What is a Cybersecurity Vulnerability? Definition and Types

By Kasey Hewitt

Posted on Feb 25, 2021

As the value of data increases, the role cybersecurity plays in maintaining enterprise operations has grown substantially. In order for organizations to successfully cultivate new business relationships, they must be able to protect both customer and employee data from a breach. Achieving this level of security requires a comprehensive understanding of cybersecurity vulnerabilities and the methods threat actors utilize to gain access to a network.

Being able to effectively manage vulnerabilities not only enhances security programs but also helps limit the impact of successful attacks. This is why having an established vulnerability management system has become a necessity for organizations across industries. Below we will break down the common types of cybersecurity vulnerabilities, as well as provide guidance for identifying and managing vulnerabilities on your systems.

What is a cybersecurity vulnerability and how is it different from a cybersecurity threat?

A cybersecurity vulnerability is any weakness within an organization’s information systems, internal controls, or system processes that can be exploited by cybercriminals. Through points of vulnerability, cyber adversaries are able to gain access to your system and collect data. With regard to your organization’s overall security posture, cybersecurity vulnerabilities are extremely important to monitor as gaps in a network can lead to a full-scale breach of a system.

Vulnerabilities differ from cyber threats in that they are not introduced on a system, they are there from the beginning. Very rarely are cyber vulnerabilities created as a result of actions taken by cybercriminals, instead, they are usually caused by operating system flaws or network misconfigurations. Conversely, cyber threats are introduced as a result of an outside event such as an employee downloading a virus or a social engineering attack.

What is vulnerability management?

Vulnerability management is the process of identifying, classifying, mitigating, and remediating system vulnerabilities. Below we will outline three key steps in vulnerability management that you can follow to facilitate a vulnerability management program at your organization:

1. Identify vulnerabilities

Vulnerability identification is the process of locating and noting exploitable gaps in your network operations. This is typically done through the use of vulnerability scanners which periodically assess network systems for misconfigurations, incorrect file system structures, and more. The results of the scans are then cross-referenced with known security intelligence databases. In order to get accurate results, it is critical that the scanner is properly configured and up-to-date. It is recommended that you administer a test-run during off-hours so that you can evaluate the accuracy of results and make adjustments where necessary.

2. Evaluate vulnerabilities

After identifying vulnerabilities, the next step is to evaluate the risk they pose to your business using a cybersecurity vulnerability assessment. Vulnerability assessments allow you to assign risk levels to identified threats so that you can prioritize remediation efforts. Effective assessments also enhance compliance efforts as they ensure that vulnerabilities are addressed before they can be exploited.

3. Address vulnerabilities

Once a vulnerability’s risk level has been determined, you then need to treat the vulnerability. The different ways you can treat a vulnerability include:

  • Remediation: Vulnerability remediation involves completely fixing or patching a vulnerability. This is the preferred treatment of vulnerabilities as it eliminates risk.
  • Mitigation: Mitigation involves taking steps to lessen the likelihood of a vulnerability being exploited. Vulnerability mitigation is typically performed as a means to buy time until a proper patch is available.
  • Acceptance: Taking no action to address a vulnerability is justified when an organization deems it to have a low risk. This is also justifiable when the cost of addressing the vulnerability is greater than the cost incurred if it were to be exploited.

Common types of cybersecurity vulnerabilities

When building a vulnerability management program, there are several key cybersecurity vulnerabilities that you must be aware of. Below are six of the most common types of cybersecurity vulnerabilities:

1. System misconfigurations

System misconfigurations occur as a result of network assets having vulnerable settings or disparate security controls. A common tactic cybercriminals use is to probe networks for system misconfigurations and gaps that can be exploited. As more organizations adopt digital solutions, the likelihood of network misconfigurations grows, so it is important to work with experienced security professionals when implementing new technologies.

2. Out of date or unpatched software

Unpatched vulnerabilities can be exploited by cybercriminals to carry out attacks and steal valuable data. Similar to system misconfigurations, cyber adversaries will probe networks looking for unpatched systems they can compromise. To limit this risk, It is important to establish a patch management schedule so that all new system patches are implemented as soon as they are released.

3. Missing or weak authorization credentials

A common tactic attackers employ is to brute force their way into a network by guessing employee credentials. It is important to educate employees on cybersecurity best practices so that their login information cannot be easily exploited to gain access to a network.

4. Malicious insider threats

Whether unknowingly or with malicious intent, employees who have access to critical systems can share information that allows cybercriminals to breach a network. Insider threats can be difficult to track since all actions taken by employees will appear legitimate and therefore raise little to no red flags. To help combat these threats, consider investing in network access control solutions, and segment your network based on employee seniority and expertise.

5. Missing or poor data encryption

Networks with missing or poor encryption allow attackers to intercept communication between systems, leading to a breach. When poorly or unencrypted information is interrupted, cyber adversaries are able to extract critical information and inject false information onto a server. This can undermine an organization’s cybersecurity compliance efforts and lead to substantial fines from regulatory bodies.

6. Zero-day vulnerabilities

Zero-day threats are specific software vulnerabilities that are known to the attacker but have not yet been identified by an organization. This means that there is no available fix since the vulnerability has not yet been reported to the system vendor. These are extremely dangerous as there is no way to defend against them until after the attack has been carried out. It is important to remain diligent and continuously monitor your systems for vulnerabilities in order to limit the likelihood of a zero-day attack.

How SecurityScorecard can help organizations mitigate cybersecurity vulnerabilities

Actively managing cybersecurity vulnerabilities requires ongoing visibility into your internal and third-party network ecosystem. With SecurityScorecard’s Security Ratings platform, organizations receive real-time vulnerability alerts and remediation suggestions, allowing them to continuously monitor their IT ecosystem. Our platform uses an A through F rating scale that offers an easy-to-read visualization of an organization’s security posture. This helps with vulnerability management strategy development as organizations receive regular updates on new or evolving ecosystem vulnerabilities.

With networks growing in complexity, being able to actively manage cybersecurity vulnerabilities has become critical to business success. With SecurityScorecard, organizations have access to data and insights they need to proactively address vulnerabilities as they arise.

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