What Is a Vulnerability Assessment and How Does It Work?

Year by year, the discovered number of software vulnerabilities and cyber threats is increasing rapidly. In 2020 only, almost 25.000 new identified vulnerabilities were publicly reported. As a result, the concerns over security issues and hacking attacks have become the top priority for most organizations and businesses. Today, many companies implement various measures and security procedures for protecting their business infrastructures and users’ sensitive data. However, no matter what, the chance of being hacked at one point in time still exists. That’s why it’s necessary to turn into more solid and comprehensive protection mechanisms apart from basic security measures. And what is more suitable to carry the security enhancer role if not proper vulnerability scanning? 

Detecting current vulnerabilities and flaws of the security system is the first foundational step towards a risk-free and safe business ecosystem any reputable organization should take. Therefore, achieving this point will be possible through thoroughly performed vulnerability assessments and evaluations. 

We have created this article to help you understand what exactly vulnerability assessment is, why it’s so demanded, and how to perform it in your company. 

General Understanding of Vulnerability Assessments 

Generally, no single software is free of bugs and security vulnerabilities: almost every organization’s systems inevitably contain hidden defects, mistakes, or development errors. And it is more than normal. 

However, while many security flaws and errors are harmless in nature, some may turn out to be critical and exploitable vulnerabilities placing the security and functionality of the system at huge risk. And this is precisely where vulnerability testing comes to help.

If in a few words, a vulnerability assessment refers to a vulnerability analysis of the target IT system to identify security weaknesses and bugs before malicious actors can get the hang of them. Moreover, it evaluates if the target information system is susceptible or prone to any known vulnerabilities, helps prioritize vulnerabilities and assigns severity levels, and offers remediation and mitigation options whenever needed.

The most common cyber threats and known software vulnerabilities that a thorough vulnerability assessment can prevent are as follows:

  • Cross-Scripting Attacks: Typically, XSS attacks are a type of security vulnerability found in web applications. Via this attack, scammers inject client-side scripts into websites viewed by other users and can be used to avoid access control.
  • SQL Injection Attacks: These attacks belong to code injection attacks and occur when untrusted or invalidated data is sent to code interpreters through a data submission field or form input in a web application. Generally, SQL Injections can lead to data breaches, leaks, data corruption, denial of access, or loss of accountability.
  • Insecure Defaults – Insecure defaults occur when software ships with unsafe settings like predictable admin passwords and other credentials. 
  • Privilege Escalation Attacks: It refers to the growth of privileges because of faulty authentication mechanisms, including exploiting a vulnerability, programming error, configuration oversight, design flaw, and access control in an application or operating system.

Vulnerability Testing vs. Penetration Testing 

Generally, many people think that vulnerability assessment and penetration testing are the same. However, it’s just a big confusion that comes from the similarities between the two testing options. Vulnerability assessment aims to identify vulnerabilities of networks or software through automated scans or vulnerability scanning tools. On the other hand, penetration testing is performed manually by a team of auditors or security professionals who check and verify all system components through automated and manual techniques. 

Therefore, penetration testing is a more comprehensive and professional approach compared to simple vulnerability scanning and provides more detailed research and protection solutions. Most auditing and cybersecurity companies often combine these two approaches for more enhanced security testing. At first, they run an automated vulnerability test and detect vulnerable systems and unpatched vulnerabilities through a vulnerability assessment tool. Then based on the acquired information, they perform penetration testing to localize new and existing threats and network vulnerabilities and fix them according to the emergency level. 

Types Of Vulnerability Assessments

There are multiple types of vulnerability assessments that are implemented based on the projects’ specifics and requirements. 

  • Host Assessment: Host scans are used for detecting and identifying vulnerabilities in workstations, servers, or other network hosts. Generally, this type of vulnerability scan examines ports and services that can also be noticeable in network-based scans. 
  • Network-Based Assessment: These scans are used to detect potential network security attacks. Network-based scanning can also identify vulnerable protocols on wired and wireless networks.
  • Database Assessment: Database scans can discover weak elements in a database to prevent various malicious attacks, including XSS Attacks and SQL Injections. 
  • Application Scans: This type of scans test websites to identify incorrect configuration settings and common vulnerabilities in network and web applications.
  • Wireless Network Assessment: It covers vulnerability scans of a company’s Wi-Fi networks and concentrates on attack points in wireless network infrastructure. Moreover, along with identifying rogue databases, wireless network scans can verify that a project’s network is securely configured.

Vulnerability Assessment Process

The vulnerability testing process and methodologies can vary from one project to another based on the specifics and goals of the upcoming assessment. However, most security teams follow standard steps to conduct effective security assessments. Let’s review the required steps below.

#1 Vulnerability Identification

The first and most essential step covers drafting a thorough application or network vulnerabilities list. During this phase, security analysts test and evaluate the overall security situation of servers, applications, and other critical servers by scanning them with vulnerability assessment tools or testing them manually.

Security teams also rely on asset management systems, vendor vulnerability announcements, threat intelligence feeds, big data systems, and vulnerability databases to identify threats and security weaknesses.

#2 Vulnerability Analysis 

The next step of comprehensive vulnerability assessment is analysis, which helps find the root cause and source of the vulnerabilities identified in the previous stage. It includes the identification of system components responsible for each flaw and the root cause of the identified vulnerability. Here, security analysts can use vulnerability scanners or perform manual reviews for a more comprehensive analysis.

#3 Risk Assessment 

The primary goal of the risk assessment phase is to prioritize the identified vulnerabilities according to their severity level. The security team can also use a vulnerability scanner with a common vulnerability scoring system ( CVSS) to assign a numerical score. 

#4 Remediation and Vulnerability Assessment Report

The most vital step of security assessments covers fixing and closing security gaps. During this stage, development staff, security, and operations teams, with a joint effort, determine and plan the most effective strategy for remediation of each critical component and vulnerability.

Security teams complete vulnerability assessment and testing processes by providing a detailed test report. This report covers the results of performed vulnerability assessment, identified security issues and threats, recommendations for IT risk management lifecycles and vulnerability management directions, mitigation options, and more.

FAQ Section

Why do we do vulnerability assessments?

Regular vulnerability assessment and testing help companies identify vulnerabilities and threats in the system’s network and applications. Moreover, a thoroughly conducted vulnerability assessment allows you to prevent common security issues and attacks by fixing and resolving all identified flaws. 

What is the vulnerability assessment process?

During the vulnerability assessment process, a security analyst defines and identifies weaknesses in the target networks and web apps and then prioritizes vulnerabilities in accordance with their severity level and urgency.
After the vulnerability assessment is complete, the security team also provides clients with a technical report involving the outcomes of the assessment and ways to resolve found issues.

What is the difference between a risk assessment and a vulnerability assessment?

In general, risk assessments cover looking outside of a company to determine what issues and threats can potentially lead to security problems and data breaches. In contrast, a vulnerability assessment refers to looking inside the company’s system for structural weaknesses and flaws.