Security professionals keep busy. Before you can patch a vulnerability, you need to decide how important it is. How does it compare to the other problems that day? Choosing which jobs to do first using vulnerability management tools can be a key element of a smart security strategy.

Software vulnerabilities are one of the root causes of attacks. One unpatched opening could let attackers compromise an entire organization. So, it might seem obvious that you need to patch every single vulnerability to ensure no one gets in. But it’s not that simple. Based on the work performed by IBM Security X-Force Red, an average organization has 1.7 million vulnerabilities at any given time. Therefore, it’s not only inefficient but almost impossible to patch them all on an ongoing basis. Let’s look at how and why organizations should implement prioritization in their vulnerability management efforts.

What Is Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability management is all about identifying and remediating vulnerabilities in an organization’s infrastructure, in order to prevent them from being exploited by malicious actors. If done well, it reveals the risks that the organization is exposed to, allowing them to be addressed as a priority to prevent costly data breaches, both in financial, operational but also reputational terms.

Identification of vulnerabilities is a critical step, and most organizations have already adopted the use of vulnerability scanning engines. However, the sheer number of potential exploits that are revealed as a result of such scans can be overwhelming. Once vulnerabilities are uncovered, the question becomes what actions should be taken to patch them and who should take ownership of the process. This is where problems often arise. The ever-growing vulnerability burden results in tension between security and IT operations teams. While security teams are keen to close out all security flaws, the primary focus of IT operations is the availability of systems.

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To add fuel to the fire, most organizations don’t have the right level of expertise and tools to analyze the outcomes of vulnerability scans. In fact, research shows that up to 80% of the vulnerabilities that organizations are patching aren’t in fact an immediate risk. This stems from the fact that efforts made to prioritize and rank vulnerabilities are often manual, using spreadsheets, or based on the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS). However, such systems don’t consider the fact that only a relatively small percentage of identified vulnerabilities have known exploits, meaning they’re not actively being weaponized by malicious actors.

The result is not only inaccurate prioritization but also a waste of precious time to remediate the right vulnerabilities. Such lack of adequate focus and effective prioritization can leave organizations exposed to threats for an extended period of time and increases their risk of a breach.

Benefits of Risk-Based Vulnerability Management

The key to an effective vulnerability management program lays in correct prioritization and remediation. By changing the approach to fixing vulnerabilities in small batches, the process becomes more manageable, allowing the most critical vulnerabilities to be addressed first. But how can you be certain that you have prioritized well?

It can be achieved by implementing a risk-based approach, which correlates a number of variables, including the value of assets, the severity of vulnerabilities identified, and whether threat intelligence suggests the presence of malicious actors exploiting the given weaknesses at the present time.

With the right level of tooling and expertise, such an approach can determine a realistic risk rating against each vulnerability, allowing for prioritization and effective management of the entire program. This will mean that the top vulnerabilities are patched ‘right now’, whereas those of less critical impact can be managed in subsequent orders of urgency, or simply monitored for risk development. A risk-based approach satisfies the security teams within organizations, as the riskiest flaws are being patched first, lowering the exposure of organizations to potential breaches. The IT operations teams see the advantage too, through having to manage fewer disruptions to system availability.

Given that organizations can face millions of vulnerabilities, many of which expose their sensitive assets, it is crucial to adopt an efficient and effective vulnerability management program. By priority ranking the most critical vulnerabilities based on essential factors and implementing an efficient process for remediating those at the top of the list first, organizations can save time, resources but, most importantly, minimize the risk of compromise.

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