Vulnerability Management Programs

What is a Vulnerability Management Program?

Digital adversaries can bypass enterprise cybersecurity defenses and gain unauthorized access to protected data and systems by exploiting both known and zero-day vulnerabilities in enterprise IT infrastructure. To effectively counter these adversaries, enterprise security teams must continuously identify and remediate vulnerabilities across the organization’s digital attack surface.

A vulnerability management program is a formalized management process for identifying, documenting, prioritizing, and remediating vulnerabilities within an organization’s IT infrastructure. Implementing a vulnerability management program can help enterprise security teams enhance the organization’s cybersecurity posture, maintain compliance with applicable data security/privacy regulations, and ensure business continuity.

Vulnerability vs. Risk vs. Threat - What’s the Difference?

Vulnerabilities, risks, and threats are similar cybersecurity concepts that are sometimes used interchangeably. However, each of these terms has a distinct meaning and it’s crucial for enterprise security teams to understand the differences.

A vulnerability is a weakness, bug, or design flaw in an IT asset (e.g. a cloud service, software application, network component, endpoint device, etc.) that could be exploited by a digital adversary.

A threat is a malicious activity, undertaken by a digital adversary to gain unauthorized access to a secure enterprise network, steal data, or commit fraud by exploiting one or more vulnerabilities in the target’s attack surface.

A risk is the potential for damage (e.g. data loss/destruction, data theft, unplanned operational downtime, reputation damage, financial losses, etc.) when a threat against the organization is successful.

Vulnerability management programs focus on identifying and remediating weaknesses in the organization’s IT infrastructure. Addressing these weaknesses helps reduce the organization’s overall vulnerability to cyber threats and reduces the risk of a successful cyber attack damaging the organization's IT infrastructure or stealing its data.

Vulnerability Management vs. Patch Management - What’s the Difference?

Enterprise security teams often remediate software vulnerabilities by installing patches, special programming updates released by software vendors to correct vulnerabilities that have been discovered.

This might suggest that vulnerability management and patch management are the same thing, but they’re actually slightly different.

While vulnerability management programs focus on the continuous high-level process of identifying, prioritizing, and addressing vulnerabilities, patch management is narrower in scope and focuses specifically on managing the process of patching vulnerable software. 

Patch management includes activities like keeping track of which software versions are in use within the organization, monitoring the security community for information about new patches, notifying the business about upcoming patches that could affect operational systems, testing and deploying new patches, and documenting the patching process.

What Do Vulnerability Management Programs Do?

Identify and Map Vulnerabilities

IT organizations without a formalized vulnerability management program may only become aware of critical vulnerabilities in their IT infrastructure after they are exploited by digital adversaries. By then, the damage is done and it’s too late to mitigate the risk or install a patch.

The most critical capability for any vulnerability management program is being able to identify known vulnerabilities in the organization’s IT infrastructure. This requires comprehensive knowledge and oversight of the organization’s IT assets, modern vulnerability scanning software tools, and the most up-to-date vulnerability intelligence.

Vulnerability scanning software is used to scan IT infrastructure for vulnerabilities and map those findings on to the affected assets or devices. This allows enterprise security teams to know exactly where their IT infrastructure might be vulnerable and which systems could be impacted by an exploit.

Prioritize Vulnerabilities

After identifying vulnerabilities and mapping them to IT infrastructure, vulnerability management programs must prioritize vulnerabilities based on the risk they pose to the organization.

This process involves ranking or scoring identified vulnerabilities based on how easy it would be for a digital adversary to exploit and the potential impact to the organization’s IT infrastructure and business operations. The risk assessment and priority level assigned to a vulnerability plays a significant role in shaping how it will be managed or remediated by the organization.

Some IT organizations use frameworks like the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) to guide the process of prioritizing vulnerabilities.

Manage and Address Vulnerabilities

An effective vulnerability management program controls the process of managing or remediating discovered vulnerabilities in IT infrastructure. Depending on the exploitability and potential impact of a vulnerability, the organization may choose to:

  • Remediate the vulnerability by installing the latest security patch according to the organization’s patch management program,
  • Mitigate the vulnerability by taking measures to reduce its exploitability and/or the potential impact of a successful exploit, or
  • Accept the vulnerability when no patch is available and/or the risk is deemed sufficiently low.

Report on Program Outcomes

A good vulnerability management program involves performing follow-up scans and testing to ensure that vulnerabilities were appropriately resolved or mitigated.

IT security teams often report to management or executive leaders on the results of vulnerability management activities to demonstrate the efficiency of the program and highlight the security benefits of proactively detecting and remediating vulnerabilities.

Drive Continuous Improvement

Vulnerability management programs work over time by driving continuous improvement in the organization’s security posture with respect to managing IT vulnerabilities, as well as by enhancing critical vulnerability management capabilities.

This can mean continuously scanning IT infrastructure for new vulnerabilities or monitoring threat feeds for the latest vulnerability intelligence and patches. It can also mean upgrading vulnerability scanning or prioritization software tools to enhance those capabilities or reduce the time, cost, or complexity of vulnerability management.

Why are Vulnerability Management Programs Important?

Mitigating Cybersecurity Risks

Vulnerability management programs help IT organizations mitigate cybersecurity risks by proactively identifying and remediating vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by digital adversaries.

Achieving Regulatory Compliance

Establishing a vulnerability management program and documenting vulnerability management activities can help organizations show compliance with data security and privacy regulations that require them to implement data protection measures and safeguard customer data.

Ensuring Business Continuity

A successful cyber attack can damage an organization’s business operations or prevent it from operating altogether. Unplanned downtime has numerous negative consequences, including lost revenue, reputational damage, and even customer churn. 

Vulnerability management programs prevent operational disruptions and help ensure business continuity by proactively remediating vulnerabilities before they can be successfully exploited.

Supplement Your Vulnerability Management Program with ZeroFox

ZeroFox provides enterprises with digital risk protection, vulnerability intelligence, and adversary disruption capabilities to dismantle external threats to brands, people, data, and assets in one comprehensive platform.

ZeroFox complements vulnerability management programs by detecting and identifying risks that originate from an organization’s internet-facing assets and systems, including email and social media accounts, domains, and business collaboration tools.

Ready to learn more?

Read our new white paper Understanding External Cybersecurity in the US Public Sector to discover the strategies used by US public sector agencies to effectively address external threats.