What is vulnerability scanning?


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Vulnerability scanning is the act of scanning applications, systems, devices or networks for potential security weaknesses. These weaknesses or vulnerabilities in software and systems are often exploited by cyber criminals to breach the networks of organizations and to launch attacks. 

Based on data collected by SecurityMetrics Forensic Investigators from last year’s breaches, it took an average of 166 days from the time an organization was vulnerable for an attacker to compromise the system. Once compromised, attackers had access to sensitive data for an average of 127 days.

Generally automated through tools, vulnerability scanning helps detect and classify weaknesses in an organization’s network and systems. These could be security vulnerabilities such as cross-site scripting, SQL Injection or insecure server configuration. Vulnerability scanning often looks for targets such as IP addresses and scans for known vulnerabilities and misconfigurations, and audits IP address ranges to detect for redundant usage of IP addresses or if unauthorized services are being exposed. By detecting these vulnerabilities and implementing proper countermeasures, you will be able to reduce the attack surface that cybercriminals could exploit. 

Why are vulnerability scans important? 

It is impossible for an organization to have a fully secure network and for all its applications to be devoid of vulnerabilities forever. This is especially true considering the discovery of more and more vulnerabilities, software updates, patches and increasingly sophisticated forms of cyber attacks. Even malicious actors are constantly evolving their tools using automation, bots and advanced techniques to be able to exploit vulnerabilities. These attack tools methods are also becoming cheaper, easier and more accessible to criminals around the world. 

We are also seeing more delays in the discovery of breaches. A FireEye report from 2020 showed the global median dwell time from the start of a breach to the point of its identification to be 56 days. 

How does vulnerability scanning work?

Vulnerability scanners basically operate based on several “if-then” scenarios and can take up to 3 hours to complete a scan. These scenarios check for various system settings that could lead to exploitation, such as an outdated operating system or an unpatched software version. 

A vulnerability scanner runs from the outside – from the end point of the individual that is inspecting a particular attack surface. These tools can catalog all the systems in a network in an inventory, identify the attributes of each device including the operating system, software, ports and user accounts among others.  The scanner then checks each item in the inventory to a database of known vulnerabilities including security weaknesses in services and ports, anomalies in packet construction, and potential paths to exploitable programs or scripts. The scanner software attempts to exploit each vulnerability that is discovered and flags up those that need further action.  

The scan can be conducted either through an authenticated or unauthenticated approach. The unauthenticated approach mimics how a criminal would attempt to breach without logging into the network, while the authenticated approach involves a tester logging in as a real user and shows vulnerabilities that could be exposed to someone who managed to breach and pose as a trusted user.  

Penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning

It is important to distinguish vulnerability scanning from penetration testing. Vulnerability scanning is a more automated high-level scan and looks for potential security holes whereas a penetration test is more exhaustive, involving a live examination of the network to try and exploit any and all weaknesses. 

Moreover, vulnerability scans only identify the vulnerabilities while a penetration test will go deeper to identify the root cause of the issue and even business logic vulnerabilities that an automated tool can skip over.   

Benefits of vulnerability scanning

In an age where cyber attacks are on the rise, and the tools used to exploit security weaknesses in enterprises are becoming more advanced, vulnerability scanning helps organizations stay ahead of the curve. Vulnerability scanning provides numerous benefits as follows:

Identifying vulnerabilities before they can be exploited
Vulnerability scanning is a way for organizations to discover weaknesses and fix them before criminals get a chance to take advantage.

Automating repeatable process
With most vulnerability scanning tools, you only have to configure once. After that it runs as a repeatable process on a regular basis and can provide monitoring reports on an ongoing basis.

Assessing overall security health of your systems
By identifying all the potential security vulnerabilities, it is also a way to ascertain the overall effectiveness of security measures in your network. Too many flaws or holes can be a sign that it is time for a revamp of your security infrastructure.

Preventing losses from data breaches
Identifying and plugging holes in the security can help organizations avoid significant financial losses that may otherwise have resulted from data breaches. Regular vulnerability scans may also be used to receive pay-outs from cyber insurance plans.

Meeting data protection requirements
Vulnerability scanning can also go a long way in avoiding fines that may result from loss of customers’ personal data and in meeting regulatory requirements. For example, the international standard for information security, ISO 27001, and the PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) are standards which mandate organizations to take key steps in detecting vulnerabilities to protect personal data. 

CDNetworks offers a Vulnerability Scanning Service that can detect weaknesses in systems and applications to safeguard against breaches and attacks. It is a cloud-based solution that can generate reports detailing the state of application, host, and web security, along with recommended solutions to remedy known security vulnerabilities. In addition, CDNetworks Application Shield can protect your applications against vulnerabilities, including the dreaded Zero Day vulnerabilities, by sending the “efficient patch” web application firewall (WAF) rules to the entire platform synchronously.

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