What is a vulnerability assessment? (With steps and types)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 28 June 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.

Protecting operations and data from cybersecurity attacks is a priority for many businesses. One of the tools available to organisations to do this is vulnerability assessments, providing an effective way to monitor and avert risk. By assessing threats ahead of time, companies can react quickly and resolve problems with their cybersecurity before hackers or malicious software can access valuable data and information. In this article, we define vulnerability assessment, cover why it's important and the types of test you may choose to implement.

What is a vulnerability assessment?

A vulnerability assessment is a process that analysis, identifies and reports the cybersecurity weaknesses within a business. This analysis aims to discover any vulnerabilities and potential areas of risk within an existing system, allowing for the resolution of problems and minimisation of threats. Vulnerability tests work alongside penetration testing to gain an overview of potential risks and simulate data-breaching attacks that can occur from specific vulnerabilities.

Under the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), businesses have a requirement to complete regular vulnerability testing to keep customer data and information safe and secure. For example, if a business stores customer data on a particular cloud server, it's necessary for the network, cloud server and software surrounding that data to have regular checks. The reports created by assessment help resolve security issues, such as providing training, updating networks or utilising new cybersecurity technology to reduce vulnerability.

Related: 13 popular security certifications for cybersecurity roles

Why are vulnerability tests important?

These assessments help businesses ensure they are safe from malicious attacks and other cybersecurity risks. For example, a business that implements regular vulnerability testing can catch a weakness in their network earlier, preventing a data breach. Some of the reasons vulnerability tests are important include:

Protecting systems against cybersecurity attacks

Regular checks on a system's vulnerability can be valuable in providing added protection against cybersecurity attacks. By understanding and resolving vulnerabilities, malicious software and hacking attempts are likely to be able to access data or get into systems and networks. This enhanced protection ensures sensitive business data and private customer data remain safe.

Identifying security risks

One of the key reasons to conduct vulnerability analysis is to identify and understand different business security risks. Knowing what kinds of risks apply to a specific business gives you the resources necessary to make changes and adapt. Knowledge is valuable in planning for future cybersecurity implementations, from new software to additional training for staff members.

Reducing the chance of data exposure

Data exposure is a serious concern for all businesses, particularly with GDPR requirements. Storing customer data safely and securely is a priority for businesses, with data breaches potentially leading to loss of trust in that business. By reducing the risk of exposure, companies can help to build trust and establish themselves as a safe organisation that takes security seriously.

Evaluating the performance of IT providers

Assessments for vulnerability can be valuable for businesses that want to understand the success and security of third-party providers. For example, a company may hire professionals for an assessment after using new software for day-to-day business operations. This analysis can provide insight into whether that third-party provider is offering the standard of service necessary.

Saving time and costs

Data breaches, hacks and ransomware can all be costly for businesses. Malicious activity on a network or within an application may leave the entirety of a business's staff unable to work or use specific software. Vulnerability tests can help companies avoid outages or inaccessibility from their systems while saving costs on the recovery, repair or replacement of specific systems and processes to enhance security.

Spotting security issues from individuals

Vulnerability tests are valuable in examining the security of individual users and employees in the business. For example, analysis from testing may show one user that has not updated their software in months or years, leaving a vulnerability within the company. These checks can allow for risk identification, providing a foundation to deliver additional training or resources to improve security consciousness in the workplace.

Related: How to become a security architect in 5 steps (Plus salary)

Types of vulnerability test

Vulnerability testing includes a range of individual tests and measures to analyse security risks. A final report combines tests that companies can use to adjust and amend their cybersecurity measures. These tests include:

Host assessment

Host assessment is the process of scanning each host on a monitored network. It involves locating and identifying vulnerabilities within servers, workstations or other network hosts. This assessment provides visibility into the configuration settings used, providing a way to improve security through revision or updates.

Network and wireless assessment

Network and wireless assessment processes examine the entirety of the wired and wireless networks used for business operations. Tests may include scanning for unauthorised devices or unknown users plus identifying any loopholes or issues leaving a network vulnerable. This information helps businesses implement better network security by fixing loopholes or upgrading existing technology.

Database assessment

Database assessment uses scanners to identify areas of vulnerability where data is accessible. For example, a database test may help discover security gaps that could result in malicious attacks. Database testing helps to ensure the area storing data is as safe as possible and meets necessary compliance requirements.

Application assessment

Application assessment involves scanning the different components of a website or desktop application to identify vulnerabilities. Typically, experts use tools that crawl through websites and probe them, allowing for the quick identification of risks and breaches. These scan results can support adding additional measures to enhance cybersecurity.

How to complete vulnerability testing

Vulnerability testing includes several individual steps and areas to effectively identify, analyse and resolve vulnerabilities in networks and systems. For example, a trained professional may use different scanning tools to create a vulnerability report that can then support changes and updates to systems. Here are some of the steps you may follow to complete vulnerability testing:

1. Vulnerability identification

Identification is the first stage in the testing process, where professionals use a range of tools and services to scan systems comprehensively and uncover any vulnerabilities. These tests form the vulnerability report, with further resources, such as vulnerability databases, announcements and threat intelligence, supplementing the list of vulnerabilities.

2. Vulnerability analysis

Once vulnerability identification is complete, a trained professional uses this information to identify each vulnerability's cause individually. This insight provides the understanding businesses require to take action on vulnerabilities and reduce the risk of hacking, malicious activity or data breaches. For example, a vulnerability specialist may trace a vulnerability issue back to drivers that aren't updated, providing a straightforward solution to remediate the problem.

3. Risk assessment

This involves ranking and prioritising which vulnerabilities are most important based on their level of risk and the amount of damage they can cause. An analyst may examine different vulnerabilities to see which may lead to a customer data breach, downtime on essential systems and how severe an attack could be. This risk assessment ranks vulnerabilities to provide businesses with knowledge of which issues to focus on first.

4. Remediation and resolution

These are the processes of using vulnerability information to resolve gaps, loopholes and issues, tightening cybersecurity within a business. Vulnerability specialists work directly with IT professionals and service providers to decide on resolutions and implement them effectively. For example, remediation for a database vulnerability may involve installing a new patch, training staff on password security and ensuring the database is kept on track with the latest security updates.

5. Test repetition

For vulnerability tests to be successful in the long term, they repeat at regular intervals. Scheduled checks allow professionals to identify new issues and loopholes as software and network systems update and change over time. Businesses may also have vulnerability checks after moving to new systems or if there's a particular risk in a specific industry or sector.

Related: How to become a penetration tester (Salary and requirements)

Primary tools for vulnerability checks

Cybersecurity professionals utilise a range of different tools to identify security issues. For example, a web application scanner is a standard technology that experts use to test for different attacks by simulating known attack patterns and styles. Some of the main tools for vulnerability testing include:

Web application scanners

Web application scanners crawl websites and other online applications to identify security issues and breaches. Scanners may also offer penetration testing, simulating attacks to identify any loopholes or areas of weakness. Scanners for web applications help experts understand if malicious hackers or programmes could access data through a website.

Protocol scanners

Protocol scanners are specifically developed to search for network, protocol and port vulnerabilities. As potential serious sites of data breaches and access to whole computer systems, in-depth scans examine every possible entry point to find problem areas. Typical resolutions for issues found by protocol scanners include updates and security patches.

Network scanners

Network scanners provide a visualisation of different networks for professional vulnerability testers. The scanning covered by this tool includes finding high-risk IP addresses, suspicious package generation and spoofed packets. These identifying factors can suggest unauthorised access into a network that requires remediation.

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