What is vulnerability remediation? It is simply a set of processes for determining and addressing weaknesses in your cybersecurity systems. While important for all organizations, vulnerability remediation is especially critical for those dealing with customer data or whose digital assets may interact with external traffic. A robust vulnerability remediation infrastructure can address security gaps in your systems, protecting your organization from internal and external threats.
Industry-Use Applications of Vulnerability Remediation
A comprehensive, ongoing vulnerability remediation program will help address the cybersecurity gaps as they appear. To best answer, “What is vulnerability remediation?” it’s crucial to understand the landscape of your organization’s IT environment and the nature of risks to digital assets (e.g., networks, applications, and related systems). Developing well-defined vulnerability assessment measures can guide the process of vulnerability remediation.
So, what are the 4 steps in remediation? The vulnerability remediation steps, based on industries frequently targeted by threat actors, include:
- Vulnerability scanning in the payment card industry
- Threat assessment in the healthcare industry
- Vulnerability remediation in the payment card industry
- Ongoing threat monitoring in government defense contracting
For organizations at high risk for threat attacks, vulnerability remediation comes down to defining processes for identifying, analyzing, fixing, and constantly monitoring cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Regardless of your industry and compliance requirements, the vulnerability remediation guidance for the payment card industry, healthcare, and government defense contracting will provide any organization with the comprehensive frameworks to begin.
Vulnerability Scanning in High-Risk Data Environments
The first step in vulnerability remediation is scanning an IT environment for existing vulnerabilities. Organizations that operate sensitive and high-risk data environments must assess data environments for potentially compromising vulnerabilities. For example, organizations in the payment card industry (PCI) are particularly at high risk for threat attacks given the vast amount of cardholder data (CHD) processed.
- Developing protocols to scan exploitable vulnerabilities
- Documenting processes for vulnerability scans
- Verifying PCI compliance for vulnerability scanning measures
These strategies can help inform your organization’s vulnerability scanning and remediation framework. In addition to vulnerabilities, organizations may want to scan for sensitive data stored within their environment, such as personally identifiable information (PII) or credit card primary account numbers (PAN).
Develop Robust Vulnerability Scanning Protocols
An essential component of vulnerability scanning is understanding which assets in your organization are most prone to vulnerabilities. It’s best to classify vulnerabilities as low- or high-risk. Then, your organization can develop robust vulnerability scanning protocols by:
- Protecting critical assets with anti-virus software – Deploying anti-virus software protection for applications and systems used to process card payments can help:
- Generate audit logs from quarantined and blocked malware threats
- Perform automated, periodic scans of CHD environments to identify existing and evolving threats
- Determine threat risk to assets for classification as low- or high-risk assets
- Determine minimum required anti-virus protections for critical assets, based on defined risk level
- Inform threat intelligence and risk assessment
- Using threat intelligence tools to identify vulnerabilities – Threat intelligence, open-source or not, can help your organization identify known and unknown threats. Trusted, periodically updated open-source databases include but are not limited to:
- Mitre Corporation’s Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) list – CVE list is compiled by CVE numbering authorities such as authorized software vendors, coordination centers, research groups, and hosted services
- NIST NVD’s Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) – CVSS uses a score-based metric to determine the severity of vulnerabilities affecting widely-used software applications
- OWASP’s list of top 10 web application security risks – OWASP’s vulnerabilities list is based on industry consensus of the most critical web application risks
- Implementing periodic vulnerability assessment – A robust vulnerability scanning protocol ensures consistent scanning of sensitive CHD environments for vulnerabilities, at least annually or following any significant changes to the data environments. For high-risk applications that encounter external traffic, such as web applications, installing firewalls can help detect potentially malicious traffic.
Developing vulnerability scanning protocols as part of a vulnerability remediation program helps implement ongoing threat assessment and maximizes the security of CHD environments.
Document Vulnerability Scanning Processes
Organizations must also document existing vulnerability scanning processes. It is critical for personnel to be aware of the existing scanning protocols implemented in an organization.
Vulnerabilities in implementing cybersecurity protocols, such as personnel deactivating anti-virus software on their work devices, can expose networks and sensitive CHD environments to potentially malicious external traffic. Proper and thorough documentation of active vulnerability scanning protocols can help personnel understand the scopes of the protections and the ramifications of exploited vulnerabilities.
Verify PCI Compliance for Vulnerability Scanning
Per the PCI Data Security Standards (DSS), organizations processing card payments are required to secure CHD environments using the guidelines recommended in the PCI DSS, the most critical of which include:
- Running internal and external vulnerability scans at least quarterly
- Running internal and external vulnerability scans after significant changes to CHD environment
- Conducting rescans of CHD environments following vulnerability remediation
- Developing a methodology for penetration testing of CHD environments at least annually and after significant changes
- Scanning all incoming traffic into CHD environments, especially at critical access points
Threat Assessment of Protected Health Information (PHI)
The second step in vulnerability remediation is to analyze vulnerability scan threat intelligence to determine which cybersecurity gaps to address. Like the payment card industry, healthcare organizations and their business associates operate environments containing sensitive data: protected health information (PHI).
Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), covered entities (i.e., healthcare organizations and their business associates) must protect PHI from unauthorized exposure. Therefore, critical compliance efforts involve optimizing your organization’s threat assessment tools, ensuring the proper identification and remediation of vulnerabilities.
Access Control Vulnerabilities and HIPAA
Most commonly identified HIPAA-related vulnerabilities resulting in breaches to PHI are linked to access control issues. HIPAA non-compliance vulnerabilities are often a result of:
- Healthcare organization employee accessing PHI outside of authorized cases, resulting in unauthorized exposure
- Covered entities failing to control employee access to PHI
- Lack of encryption safeguards on personal devices containing ePHI
- Unauthorized disclosure of PHI to parties such as patient employers
- Accessing ePHI on personal devices connected to unsecured networks
The Security Rule and Vulnerability Remediation
Based on these vulnerabilities, HIPAA-covered entities and their business associates can conduct a threat assessment of their networks, applications, and systems to determine access control gaps. The HIPAA Security Rule stipulates protections for ePHI and can help develop a vulnerability assessment model.
Based on the Security Rule guidance, your organization could conduct an assessment for vulnerabilities in:
- Personnel screening – User event log audits can help identify instances of misused access related to:
- Potentially malicious personnel activity
- Personnel wrongfully accessing ePHI
- Personnel extracting ePHI onto personal or unsecured devices
- Encryption practices – Detecting gaps in the secure transmission of ePHI can help address encryption standards, especially those related to:
- ePHI encryption via VPNs or Internet security protocols
- Cryptographic technology such as Data Encryption Standards (DES) and hash standards
- User access authentication – Analyzing event logs can identify security control gaps within user accounts, including:
- Existing user accounts for previously employed personnel
- Undefined user separation functions, allowing access to ePHI where it should be restricted otherwise
- Escalation of user privileges that goes unnoticed
- ePHI storage and transmission – Collecting data on forms of ePHI storage, including portable storage solutions (e.g., CDs, DVDs, hard drives, digital assistants) and cloud storage solutions (e.g., servers and connected networks) can reveal gaps in storage mechanisms and flaws in networks.
Note that NIST SP 800-30 contains a comprehensive list of factors to consider in a vulnerability assessment. In addition, working with a HIPAA-compliance advisor can help your organization identify any vulnerabilities to PHI processed by your digital assets.
Challenges to Vulnerability Assessment Models Regardless of Industry
A critical challenge to existing threat and vulnerability assessment tools is effectively determining which vulnerabilities present active threats. Specifically, studies have shown that:
- Only 10 to 15 percent of the vulnerabilities in publicly available databases have a defined exploit.
- A small number of these vulnerabilities are weaponized to launch threat attacks
- A few of these reported vulnerabilities are exploited in compromised organizations
- Analysis of open-source threat data is sometimes challenging, resulting in false positives
As part of defining vulnerability remediation, understanding the challenges to vulnerability assessment models can help your organization optimize a robust process guideline. In addition, adopting a machine learning approach can help cross-reference your internal threat intelligence with open sources, generating more comprehensive insights into the nature of evolving threat attacks.
What is Vulnerability Remediation in the Payment Card Industry?
For PCI organizations, what is vulnerability remediation’s next step after scanning and assessment? Vulnerability remediation addresses any potential exploits once they are identified, minimizing any risks to digital assets or sensitive data. Establishing a vulnerability remediation protocol is critical for any organization whose cybersecurity systems identify potential threats, regardless of industry.
Organizations processing sensitive CHD can conduct vulnerability remediation by:
- Deploying patches – Patch management is critical to a vulnerability remediation protocol as a means of preventing exploitation of vulnerabilities, regardless of perceived risk. For sensitive CHD environments, patches should be deployed soon after release, preferably within one month, for critical security patches. However, organizations should test patches before deployment to prevent any additional vulnerabilities.
- Tracking remediation processes – Vulnerability remediation tracking can help ensure ongoing remediation of critical vulnerabilities. When developing a remediation tracking schedule, your organization should ensure that:
- Remediation of vulnerabilities based on risk level and priority of affected digital assets or processes
- Once vulnerabilities are addressed, vulnerabilities considered high risk should be rescanned to ensure satisfactory resolution
- Vulnerability remediation aligns with scan results, including quarterly scanning of CHD environments by a PCI Security Standards Council-approved ASV
- Documenting remediation processes – Full documentation of the vulnerabilities identified by vulnerability scans, along with results of rescans or penetration testing, can help inform future remediation efforts. Proper documentation of exploited and unexploited vulnerabilities also provides data for internal threat intelligence.
Developing tools for patch management, vulnerability remediation tracking schedules, or remediation documentation protocols can help your organization protect CHD environments from vulnerabilities, both low- and high-risk.
Threat Monitoring for Department of Defense Contractors
Once your organization identifies and remediates vulnerabilities, you should continue monitoring IT systems for threats. For government contractors such as those with Department of Defense (DoD), the last step in vulnerability remediation involves continuously scanning IT systems for threats to controlled unclassified information (CUI), the most critical of which include:
- Controlled technical information (CTI), such as documents related to the maintenance and repair of Defense technology and protected by 48 CFR 252.204-7012
- DoD Critical Infrastructure Security Information (DCRIT), such as data related to vulnerabilities in Defense structures and protected by 10 USC 130e
- Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information (NNPI), specifically information related to nuclear infrastructure and protected by 42 USC 2013 and 50 USC 2511
- Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information (DCNI), such as documents related to nuclear plants covered by the Department of Energy and protected by 10 USC 128(a) and 32 CFR 223
Notably, the Cybersecurity Model Maturity Certification (CMMC) is a new framework for DoD contractors, intended to supersede all other compliance requirements. The framework is undergoing it’s initial rollout. However, the Pentagon announced in Fall 2021 that the framework will be undergoing major revisions and their extent is unknown at the time.
When announcements about the new CMMC are made, RSI Security will provide more information.
Optimize Your Vulnerability Remediation Processes
Vulnerability remediation is critical to any organization’s suite of threat and vulnerability management tools. So, to return to the question of, “What is vulnerability remediation?”
It’s a set of processes, policies, and tools that identify, monitor, and address exploitable vulnerabilities within your organization’s cybersecurity infrastructure.
To learn more about optimizing vulnerability remediation for your organization’s security, contact RSI Security today.