October 9, 2023 By Sanara Marsh 5 min read

Staying one step ahead of potential breaches is a top priority for security teams within organizations of all sizes. Vulnerability scanning has long been a foundation of these efforts, allowing businesses to identify weaknesses in their security posture. However, as cyberattacks grow in sophistication and scale and with a large number of Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) cataloged each year, it’s becoming increasingly clear that vulnerability scanning is not enough.

What is vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is a high-level way to check operating systems, apps or networks for security weaknesses or potential vulnerabilities. The goal is to conduct a vulnerability assessment to find gaps (like outdated software or firmware) or exploitable security vulnerabilities and misconfigurations that cyber criminals could exploit.

In practice, vulnerability scanning means using specialized web applications or vulnerability scanning tools to scan servers, laptops and workstations connected to a network.

Security teams can perform various types of vulnerability scans like external scans that look at identified vulnerabilities attackers could exploit if they were starting outside your network. Or internal vulnerability scanning where they could scan for vulnerabilities that insiders could exploit, such as exposed password hashes. They can also perform authenticated scans that use privileged credentials to detect threats resulting from weak passwords, malware or unauthenticated scans to find weaknesses within operating systems, services listening on open ports and more to see their network from an attacker’s perspective.

In fact, some security standards, like the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), require organizations to conduct vulnerability scans on a regular basis.

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Limitations of vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scanning offers a systematic scanning process as a part of performing security testing of your digital environment to look for weaknesses. It often uses automation to compare the configuration and software versions against a database of known vulnerabilities and flag a potential security risk when a match is found. While it has been an important part of cybersecurity for years, digital transformation has exacerbated the process leading to several limitations that organizations are working to overcome, including those below:

1. Limited to known vulnerabilities: A vulnerability scanner will scan your devices against every vulnerability its developers know about. The key phrase here is “know about.” Faced with unfamiliar vulnerabilities, like new vulnerabilities that have not been added to a database, the scanner will not be able to flag them. This leaves organizations wide open to zero-day threats.

2. False positives and false negatives: Vulnerability scans are not perfect. They can return false positives (i.e., vulnerabilities that don’t exist in your system) and false negatives (i.e., vulnerabilities that exist in your system but are missed by the scanner). To ensure this doesn’t happen, you need to customize your scan configurations and validate scan results – otherwise, scans will continue to return inaccuracies and result in alert fatigue within IT teams.

3. Non-exploitable vulnerabilities: Not every vulnerability identified by a vulnerability scan will be exploitable in your system. Even if a vulnerability is exploitable, you may have controls in place to reduce this risk. A vulnerability scan doesn’t take that into account.

4. Non-patchable risks and misconfigurations: Digital transformation often introduces risks that extend beyond traditional vulnerabilities. These risks include misconfigurations, exposed login pages, weak encryption protocols or expiring certificates. Traditional vulnerability management tools may not effectively capture and address these non-patchable risks, leaving organizations exposed to potential security breaches.

5. Lack of visibility: Vulnerability scanning is primarily concerned with endpoints and known network assets. It often misses shadow IT, IoT devices, cloud services and other components of the modern attack surface, leaving behind blind spots that attackers can exploit. Moreover, with a vulnerability scan, you only get information about the risks present in your system at the time of the scan.

6. Lack of context: When a scan returns a list of vulnerabilities, it isn’t necessarily clear which vulnerabilities a security team should focus on first – or why. Security teams need to analyze the results to identify potentially risky vulnerabilities and see how they fit into the greater context of the business.

Vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing

Vulnerability scanning is a way to find out if there are weaknesses in a system, but it doesn’t show you what weaknesses put a system at risk.

Penetration testing, on the other hand, not only finds weaknesses but also aims to exploit them to see the level at which a cyber criminal could penetrate a system, i.e., it simulates a full attack. A penetration test, or “pen test”, can help organizations understand the risk that particular vulnerabilities pose to their environment.

Unlike vulnerability scanning, which is usually fully automated, pen testing tends to involve a human hacker who, after a penetration test is complete, provides a full report of the test results, the severity of vulnerabilities found and technical recommendations.

As pen tests are more expensive than vulnerability scans, they generally happen a lot less frequently.

The role of ASM in strengthening cybersecurity defenses

To move beyond the limitations of vulnerability scanning, organizations must shift their focus from individual vulnerabilities to the broader concept of the attack surface. The attack surface includes all the points where your systems, applications and data are exposed to potential threats. It’s the entire digital footprint of your organization, including known and unknown assets.

Vulnerability scanning can give you vital clues as to where risk is coming from, but attack surface management (ASM) provides a quick, up-to-date look at which cyber threats you actually need to focus on.

By comprehensively mapping your attack surface, ASM shows security teams where to prioritize their efforts based on the criticality and exposure level of each asset while performing remediation.

Monitoring your attack surface allows you to detect new threats, such as malware or phishing sites mimicking your domain, unauthorized subdomains or suspicious SSL certificates.

According to the Cost of a Data Breach Report 2023, organizations that deployed an ASM solution were able to identify and contain data breaches 75% of the time of those without an ASM solution.

Importance of continuous threat monitoring

Once you have a clear picture of your attack surface, you can implement continuous threat monitoring to stay informed about new vulnerabilities and emerging threats before they can be exploited. It provides organizations with proactive and real-time insights into their evolving digital landscape, going beyond traditional network security.

IBM Security Randori integrates bi-directionally with vulnerability management platforms, ensuring that ASM insights are seamlessly shared with vulnerability management tools. This allows businesses to prioritize and address vulnerabilities based on likelihood and impact, bridging the gap between ASM and vulnerability management for a more comprehensive and targeted response to security risks.

Randori also combines external attack surface management with continuous automated red teaming, establishing a strong foundation for an effective continuous threat exposure management (CTEM) program. This gives you a better view of your unique threat landscape, allowing you to implement remediation measures to mitigate and minimize the most relevant risks.

Moving beyond vulnerability scanning

You can’t effectively defend your attack surface from exploitable vulnerabilities with vulnerability scanning alone. It’s essential to move beyond its limitations and take a more comprehensive approach to security by getting out of the find-and-fix method and adopting a proactive approach.

Check out the recent webinar on Beyond Vulnerability Scanning: Enhancing Attack Surface Management for More Proactive Security where security experts share their knowledge and insights to build robust cybersecurity for your business, on demand now.

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