What Is Vulnerability Assessment? (With Types and Steps)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 12 October 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

It's critical to conduct routine system evaluations in the information technology (IT) industry to check the security and functionality of systems. A vulnerability assessment is a commonly used tool for assessing an information system's security. Companies that use this assessment can determine whether their systems are vulnerable to risks and develop measures for reducing potential threats before they have an impact users or affect system integrity. In this article, we define what a vulnerability assessment is, discuss its importance in the IT field, outline its four types and list six steps to conduct a successful assessment.

What is a vulnerability assessment?

A vulnerability assessment is a method for locating, understanding and fixing a system's weaknesses. Companies are increasingly reliant on technology systems to run their operations and critical business functions. This may leave them open to vulnerabilities like potential dangers, security risks, threats or other flaws that can adversely affect a system's functionality. Organisations use these assessments to identify possible hazards and proactively mitigate any threat or impact to their systems and data. These assessments are critical risk management tools that enable essential organisations like utility companies or transportation services to maintain business continuity.

An assessment of an IT system may reveal risks in areas like hardware, software applications, databases and other technological assets. Regular assessments and reports can help companies to monitor security gaps, which also enables them to pre-emptively fix any issues or threats to safeguard business operations.

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Benefits of conducting a vulnerability assessment

There are several benefits of conducting an assessment because it plays an integral role in an organisation's risk management practises. Here are some of the benefits it offers:

Early detection

IT businesses that conduct consistent assessments can create a robust system that helps to identify system flaws and security errors early. The organisation can use this information to address security issues early before they can negatively impact users or systems. This can help improve the organisation's ability to offer users protection against any cyberattacks or security breaches.

Compliance

Organisations that frequently conduct assessments may do so to comply with data protection or cybersecurity laws. For example, the Personal Data Protection Act stipulates certain legal requirements that organisations protect confidential customer information in their possession. Vulnerability assessments allow risk management professionals to enact preventive measures or take the necessary actions to resolve security flaws that might compromise the safety of the organisation's data and information.

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Security protocols

These assessments are an important part of an organisation's overall IT risk management strategy. Making regular assessments a standard operating procedure can build strong security protocols and help enforce a culture of vigilance and safety in the organisation. This creates a consistent approach that helps protect the organisation against data breaches or any cybersecurity attacks.

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Exhaustive protection

They can provide an exhaustive scan of operating systems, applications, devices, browsers and other endpoint assets. This can help the organisation to catalogue and uncover vulnerabilities and prioritise the high-risk threats. It also enables cybersecurity professionals to patch and reconfigure their networks and systems to address these vulnerabilities in time to prevent any breaches. Having a comprehensive security test of the systems keeps an organisation safe and minimises disruption to critical business functions and operations.

Types of vulnerability assessment

Learn about the main types and which situations to use them in. Here are the four types of assessments:

Network and wireless assessments

Network and wireless assessments can help companies to gauge how well their system's current rules, procedures and security measures are working. Organisations can use the information from these assessments to help prevent illegal access to networks and the resources that users can access through the system. A network and wireless assessment examines and inspects all aspects of a system to ensure they're functioning on the network. This analysis can help identify the services that are currently in use and uncover any security shortcomings or lapses present.

Related: How to Become a Network Engineer

Host assessments

Organisations can conduct host assessments on important servers that hold crucial data. Performing routine host assessments help to detect vulnerabilities in servers, networks and workstations which are susceptible to security threats due to the data they handle. It scans the types of services running and all access ports to evaluate vulnerabilities and uncover any security flaws like backdoor instals and unauthorised file permissions. A host assessment also allows risk analysts to see the configuration settings and patch history, which is useful for identifying any lapses in the network security protocols.

Database assessment

A database assessment looks for weaknesses, misconfigurations and other flaws that could adversely affect functionality or security in databases or systems that handle vast amounts of data. These databases can include customer records, financial reports or data that contain sensitive information and are vulnerable to both external attackers and internal breaches. Organisations may find erroneous, lacking or inconsistent data within their systems by performing database assessments. Using this method also enables businesses to categorise their data according to its sensitivity, which can help provide increased security protection.

Application scans

Applications scanners are valuable tools that scan and report on security vulnerabilities in web-based apps such as malicious source code present in their website or cross-site scripting and path traversal. Depending on the situation, some scanners may automatically deploy patches through the operating system to address any flaws and update the applications as quickly as possible. They may also carry their own vulnerability database that's regularly updated to ensure comprehensive tracking of all known vulnerabilities and logs any new flaws. Application scanning can help to identify vulnerabilities or security misconfigurations before applications are launched for use.

How to perform a vulnerability assessment

Risk management professionals can benefit by learning how to perform this assessment. Here are the main steps involved:

1. Outline goals and scope

Prior to starting the assessment, it's crucial to plan and decide to scope and goal of the tests. The scope can help to determine what networks and systems to test, including what domains or subdomains. This can help risk management professionals to devise different attack scenarios and include them in the assessment. It can also help to define key parameters, such as restricting email testing for phishing attacks to a dedicated email address.

2. Asset discovery

Asset discovery is a key step of the assessment where organisations identify what system components it wants to scan. Organisations undergo the process of asset discovery to better understand the digital infrastructure of their systems, network and applications. This helps them to recognise the value of resources like cloud-based infrastructure, mobile devices and Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets in maintaining system integrity.

When performing asset discovery, it's important to identify where the organisation's main network infrastructure sites are. Map out the organisation's IT system infrastructure and review all processes and ports. Check if the organisation keeps an asset management tool or has a database of owned assets. Then, determine if there is a data classification policy to enforce access, and if so, note which assets are critical to the organisation.

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3. Asset prioritisation

It's crucial to prioritise the assets that are critical to the organisation. For example, the web server that supports your e-commerce operations is more important when compared to potential vulnerabilities in internal computers at the office. Organisations can take an inventory of their assets and prioritise the testing and scanning of specific assets. Prioritising assets also helps to ensure that the test and scanning process stays within budget. Organisations typically prefer to test and analyse internet servers, customer-facing applications and important databases with confidential information.

4. Vulnerability testing

After the organisation has identified and prioritised its assets, the next step is to start the vulnerability testing procedures. This can include testing the security levels of applications, servers and other devices or assets, either through manual or automated techniques. This combination of automated and manual testing can help to validate the test findings and reduce the risks of getting false positives. Risk management professionals can use the data to analyse and determine any system shortcomings or potential weak points from the tests or scan results.

5. Vulnerability and risk assessment

Risk analysts can pinpoint the origins of particular vulnerabilities using the information acquired from vulnerability testing. Through this process, they may also identify the precise system elements that contribute to security gaps. Having a better understanding of the causes of vulnerabilities can help risk management professionals plan out a better remediation strategy.

After analysts understand the sources of vulnerabilities, they can perform a risk assessment. Security analysts and risk managers may prioritise vulnerabilities by using tools to assign a numerical score to determine which vulnerabilities to isolate and patch first. These can be based on factors such as the potential risk or their impact on the system or network functionalities.

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6. Remediation

Developers, operations team members and information security staff can work together on remediation activities to mitigate prioritised vulnerabilities. This procedure requires cooperation to work efficiently to close any security loops and mitigate any significant vulnerabilities in their systems and networks. Organisations may implement additional security measures, modify existing configurations or apply fixes to address vulnerabilities.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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