Breaking the Cycle of Traditional Vulnerability Management

By Zur Ulianitzky, VP of Security Research at XM Cyber [ Join Cybersecurity Insiders ]
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As our reliance on technology continues to grow, so does the sophistication and prevalence of cyber threats. And with each technological advancement, new vulnerabilities and attack vectors emerge, posing significant risks to individuals, and organizations alike. Many organizations have implemented vulnerability management processes to protect against these evolving threats, however, traditional approaches are growing increasingly ineffective. Traditional vulnerability management is reactive, focused narrowly on addressing individual software vulnerabilities and misconfigurations as they are discovered. This creates a relentless cycle of mitigating new issues, while more continually arise, leaving organizations stuck in a never-ending vulnerability spiral.

New research from XM Cyber, has just revealed the limitations of traditional vulnerability management. Based on thousands of attack path assessments, the research found that identity and credential misconfigurations alone account for a staggering 80% of security exposures across organizations, with a third of these exposures putting critical business assets at direct risk of breach. Traditional vulnerability management does not account for these risks but is instead aimed at common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs). The same research showed that CVEs account for less than 1% of the exposures that attackers can use to compromise environments, and only 11% of the exposures affecting critical assets. This points to significant blind spots in security programs that rely on traditional vulnerability management.

Identifying Critical Choke Points

Organizations face an overwhelming volume of security exposures, identifying over 15,000 each month on average. This can escalate to over 100,000 if unchecked, overwhelming security teams and making it impossible to address all risks simultaneously. Rather than treating all exposures equally, a far more manageable approach is to identify the specific issues that pose the greatest potential risk and prioritize those for remediation. The research showed that 74% of identified exposures are “dead ends” that do not directly compromise critical assets. However, a small subset of exposures, which affect critical assets and act as choke points for converging attack paths, can be exploited by attackers to escalate and expand their access within the target environment. Further analysis revealed that 2% of exposures are located at key choke points, where threat actors can exploit vulnerabilities to access critical assets. Focusing on lower-risk “dead ends” is an inefficient use of time and budget, which could be better allocated to these exposures that matter most.

Implementing effective exposure management processes can identify those critical choke points where multiple attack paths converge towards business-critical assets. This involves incorporating contextual attack path modeling and analysis to understand how various vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, user behaviors, and other issues can be linked together by attackers. By mapping out all potential cyber kill chains, organizations can identify choke points and prioritize remediation efforts to address the most significant risks.

The Importance of Proactive and Continuous Exposure Management 

But as was shown in the report, exposure management cannot be a one-time project. It requires constant vigilance and a commitment to continuous improvement. By implementing a Continuous Threat Exposure Management (CTEM) framework, organizations can proactively and continuously identify and mitigate security vulnerabilities and exposures.

According to Gartner, “By 2026, organizations prioritizing their security investments based on a continuous exposure management program will be three times less likely to suffer from a breach.” This is because CTEM expands upon traditional vulnerability management programs to include misconfigurations, identity issues, unmanaged devices, and more, and allows organizations to address risks faster than attackers can exploit them. CTEM provides organizations with an in-depth understanding of their entire digital ecosystem, pinpointing weaknesses and correlating them to potential attack paths. With this knowledge, security teams can proactively strengthen their defenses and prioritize remediation efforts based on the potential risk level to mission-critical assets.

Effective exposure management is a multifaceted task that involves more than just addressing vulnerabilities and CVEs. The research clearly demonstrates that organizations should build continuous exposure management programs to stay ahead of emerging threats, reduce their attack surface, and proactively remediate potential vulnerabilities. Implementing a continuous exposure management program requires adopting a mindset of continuous improvement and adaptation. As new threats and vulnerabilities emerge, security teams must be prepared to adjust their strategies and processes, accordingly, ensuring that their defenses remain effective and up to date. Furthermore, continuous exposure management should encompass not only technical controls but also robust policies, procedures, and employee training programs. By fostering a culture of security awareness and enabling employees to recognize and report potential threats, organizations can enhance their overall security posture and reduce the risk of human error or social engineering attacks.

With this approach, organizations can break free from the reactive cycle of traditional vulnerability management and develop a proactive approach to security that significantly reduces their overall risk exposure.

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