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Vulnerability Management vs. Risk Management: Defining the Fundamentals

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Businesses run fast to keep pace in a market that is ever dynamic, with new entries threatening to oust established players and advanced technology critical for success in nearly every sector. With all this speed and the increasing reliance on communications and data-sharing both internally and externally comes the danger of inadequate accounting for and management of cyber risks. Expanding operations to the cloud, to multiple business alliances, and IoT/OT exchanges means organizations potentially are giving threat actors a greater attack surface

Security teams need to get ahead of potential threats such as ransomware attacks, privacy invasions, exploitations of common vulnerabilities, and the like. To manage what feels like chaos requires breaking down the dangers in categories and managing accordingly. There are two fundamental categories that anyone involved in information security should understand: vulnerabilities and risks

What are Vulnerabilities?

The more tactical and obvious of the two concepts, vulnerabilities represent internal weaknesses that might be exploited by cybercriminals. An appliance on a network might have a vulnerability that could let the threat actors slip into the corporate database and exfiltrate valuable information. These vulnerabilities can be made evident with an automated vulnerability scan of an organization’s infrastructure.

But identifying vulnerabilities is just the first step. Without understanding overall context, identifying a vulnerability doesn’t provide a base for an effective vulnerability management strategy. A vulnerability may or may not pose a danger to a company, and there’s no sense addressing weaknesses that are highly unlikely to be exploited. Additionally, large organizations are likely to have multiple vulnerabilities, meaning security teams need a vulnerability prioritization scheme to work effectively. 

What are Risks?

Risks are external, the speculative subject of the question, “What’s out there that is unknown but might cause us harm?”

Risks can be defined in a variety of ways, which adds to the confusion. There’s a larger macro level idea of risk as well as a more concrete, technical definition. The macro level definition looks at risk from an overall business perspective. From the macro level in particular, risks are not necessarily something to avoid or unavoidable. A new business venture carries risks, but so does failing to take on the new business if deciding against it means a loss of new revenue.

From a Chief Information Security Officer’s point of view, risks are seen through a technical lens – that is, “What are the dangers posed by the external environment that could be relevant to a company’s cybersecurity preparations?” For example, an enterprise may decide to use a new company as a vendor to supply software helpful in its expansion into a new market. The risk that the CISO needs to understand is that such organizations are increasingly being used by cybercriminals to infiltrate a large number of companies all at once by planting malware in the supplied software. 

Again, the idea is not so much as to try to avoid risk altogether (which would mean not using the vendor at all) but make sure the dangers the risk poses are anticipated and addressed. 

Risk Management vs. Vulnerability Management

When you add up the factors – threats, vulnerabilities, and risks – it’s clear that companies need to manage both risks and vulnerabilities because they represent essential elements of the cybersecurity equation. They need to undertake two separate, but co-dependent, activities: vulnerability management and risk management

Companies that try to cover up all their vulnerabilities without context are wasting time and not operating effectively. A security team needs to know what the risks are in the external world as best it can and then determine that its internal structure is not vulnerable to those threats.

The effective approach that unites the two ideas is called “risk-based vulnerability management.” We’ll look at that in detail in our next blog.

Frequently Asked Questions: 

Question #1: What is vulnerability management?

Answer: Vulnerability management is identifying and properly responding to vulnerabilities in an organization’s internal structure. A vulnerability scan is a common starting point for such a program.

Question #2: What is risk management?

Answer: Risk management involves understanding and properly anticipating risks posed in the external environment that potentially could affect an organization. Risk is unavoidable but needs to be anticipated and guarded against by adequate cybersecurity measures.

Question #3:  What is the difference between vulnerability management and risk management?

Answer: Vulnerability management involves the internal policies, measures, safeguards and vulnerability remediation efforts needed to prevent threat actors from exploiting those identified weaknesses in a company’s infrastructure. Risk management involves understanding current and emerging risks in the external environment – from the broad categories of new business ventures down to the more technical aspects of common vulnerabilities and exposures

Experience Unified Vulnerability and Risk Management

Identify the vulnerabilities that matter most and remediate with confidence using the NopSec UVRM platform. NopSec enables you to assess exposure, remediate vulnerabilities, measure progress, and more. NopSec’s end-to-end platform brings your processes (and platforms) together and provides your team with the means to then discover, prioritize, remediate, simulate, and report on cyber exposures.

Learn more about the current landscape of cyber threat and exposure management by downloading the free white paper today.

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