Patch me if you can: the importance of vulnerability management

This is the first post in a three-part series on vulnerability management. In this post, elevenM’s Theo Schreuder explains why vulnerability management is so important and outlines some key considerations when establishing a vulnerability management program.

In 2017 the American credit bureau Equifax suffered a breach of its corporate servers leading to customer data being leaked from its credit monitoring databases. The fallout from the breach included the exposure of the personal information of almost 150 million Americans, resignation of the company CEO and a reputation battering that included a scathing report by the US Senate.

The breach occurred due to attackers exploiting a vulnerability in the Apache Struts website framework — a vulnerability that was unpatched for over two months despite a fix being known and available.

With a proper vulnerability management program in place Equifax could have prioritised remediation of the Apache Struts security patch and prevented huge impact on consumers, to its reputation, and saved US$575 million in eventual legal settlement costs.

It’s little wonder that vulnerability management features heavily in well-respected cyber security frameworks and strategies, such as the NIST Cybersecurity Framework and the Australian Government’s Essential Eight. Equifax has also come to the party, putting a program in place: “Since then, Equifax said that it’s implemented a new management system to handle vulnerability updates and to verify that the patch has been issued.”

So what is “vulnerability management”?

Vulnerability management is the end-to-to end process from the identification of vulnerabilities in your network to the verification that they have been remediated.

The first priority in vulnerability management is to scan the network. And by the network we mean everything. Servers, routers, laptops, even that weird voice-controlled air-conditioning system you have in your offices. Having visibility of unpatched vulnerabilities in your network allows you to prioritise patching and prevent potential breaches.

In subsequent posts in this series, we’ll step through the key elements that comprise the vulnerability management process and discuss some key challenges and considerations for a well-functioning program.

For now, here are two key consideration when starting to think about establishing a vulnerability management program:

Firstly, it is important to be clear and transparent about the true state of risk in your environment as nothing will get done if the risk is not pointed out. Even if a vulnerability is “risk accepted”, it needs to be continuously logged and monitored so that if a breach occurs you know where to look. Visibility of where the greatest vulnerabilities lie encourages action. It’s easy to fall into an “out of sight, out of mind” approach when you are not getting clear and regular reporting.

Secondly, In order to get this regular reporting, it is advantageous to automate as much as possible. This reduces the effort required to create reports on a regular basis, freeing up resources to actually investigate and analyse vulnerability data.

Stay tuned for the next post in the series.

Read all posts in the series:
Patch me if you can: the importance of vulnerability management
Patch me if you can: the six steps of vulnerability management
Patch me if you can: key challenges and considerations