profile can be used to prioritize threats, allowing the cybersecurity vulnerability assessment to focus on critical assets and high-risk areas first. Prioritization optimizes the resources available to conduct the assessment, enabling the organization to make earlier and more impactful security remediation actions.

Standardize the Process for Conducting a Cybersecurity Vulnerability Assessment

The next step is to standardize the cybersecurity vulnerability assessment process. This will facilitate staff training, ensure consistency and repeatability, and minimize the risk of undetected vulnerabilities.

Although the specific approach and considerations may vary depending on the objectives and scope of the cybersecurity vulnerability assessment, the underpinning approach remains the same. Structuring a process around these common core elements creates efficiencies and simplifies implementation.

Create checklists of the tasks that must be performed to ensure all the necessary steps are completed. The humble checklist is a common tool that improves efficiency and ensures completeness. Tasks on your checklist may include:

  • Define objectives and scope
  • Compile asset inventory
  • Gather threat intelligence
  • Select vulnerability scanning tools
  • Identify required scans
  • Schedule vulnerability scans
  • Select exploitation tools
  • Identify vulnerability tests to be performed
  • Schedule tests
  • Prioritize detected vulnerabilities

Build templates from capturing information and reporting findings. This streamlines the documentation process, improves accuracy, and ensures consistency. Example templates could be:

  • Asset inventory template
  • Vulnerability and risk assessment report
  • Recommended remediation action report
  • Compliance assessment report
  • Executive authorization to conduct the assessment

Automate the Cybersecurity Vulnerability Assessment Process

The next step is identifying tools that help automate all or part of the assessment process. Automation improves efficiency, simplifies the cybersecurity vulnerability assessment, and increases the likelihood of weaknesses being detected. Tools and solutions to consider include:

  • Network scanning tools that probe IT systems, looking for known vulnerabilities.
  • Exploitation testing tools that perform different attacks on your IT systems looking for vulnerabilities.
  • Data analytics tools that can collate security vulnerability information for further analysis.
  • Access to vulnerability threat intelligence databases that provide details on known vulnerabilities.
  • Documentation and reporting tools that can facilitate documenting the assessment, including the process, its findings, and any remediation recommendations.

Automation of the assessment simplifies complex tasks and reduces the need to understand the nuances of thousands of different vulnerabilities. It also reduces the expertise needed to run a cybersecurity vulnerability assessment.

Identify and Train the Cybersecurity Vulnerability Assessment Team

Next is consideration of resource availability and budget constraints and how they affect the organization’s ability to conduct frequent and comprehensive cybersecurity vulnerability assessments. Large organizations often have dedicated security staff and resources, while branch locations or small organizations may rely on centralized corporate resources or third-party security experts.

As such, the approach taken to conduct cybersecurity vulnerability assessments may need to be modified based on the availability of resources and expertise at different locations. Ways to reduce the resource impact include:

  • Initially, focus on compliance requirements, expanding the scope of subsequent assessments
  • Limit the scope to areas with the highest impact if compromised
  • Focus on vulnerabilities with high severity ratings
  • Focus on high-risk assets
  • Reduce the scope to critical infrastructure components
  • Use open-source tools

Although automation reduces the reliance on specialized skills, the assessment team must receive instructions and training on the assessment process and their specific roles. For example, one team member may run the scanning tool at a remote location, and another may analyze and report the scan’s results. 

Develop a Stakeholders Communications Plan

The last step is to create a stakeholder communication plan that describes how information will be shared with the relevant shareholders, such as the information security team, compliance and risk management teams, and executive leadership. Communication is essential throughout the assessment to pave the way for any subsequent remediation actions. However, it is necessary to realize that the vulnerability assessment findings and reports contain sensitive information that needs to be protected and distributed only to authorized personnel.

A stakeholders’ communications plan should include:

  • Stakeholders’ identification
  • Communication objectives
  • Essential messages such as milestones and progress
  • Preferred communication methods include email or meeting updates
  • Escalation procedure

What you should do after reading this blog

Today, organizations face diverse cyber threats from nefarious actors, including state-sponsored groups, cybercriminals, and hackers. Conducting regular and consistent cybersecurity vulnerability assessments is essential for Identifying and mitigating threats to an organization’s operations and ensuring regulatory compliance. These assessments can be complex but can be simplified by following the six steps described in this blog.

After reviewing this blog, my recommendation is that you:

  • Review your organization’s last cybersecurity vulnerability assessment.
    • What were the objectives and scope of this assessment?
    • What process did they follow?
    • What tools did they use to automate the process?
  • Check if your organization’s risk assessment of its computer and networking assets is up-to-date.
    • Is there an asset inventory?
    • What are the perceived risks and vulnerabilities?
    • How is the severity of the risk determined?
  • Determine which of the six steps in this blog you want to implement to simplify your next cybersecurity vulnerability assessment.

If you have branch or remote offices, you should definitely check out NetAlly’s CyberScope® Edge Network Vulnerability Scanner and Link-Live cloud-based analysis platform to see how NetAlly could simplify your cybersecurity vulnerability assessments in these locations.

Author Bio –
Wireless & Cyber Security Expert

Dr. Avril Salter is an author and acclaimed public speaker with over 20 years of in-depth technical and executive experience working in wireless and network security. She holds senior business and technical architect positions with a history of success in setting direction in major corporations and start-ups. She has an exceptional breadth of technical expertise in wireless standards and network security protocols and is a strategic thinker with a solid understanding of the IT and telecommunications industries.