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Managing Rising Vulnerabilities Through Prioritization

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Picture buying a house and setting about renovating it. The only problem: No matter how much time and effort you pour into fixing it up, there’s always another problem to solve. Plug holes in the roof with new tiles? The floorboards also need replacing. Spend time repairing the broken windows? It turns out that the foundations are less than solid as well. 

At times, it seems that not only are you struggling to fix the current issues with the home, but you’re also falling behind on the additional wear and tear causing more problems since you moved in. Worst of all, you’re on a deadline. In just a few weeks, you’re going to be hosting your first guests and all of these issues have got to be fixed by then.

In many ways, this stressful scenario – in which the home-owner must prioritize fixes, while trying to stop on top of additional problems that emerge – is very similar to the vulnerability management challenge faced by cyber security professionals.

More vulnerabilities, more problems

Each year, more software vulnerabilities are discovered. A vulnerability is a software bug that, unlike a regular bug, can be exploited by bad actors to cause damage to users. It could, for instance, be harnessed to allow attackers to exfiltrate data or execute malicious code to cause harm. For those without the right web application security, the effects can be extremely harmful – for organizations and end users alike.

In 2021, a record 18,378 vulnerabilities were reported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This set a new record for the fifth year in a row. The issue with large numbers of vulnerabilities is self-explanatory. Each vulnerability provides hackers with a potential means of gaining access to software to inflict damage.

Most of the time, developers – at least, the conscientious ones – will rapidly release a vulnerability-addressing patch to plug particular software flaws after they have been disclosed. While the ideal scenario would, of course, be for there to be no vulnerabilities to begin with, patching the vulnerability in a timely manner is the next best solution.

But this alone isn’t enough. Returning to our home fixer-upper analogy, imagine buying a house that’s so racked with problems that you simply don’t know where to begin. If every DIY job takes you hours to complete, and new ones are discovered all the time, you may rapidly lose hope of ever getting your house into working order.

Prioritize your problems

The answer, in this case, would be to find some way of prioritizing problems. Sure, a creaking floorboard might be irritating, but it’s nowhere near the health hazard of a ceiling that’s about to collapse or the security hazard of a front door that doesn’t close. In this case, you’d need to know what problems you face, and then have the means to triage them so as to work out what needs to be fixed right now and what can wait until tomorrow, next week, or next month.

Security patches are the same. While all vulnerabilities are bad, some are more critical than others. In some instances, patches must be installed right away, while in others they can be delayed. This is important because installing patches can be a time-intensive occupation. With many organizations lacking sufficient cyber security experts, this can push already overworked teams to the breaking point.

What’s needed is some form of intelligent prioritization. Fortunately, many vulnerability tracking organizations will help with this by sorting vulnerabilities into different classes, such as “critical” or “severe.” There are also inroads being made using tools like machine learning and artificial intelligence which can help take into account vulnerability assessments and ratings and play an important role in prioritization.

The extra help of virtual patching

For organizations wanting to add a much-needed extra layer of security, virtual patching can be a game-changer. While not technically a patch in the same way that a software update is, virtual patching can help safeguard against vulnerabilities using a series of rules that block potential attacks. Virtual patching can be employed even in scenarios in which official patches haven’t been issued by developers. With too many vulnerabilities to fix, tools of this class – the likes of Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP), Web Application Firewalls (WAF) and others – can make a major difference. They’re not a substitute for installing genuine patches, but they are nonetheless able to help close security vulnerabilities up until the point that patches can be properly applied

This security vulnerability and prioritization challenge will remain a major headache for organizations and individual users alike for the foreseeable future. But by taking the right steps, it’s possible to protect against the threat as best as possible. That’s a worthy investment for any business to make. It’s one you’re unlikely to regret for a moment.

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