What is a Vulnerability?

Dec 22, 2020

This article will offer a quick guide to vulnerabilities – what they are, how they can be exploited and the consequences of exploitation. A vulnerability is a weakness in an asset that can be exploited by cyber attackers. It’s a known issue that allows an attack to succeed. 

For instance, when a team member resigns and you forget to change login, disable their access to external accounts or remove their names from the credit cards of the company, this leaves your business open to threats. Nevertheless, most vulnerabilities are exploited by automated attackers and not human beings.

Testing for vulnerabilities is vital to ensure the security of your networks and systems. By identifying weak points, you can develop a strategy for a quick response. The following are the questions you can ask when determining your security vulnerabilities:

  • Is your data stored in the cloud? If yes, how exactly is it being protected from cloud vulnerabilities?
  • Is your data backed up and stored in a secure off-site location?
  • What kind of antivirus protection is in use? Are the licenses current? Is it running as often as needed?
  • Do you have a data recovery plan in the event of a vulnerability being exploited?
  • What kind of network security do you have to determine who can access, modify, or delete information from within your organization?

Understanding your vulnerabilities is the first step to managing your risk.

What is Risk?

Risk is known as the potential loss or damage when a threat exploits a vulnerability. Examples of risk include the following:

  • Loss of privacy.
  • Financial losses.
  • Legal implications.
  • Damage to your reputation.
  • Loss of life.
How Can Vulnerabilities be Exploited?

Vulnerabilities normally arise when an attacker or researcher discovers that part of a program’s code can be forced to run in an unpredicted way, which leads to undesirable behavior. Each vulnerability is unique. Therefore, attackers need to use a certain piece of code or technique to trigger unexpected behavior. 

Some vulnerabilities can only be exploited by an attacker working locally, either over a local network or with direct access to the device itself. In this situation, the cyber attacker may be an authorized user trying to gain unauthorized access or an on-the-spot intruder.

If a device with a vulnerability is connected to a network such as the internet, it may be possible for attackers working remotely to exploit it. There are different ways a remote attacker can exploit those kinds of flaws:

  • Exploit Kits- The user is lured into opening a website on their device. The site hosts an exploit kit that probes the device for vulnerabilities and tries to exploit them. 
  • Direct Exploitation - A flaw in the way devices connect to the Internet allow it to be exploited
When Does a Vulnerability Become Exploitable?

A working attack vector is known as an exploitable vulnerability. The window of vulnerability is the time from when the vulnerability was introduced to when it’s patched. If you have reliable security practices, the vulnerabilities can’t be exploited. 

For instance, if you have properly configured S3 security then the probability of leaking data is reduced. Check your S3 permissions to avoid attackers exploiting it. 

Similarly, you can reduce risk with third-party and vendor risk management techniques.

Zero-Day Vulnerabilities 

If a vulnerability is discovered and exploited before the program’s vendor has released a patch for it, it’s called a zero-day vulnerability. Attacks against it are known as zero-day attacks.  

These attacks are dangerous because they are difficult to discover and deflect. Most vendors will release an advisory providing workarounds or mitigation techniques that organizations or users can deploy while waiting for an official patch to be released.  

Impact and Consequences 

When a hacker successfully exploits a vulnerability, they can perform illegal actions on the vulnerable device or program. The actions they can take depend on the severity of the vulnerability that’s targeted. 

Vulnerabilities are given a severity rating based on two factors:

  1. How easy the weakness is to exploit.
  2. The impact it can have on the data, program or device. 

Although each security product vendor may use different criteria to rate vulnerabilities, most have similar rating scales. 

Proactive Protection 

Security researchers use the term ‘attack surface’ to mutually refer to all the vulnerabilities or potential attack networks that can be used to compromise a device. Regular security checks can reduce or close these weaknesses by taking different actions or precautions in a strategy known as attack surface reduction (ASR).

Keeping Programs Updated

The easiest and most effective security against known vulnerabilities is to keep the device operating system and all installed programs updated with the latest security patches published by the program vendors.

Most vendors’ websites will have information about the latest security updates that are available for their programs. For instance, Security Advisories has a list of all known vulnerabilities reported for F-Secure products and includes links to suitable patches. 

More Precautions 

Other proactive steps you can take depend on how your device is set up and used, but can include the following:

  • Separate Administrator and User Account: Use a separate, password-protected administrator account so that it will be difficult for an attacker to take total control of the device.
  • Connecting Only When Needed: Disconnect the device from the Internet (which includes turning off Wi-Fi) when you are not using data.
  • Use an Up-To-Date Anti-Malware Product: Regularly scan your device with a reputable anti-malware product to check for issues.
  • Use Encryption: Encrypt data stored on devices to prevent unauthorized access or use.
  • Remove Unused Or Vulnerable Programs: Remove programs that are frequently targeted. You can also just disable them until needed.

In this article, we have analyzed what a vulnerability is and ways to find solutions to any vulnerability in your network, software or system to prevent cyber attackers from gaining access to sensitive data and confidential information. Do you need help in managing vulnerabilities? If yes, reach out to the team of security experts at Vicarius today. 

Vicarius offers a vulnerability management software that targets cybersecurity officers and operators, as well as IT managers and operators from the U.S. market. You can utilize our product TOPIA for accurate cybersecurity and ensure your assets are well protected. You can check our product page to learn more about TOPIA.

Written by

Kent Weigle

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