Safeguarding your digital assets against potential cyberattacks depends on how well you can identify and mitigate potential cybersecurity threats. It all starts with learning how to conduct a threat vulnerability assessment, which—if implemented effectively—will optimize your cybersecurity posture and help boost your cyber defenses. Read on to learn more.
How to Conduct a Threat Vulnerability Assessment Tailored to Your Security Needs
Adopting a multi-step approach to conducting threat vulnerability assessments will streamline your overall implementation of security controls. Our guide will show you how to conduct a threat vulnerability assessment using a four-step approach:
- First, you inventory your IT assets to identify those potentially at risk.
- Next, you determine the potential threat or vulnerability risk to each type of asset.
- Then, you leverage the appropriate tools to screen for existing and imminent threats and vulnerabilities.
- Finally, you implement threat and vulnerability remediation where necessary.
Beyond learning how to conduct a threat vulnerability assessment, it is also essential to optimize threat vulnerability assessments to your organization’s specific security needs—with the help of a cybersecurity solutions partner.
#1 Inventory IT Assets at Risk of Cybersecurity Threats
When learning how to conduct a threat vulnerability assessment, the first step is to perform a risk-based inventory of the assets in your IT infrastructure. The security gaps exploited by most cyberattacks can be mitigated by implementing the appropriate safeguards for at-risk assets.
The assets typically at risk within an organization’s IT infrastructure include:
- Sensitive data (i.e., personally identifiable information (PII))
- Networks used to transmit sensitive data and host applications
- Hardware and software assets
Developing a system to inventory the entire suite of assets within your IT infrastructure will help you streamline threat vulnerability assessments.
Types of Sensitive Data
PII refers to any data that reveals an individual’s personal information and identity. It is critical for organizations that collect, process, store, or transmit PII to safeguard the privacy and sensitivity of PII categories at all times.
Depending on your industry, any sensitive data you handle is protected by regulatory compliance frameworks, including:
- The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) safeguards the processing of cardholder data (CHD).
- The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) safeguards the processing, storage, and transmission of protected health information (PHI).
- The European Union (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) safeguards the privacy and personal data rights of EU citizens.
- The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) safeguards the privacy rights of consumers who are residents of California.
Beyond the above classes of PII, organizations that are looking to contract with the Department of Defense (DoD) must safeguard Covered Defense Information (CDI) and Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) under the NIST 800-171, DFARS, and CMMC frameworks.
The security of your networks is critical to maintaining secure data environments across your IT infrastructure. Are you wondering how to conduct a threat assessment for your networks? It starts with narrowing down which networks serve as access points to potential threats.
Categories of networks include:
- Internal networks, such as:
- Wireless networks
- Local area networks (LANs)
- External networks, such as:
- Perimeters defined by firewall configurations
- Routers accessible from outside the organization
Identifying and inventorying the networks within your IT infrastructure will help guide threat assessment of exploitable gaps in network-related access point security.
Hardware and Software
Hardware and software form the bulk of IT assets in many organizations. However, it is important to keep in mind that threat risks to hardware and software vary across IT environments and organizations. Types of hardware prone to threat risks include:
- Personal devices (e.g., laptops, mobiles)
- Physical servers
- Terminals processing PII
Similarly, software prone to security threats include:
- Applications (e.g., web, mobile applications)
- Operating systems (e.g., Windows, macOS)
A systematic process for inventorying sensitive data, networks, software, and hardware within your IT infrastructure will help you conduct effective threat vulnerability assessments.
#2 Implementing a Risk Assessment Methodology
Once you have identified which IT assets face potential security risks, the next step is to use a risk assessment methodology to assess specific threats and vulnerabilities to each asset type.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Special Publication 800-30 provides guidelines for how to conduct a threat assessment via implementing risk assessment methodologies—and will help optimize how you identify, analyze, and mitigate threat and vulnerability risks to your IT assets. Although the risk assessment methodology in the NIST SP 800-30 serves as a standard risk assessment tool for any organization, you must optimize risk assessment in alignment with your organization’s current security needs and IT infrastructure.
The NIST risk assessment methodology comprises four components:
- Risk models guide the identification and assessment of cybersecurity risk factors.
- Assessment approaches guide the quantitative, qualitative, or semi-quantitative assessment of risk factors.
- Analysis approaches utilize risk models to conduct threat and vulnerability assessments specific to risk factors.
- Assessment processes are organization-specific approaches to risk assessment.
Implementing NIST’s risk assessment methodology will help you optimize and develop easily reproducible risk assessments, which, in turn, enable robust threat vulnerability assessments.
For an initial implementation of a risk assessment methodology, risk models will help simplify how to conduct a threat vulnerability assessment, ensuring a comprehensive risk assessment of your IT infrastructure.
Risk Models for Threat and Vulnerability Assessments
Per the NIST SP 800-30, risk models define the relationship between risk factors and enable organizations to characterize the attributes of risks when conducting threat and vulnerability assessments. Four common types of cybersecurity risk factors include:
- Threats – Any occurrence (whether circumstance or event) that results in adverse circumstances to your organization’s assets is considered a threat. Common threats include:
- Events or actions aimed at exploiting a security vulnerability
- Attacks from internal or external parties (e.g., cyberattacks, physical attacks)
- Human errors due to negligence or a lack of awareness
- Failures of organization-controlled resources (e.g., hardware)
- Natural disasters and accidents outside of organizational control
- Vulnerabilities – On the other hand, vulnerabilities are weaknesses that can be exploited by threats or threat actors and include:
- Poor or limited application of security controls
- Changes in operational environments
- Lack of cybersecurity risk management
- Likelihood – When assessing threats and vulnerabilities to your IT infrastructure, it is crucial to analyze the potential of threat occurrence based on:
- Historical evidence from previous threats
- Empirical data collected over defined periods
- State of your organization’s IT infrastructure
- Impact – Threat and vulnerability assessments should also account for the impact of threats due to:
- Unauthorized disclosure or modification of sensitive data
- Unauthorized deletion of sensitive data
- Loss of sensitive data and system functionality
A comprehensive review of the potential risk factors affecting your organization’s IT assets will help refine risk models and guide the implementation of threat vulnerability assessments.
#3 Methods for Assessing Cybersecurity Threats and Vulnerabilities
A working risk assessment methodology will streamline threat and vulnerability assessments across your IT infrastructure, especially when optimized using robust cybersecurity methods.
You may be wondering: what are some of the best methods to conduct threat assessments?
Each cybersecurity regulatory framework has a set of industry-standard requirements that serve as minimum safeguards for sensitive data and other IT assets. Although each cybersecurity framework outlines unique requirements and safeguards, their collective aim is to help organizations mitigate cyber threats and data breaches.
One of the most robust security frameworks is the HITRUST CSF, comprising comprehensive risk-based security controls addressing compliance across multiple regulatory frameworks.
As an example of how to conduct a threat vulnerability assessment, HITRUST CSF’s risk assessment process identifies risks to:
- Sensitive data – Based on threat intelligence tools, organizations can identify the data frequently targeted by cybercriminals and trace common breach points, some of which include:
- Vulnerabilities in web applications (e.g., broken access controls)
- Social engineering threats (e.g., phishing)
- IT environments – Random, unusual changes in IT environments such as those containing sensitive data can also point to vulnerabilities in:
- Firewalls securing network access points
- Existing threat detection methods
- External partnerships – When working with third-party organizations, your responsibility is to ensure that the third parties maintain ongoing regulatory compliance. Failure to do so can risk the security of your sensitive data and broader IT infrastructure.
Although HITRUST CSF’s controls apply primarily to organizations within and adjacent to healthcare, a similar approach to compliance assessment applies to other frameworks.
Penetration testing or pen testing leverages the expertise of “ethical hackers” to assess the security of your IT assets. One of the advantages of penetration testing is its versatile application in assessing threats to various assets within your IT infrastructure.
Furthermore, penetration testing provides visibility into cybersecurity processes, including:
- Patch management and security updates
- Implementation of internal security policies
- Use of cryptography on personal user devices
- Compliance with security frameworks
Besides assessing your security posture, penetration testing helps categorize threat risks by levels when conducted using a risk assessment methodology. Pen testing will also help you optimize threat and vulnerability assessment processes developed from a risk assessment methodology.
Although penetration testing can be conducted internally, outsourcing pen testing services to a managed security services provider (MSSP) provides an outsider perspective—and can potentially improve the robustness of a threat and vulnerability assessment.
It is critical to monitor threats in real-time for dynamic IT environments with large amounts of incoming and outgoing traffic. The most effective methods for threat monitoring include:
- Real-time threat analysis, which helps to:
- Notify dedicated security teams of potential threats
- Escalate high-risk threats
- Initiate on-demand incident response protocols
- Security information and events monitoring (SIEM), which helps to:
- Monitor changes to sensitive data environments
- Log user access events to identify anomalies
- Automate designation of access privileges
- Identify non-compliance events
Using any of the above methods to conduct threat assessments will improve threat detection and mitigation capabilities—strengthening your cybersecurity infrastructure in the long term.
If you have limited internal capacity to implement these methods, you can outsource threat and vulnerability assessments to an MSSP who will maximize cybersecurity ROI.
#4 Best Practices for Vulnerability Remediation
The final step in determining how to conduct a threat vulnerability assessment is vulnerability remediation. Once you have identified the risks to assets within your IT infrastructure and have established robust methods to assess vulnerabilities, it is critical to remediate vulnerabilities immediately. In the long term, vulnerability remediation is essential to preventing threats and vulnerabilities from escalating into potential cyberattacks.
Furthermore, your organization can only remediate vulnerabilities once they are assessed and identified. Ideally, you can think of vulnerability remediation as a readout of your security posture—the fewer vulnerabilities you remediate, the stronger your security controls are.
Across industries, common vulnerability remediation processes include:
- Patch management – Whether you process sensitive cardholder data or PHI, updating the security patches on critical cybersecurity infrastructure will mitigate threat risks. When deploying patches, it is critical to ensure:
- The immediate rollout of patches upon release
- Patch testing prior to release to avoid potential threat risks
- Timing of patch deployment accounts for asset end-of-life cycles
- Remediation tracking – The effectiveness of vulnerability remediation processes depends on implementation efficiency. Tracking vulnerability remediation efforts will help:
- Streamline remediation based on risk to assets
- Identify assets at much higher risk than previously anticipated
- Assess the effectiveness of remediation
- Remediation documentation – Documenting vulnerability remediation efforts is crucial to threat and vulnerability assessment recordkeeping and will help optimize future vulnerability remediation.
- Security awareness training – Even with a highly secure IT infrastructure, a single exploited security vulnerability—such as a successful phishing attack—can dramatically increase cybersecurity risk. Implementing security awareness training will increase cyber vigilance and help mitigate social engineering attacks.
You can also further optimize vulnerability remediation with the help of a threat and vulnerability management services provider, who can guide you on best practices for effective remediation of security gaps across your IT infrastructure.
Conduct Effective Threat Vulnerability Assessments
Implementing a strategic four-step approach to threat vulnerability assessments will help streamline threat and vulnerability management and strengthen your security posture.
To address your organization’s specific security needs, consider partnering with a leading cybersecurity solutions provider who will show you how to conduct a threat vulnerability assessment for your entire IT infrastructure.
Contact RSI Security today to learn more and get started!