How to Identify Network Security Threats and Vulnerabilities

By Kasey Hewitt

Posted on May 26, 2021

We often measure the effectiveness of cybersecurity by the attacks we don’t experience, which can leave a nagging worry in the backs of our minds: is there a network security threat we’re missing?

It’s a valid concern. Two-thirds of people on the internet — including people who work for your companies or partners — have been compromised in some way by cybercriminals, according to The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In fact, almost $600 billion — nearly 1% of global GDP — is lost to cybercrime each year, and that number is projected to increase to $6 trillion in 2021.

So how can you get a better handle on your network threats and vulnerabilities? This article will explain what threats are, some common threats, and how to identify them.

What is a network security threat?

A network security threat is exactly that: a threat to your network and data systems. Any attempt to breach your network and obtain access to your data is a network threat.

There are different kinds of network threats, and each has different goals. Some, like distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, seek to shut down your network or servers by overwhelming it with requests. Other threats, like malware or credential theft, are aimed at stealing your data. Still others, like spyware, will insert themselves into your organization’s network, where they’ll lie in wait, collecting information about your organization.

There are four main kinds of network threats:

  1. External threats: Threats made by outside organizations or individuals, attempting to get into your network.
  2. Internal threats: These are threats from malicious insiders, such as disgruntled or improperly vetted employees who are working for someone else. These are common. According to Forrester, 46% of breaches in 2019 involved insiders like employees and third-party partners.
  3. Structured threats: Organized attacks by attackers who know what they’re doing and have a clear aim or goal in mind. State-sponsored attacks, for example, fall into this category.
  4. Unstructured attacks: Disorganized attacks, often by amateurs with no concrete goal in mind.

What is the difference between a threat and a vulnerability?

If threats are attackers throwing rocks at a wall, a vulnerability is a weak spot in the wall — a place where attackers can break a window, or pull out a loose rock and let themselves in.

Put simply, vulnerabilities are flaws in your systems that can be exploited by attackers. These are often not malicious errors, but simply mistakes or things that have been overlooked. An Amazon Web Services (AWS) bucket might be inadvertently left open to the public Internet, or perhaps a password wasn’t changed or a patch wasn’t installed on time.

Such mistakes are on the rise, according to Accurics, which finds that misconfigured cloud storage services are commonplace in 93% of cloud deployments. It’s not just clouds and software, however – vulnerabilities can be people as well. If you haven’t trained your employees about avoiding clicking on suspicious links, for example, they can be vulnerable to phishing.

What are common network threats?

Network threats come in a variety of forms and are constantly evolving and changing. The most common threats are likely familiar to you already.

  1. Phishing: Phishing attacks are attempts to trick people into opening suspicious links or downloading malicious programs. They range from the easily-spotted to sophisticated cons targeting a specific individual. Phishing campaigns are currently one of the most popular methods of attack, according to Microsoft.
  2. Ransomware: Often delivered via successful phishing campaigns, ransomware enters your systems, encrypts your data, and holds it hostage until you pay the attackers’ ransom. Once the ransom is paid, the attackers will allegedly give you control of your data, but criminals don’t always keep their word.
  3. Malware: Any malicious program that enters your system, malware can be ransomware, a virus, or a worm that infects first a device, then the whole network.
  4. DDoS attacks: DDoS attacks overwhelm your servers with requests for information, forcing sites, servers, and applications to shut down.
  5. Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs): During an APT attack, an unauthorized attacker codes into a system network and stays there quietly, collecting information.
  6. SQL Injection: SQL injection attacks inject malicious code into a site or application using SQL queries in order to exploit security vulnerabilities and obtain or destroy private data.

How can you identify threats and vulnerabilities?

  1. Watch your own network: The most important way to identify threats and vulnerabilities is to make sure you can see them. You want to be able to look at your defenses the way an attacker would, understanding the weaknesses in your network and the threats most likely to affect your organization.
  2. Use threat intelligence: What sort of attacks are being launched, and which threats might your organization attract? By understanding the threat landscape, you can protect your organization against threats before they happen.
  3. Penetration testing: Where do your defenses buckle under pressure? Which employee is likely to click a bad link in a suspicious email. You can’t know until you test your defenses, and penetration testing is the best way to do that.
  4. Manage permissions: By segmenting your network and managing permissions so that not every employee can access every part of your network, you can control who sees what — and also protect your network against data breaches and malicious insiders.
  5. Use a firewall: there’s no reason not to use firewalls, internally and externally. Firewalls keep unauthorized users from getting access to your network. They also keep tabs on the traffic throughout your network.
  6. Constantly monitor your network. Security needs to be constantly monitored to be effective. Once you’ve set your controls, make sure they’re checked regularly and updated often so that they can catch any new vulnerabilities or threats that may target your network.

How can SecurityScorecard help?

The threat landscape is always shifting, as attackers try new ways to enter your network. To help monitor your systems, consider a solution that monitors your networks continuously, giving you an outside-in view of your company’s security.

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