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The Essential Guide to Vulnerability Scanning

Cybersecurity is a major concern for organizations in today’s hyper-connected world. With threat actors using automated vulnerability scanning tools to locate and exploit weaknesses in networks, cyber defense teams are pushed hard to identify and patch those same vulnerabilities before disaster strikes. With the average cost of a data breach amounting to US$ 4.24 million in 2021, no organization can afford to let their cybersecurity slip.

Vulnerability scanning is an integral part of any decent cyber defense strategy, but it is hard to get right. Whether you are just beginning your journey toward enhanced security or you want to improve on existing security safeguards and learn more about vulnerability scanning techniques, this essential guide has what you need.

What is vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is a method of identifying weaknesses in an IT infrastructure. The process involves using an automated tool to scan networks, applications, devices, and other internal or external assets for potential security weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

There are several different ways your systems can be considered vulnerable, but the good news is most are easily detected with automated vulnerability scanning tools. The scanner checks networks or applications for known vulnerabilities by referencing a database of attack vectors or signatures, much like diagnosing a patient by symptoms.

The scanner reports any vulnerabilities that were found along with risk scores for each vulnerability, and in some cases guidance about remediation.

Reports can be scheduled to be generated at certain time frames to list any vulnerabilities discovered, with assigned risk scores that indicate the potential impact and exploitability of the vulnerability. The reports can include remediation guidance for team members to follow up and find the factors that contributed to the vulnerabilities and remediate the problems.

Penetration testing versus vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scans aren’t the only way to detect weaknesses that affect an organization’s systems. Penetration testing is another common way to check for vulnerabilities. However, they shouldn’t be confused as they have distinct differences in what they offer and their processes.

Penetration testing has a specific goal in mind and acts as a sanctioned simulated cyber-attack on a company’s systems and networks to identify potential vulnerabilities that can be rectified before threat actors can exploit them. Vulnerability scanning looks at systems and networks and reports a prioritized list of potential weaknesses for action.

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Why is vulnerability scanning important?

When it comes to reporting security breaches, large organizations are likely to get more coverage than small businesses, but that doesn’t mean cybersecurity is a problem large firms need to worry about. In fact, the opposite can be true, as small to medium-sized businesses may not have the same investment and resources for security measures.

It can take years to develop a robust security strategy and it should constantly evolve as a business grows and security risks change. Vulnerability scanners offer an excellent starting point to allow organizations to identify technical vulnerabilities before they become an open door for malicious actors to take advantage of. Security breaches cost businesses money, not just in loss of operations, but in recovery costs and damage to business reputation. Many industries require security audits and vulnerability reports, so it plays an important role in compliance. In addition, staying ahead of security threats makes it easier to establish trust and ensure that clients are not scared away by potential data security threats.

Different types of vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scanners are generally differentiated by the asset they scan, making it important to know what the use case is for each situation and choose the right scanner for the business risk.

The different types of scanners include:

Network-based scanners

A network vulnerability scanner checks all the devices on a network for open ports and services, then probes each one to discover more details about configuration mistakes and security flaws. Usually, network scanners are configured to scan internal networks or external networks, or both.

  • An external vulnerability scans systems from the outside. The scanner's probes are sent from an untrusted internet address that is outside of the company's private networks, to identify security vulnerabilities that a threat actor might utilize to penetrate the network. External vulnerability scans target open IT infrastructures such as websites, ports, networks, and other systems accessible over the internet.
  • An internal network scanner works in the same way as an external network scanner, except that it is positioned inside a network, and services and devices that are only accessible within a private network can be assessed. As your private networks become more complex, it will become more important to also use an internal network scanner to search for weaknesses that might lead to a broader intrusion, such as insider threats (disgruntled employees or contractors), malware that has penetrated security holes, and so on.

Agent-based scanners

Agent-based scanning entails a lightweight software scanner to be installed on each device to be covered to perform local vulnerability scans and report back to a central server. The advantage of this type of scanner is they can report even if they’re removed from the network, such as in the instance of devices being utilized for remote work.

Essential features of vulnerability scanners

There are a wide variety of vulnerability scanners on the market. Each one has a different set of features that offer a distinct set of core functionality and features that are nice to have but aren’t essential to make things easier.

When selecting a scanner, be certain to think about what features are crucial and which are not. It is useful to have an idea of what assets are to be included in scanning and what risks are associated with each.

You'll be able to choose a more appropriate option after knowing this information. You may want to consider features such as:

  • Scheduling – do you have to schedule scans to run out of peak hours, or continuously with minimal impact on the network?
  • Frequency – do you have to rely on a once-a-month snapshot or is continuous an option to always allow you to see up-to-date information?
  • Reporting – is the report comprehensive and accessible to others, does it give the ability to share an executive summary as well as significant detailed reporting for you? Can the report be generated on demand?
  • Overview - can the scan give a real-time vulnerability assessment?
  • Compliance – does the scanning solution meet all compliance framework vulnerability scanning requirements?
  • Cloud integrations – will the scanner integrate with cloud providers?
  • Remediation guidance – does the scanner give detailed information so remediation or corrective action can be logged for teams?
  • Ease of use - is the scanner simple to set up and operate?
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Final words

Threats and vulnerabilities are continuously changing, just as businesses are constantly adding new devices, services, applications, and networks to their IT environments. With each change comes the risk that a new weakness has been created in the business network, allowing threat actors to attempt to get past security defenses.

Protecting the organization’s network and systems from threats requires a vulnerability management solution that can adapt and keep up with current changes to the threat landscape, and is critical to maintaining a cybersecurity risk assessment program.

ThreatAdvice Breach Prevention Platform offers continuous vulnerability scanning as part of a comprehensive cybersecurity management solution. Contact ThreatAdvice today if you would like to learn more about the ongoing risk assessment and vulnerability management platform