Few would argue that GRC is a key component of the cybersecurity portfolio for any modern organization. Sound GRC ensures an organization is operating within legal and regulatory frameworks while minimizing risks and maximizing opportunities. Management of threats and vulnerabilities is an essential component of a successful GRC program.
Threats to an organization’s information systems can come from a variety of sources, including nation states, cybercriminals, insiders with malicious intent, accidents, and natural disasters. Vulnerabilities can arise from outdated software, misconfigured systems, or weak passwords. The consequences of a successful cyberattack or data breach can be severe, including financial loss, reputational damage, and legal liability. In this article, we will explore some recommendations for implementing effective threat and vulnerability management as part of a broader GRC strategy.
1. Risk Assessment
A thorough risk assessment is a critical first step in effective threat and vulnerability management. Many organizations struggle with choosing a risk assessment framework or standard. The risk assessment framework matters less than the quality and diligence of the assessment process to establish a high-confidence baseline. Then, repeating with the same framework and approach to measure risk over time with greater accuracy and assurance in your results, adjusting with corrections from lessons learned over time. Assessments should be performed annually, at a minimum. GRC tools and controls automation can assist in giving an organization the ability to run risk assessments more frequently, even possibly in real-time.
2. Vulnerability Management Program
Knowing your vulnerabilities is essential to risk management. Regular vulnerability scanning can help identify weaknesses in an organization’s information systems and applications. Vulnerability scans should be conducted on a regular basis, ideally weekly or monthly (if not daily), and should cover all critical systems and applications. Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) tools can also assist beyond traditional vulnerability scanners to give a deeper look into embedded software components as additional vulnerability information. Results from all vulnerability management tools should be reviewed and assessed for criticality. For example, Internet-facing systems with serious vulnerabilities are often addressed first, if not immediately. Mitigation actions should be entered into a prioritized work queue based on criticality, with metrics to support remediation patterns.
3. Patch Management
Once vulnerabilities have been identified, it is critical to address them as promptly as possible through your patch management program. The program should cover all critical and especially Internet-facing (also workstations) systems and applications, at a minimum. Organizations should also have a process in place to ensure that patches are tested before deployment to prevent unintended consequences to the best extent possible. Note that not all vulnerabilities have a patch, or you may not be able to patch as soon as desired, in this case various workarounds or supporting preventive/detective controls may be needed as mitigation actions to address the vulnerability until it can be patched.
4. Monitor and respond to threats
Preventive controls won’t stop everything. Organizations should have technologies and processes in place to detect and respond quickly and accurately to threats that make it through your defenses. This can include real-time monitoring of various security tools, network traffic and system logs. Well-practiced incident response procedures are a necessity. An untested incident response plan is barely better than no plan at all. This part of your program can be the most challenging of all when it comes to cost and time, (e.g., breadth of different technologies, reducing false positives, response plan practice) but it is also one of the most effective at reducing risk.
5. Educate employees
Human error is one of the leading causes of data breaches. Therefore to reduce this risk, it is vital to educate employees on the importance of the organization’s threat and vulnerability management practices, and their part in keeping the company secure. Employees should be trained on how to recognize and report potential threats, such as suspicious emails or unusual network activity, to the personnel responsible for monitoring and response. Appropriate management support of these “human risk” programs has historically been the greatest challenge, as well as the negative effects of punitive programs vs. reward/support programs. Fostering a constructive and supporting culture of security from the top down has proven to have the greatest benefit.
6. Conduct regular security assessments
Organizations should conduct regular security assessments to ensure that their threat and vulnerability management program is effective. Assessments against a known and well-supported security framework, standard or regulation is best because it is easier to measure success (or failure) over time. Security assessments should cover all critical systems, applications, protocols, and locations. The results of security assessments should be reviewed promptly, and mitigation actions should prioritized to address identified vulnerabilities. Action plans should contain an owner, expected action, and expected date of completion at a minimum.
7. Continuous improvement
Threat actors are constantly evolving. They change their tactics, tools, and procedures frequently, which means detection and response must be ongoing and fluid processes to stay ahead of emerging threats. Vulnerabilities are discovered and reported daily or faster. These perpetually dynamic conditions create a satiation where in order to be consistently effective, threat and vulnerability management programs must be constantly updated and improved.
Effective threat and vulnerability management is a critical component of a comprehensive GRC strategy. Organizations that implement effective threat and vulnerability management can reduce the likelihood of cyberattacks and data breaches, minimize the impact of any incidents that do occur, and stay ahead of emerging threats. By following these recommendations, organizations can improve their overall security posture and protect their critical systems.