What Are the Uses for a Vulnerability Scanner?


Today's hyper-connected world calls for extreme vigilance and knowledge of the ever-present threat of cyberattacks. These cyberattacks typically exploit vulnerabilities to breach your networks. What better way to prevent these attacks than to conduct regular vulnerability scans?

Cyberattacks have become so common that you can expect to see news about a breach every week. Just recently, Twitter experienced a breach that affected high-profile US Twitter accounts. This attack highlights the need for proactive security measures, such as vulnerability scans. 

Today's hyper-connected world calls for extreme vigilance and knowledge of the ever-present threat of cyberattacks. These cyberattacks typically exploit vulnerabilities to breach your networks. What better way to prevent these attacks than to conduct regular vulnerability scans? 

What Is a Vulnerability Scanner?

Your network is constantly exposed to threats, and loopholes that could result in catastrophic incidents for your business were threat actors to identify them. Vulnerability scanners simply help identify these threats early enough before threat actors can find them. You can rely on them to scan your system or network for vulnerabilities while comparing the results to pre-established vulnerability databases. Some common vulnerability scanners include ImmuniWeb, Tripwire IP360, Paessler PRTG, and Acunetix.

How to Effectively Use Vulnerability Scanners

For you to effectively use vulnerability scanners, you need to scan your system and network often. The databases that contain recently discovered vulnerabilities tend to be updated often. Ideally, having a team in charge of these scans is ideal.
Once you are done with a scan, the team will assess the ad hoc reports. If they identify an issue with your system, they will suggest a remedy for mitigating the risks involved. Most databases tend to suggest solutions for the vulnerabilities they expose. 

Types of Vulnerability Scans 

Cyberattackers target flaws or vulnerabilities in networks, systems, and web applications with the sole purpose of exploiting them. For example, when dealing with application vulnerability management, the developers will seek to identify vulnerabilities, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting, security misconfiguration, failure to restrict URL access, and LDAP injection. 

To identify such vulnerabilities, organizations employ different vulnerability scans based on their testing objectives. The most common vulnerability scans include:

1. External Vulnerability Scans 

External scans aim to identify threats that can arise from outside our network, especially on the externally facing services. They are targeted at external IP addresses and ports. 
For instance, they can help you assess new services and servers launched since the last time you conducted a scan and any threats associated with them. Some common threats you can find include having servers configured with deprecated services and unsecured transfer protocols. Ideally, you should perform these scans once each month to avoid over/underdoing them. A good example of these scanners is ImmuniWeb.

2. Internal Vulnerability Scans 

Cybersecurity threats can originate from anywhere, even from within your network. Don't focus all of your resources on external threats and forget that disgruntled employees can target your network. You could also have missed a threat that seeped through your defenses. This kind of threat could open up your network to attacks.
You need to perform an internal vulnerability scan to identify these threats. It also seeks to identify vulnerabilities such as encryption weaknesses, missing patches, and configuration weaknesses.
Keep in mind that internal scans are more complicated compared to external scans as they seek to assess your internal assets. These assets include everything in your network, such as vulnerable software. An internal scan will focus on your network's internal components, searching for possible vulnerabilities and any other points of exploitation. A good example of such scanners is the Paessler PRTG.

3. Environmental Vulnerability Scans 

These scans are specific to certain IT environments, including mobile device-based environments, cloud-based environments, IoT devices, etc. Most of these environments are semi-isolated from the entire organization's network, but they could wreak havoc to the rest of the network if a breach were to occur. Tripwire IP360 is a good example of such scanners.
For instance, IoT systems tend to be less secure than normal devices since most are designed with security as an afterthought. In turn, most manufacturers work overtime to identify security loopholes before sending out updates to patch these issues. A vulnerability scan will identify unpatched weaknesses in your IoT environment, which can be insightful in protecting your organization.  

How Effective Is Vulnerability Scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is effective in identifying vulnerabilities in a network. In fact, 60 percent of security breaches occur despite there being an existing patch for the ad hoc vulnerability. A scan generates a report of its findings, which you can use to patch the vulnerabilities. However, it's more effective when combined with other cybersecurity measures, such as penetration testing and vulnerability assessment.

Vulnerability Scan vs. Penetration Test vs. Vulnerability Assessment

These three terms are often used interchangeably, but they don't have similar meanings. For example, you might ask for a penetration test, but what you really need is a vulnerability assessment. To avoid this confusion, learn to differentiate the three.

What Is a Vulnerability Scan?

A vulnerability scan is run by automated software that tries to identify vulnerabilities in your network or system. It's a simple process, as explained earlier. It merely identifies the vulnerabilities based on a database of vulnerabilities.
While these scans are important, you shouldn't rely solely on them. This is because if you run a vulnerability scan and report indicates that your system has no vulnerabilities, it doesn't necessarily mean that your system is fine. Vulnerability scans play an important role in improving an organization's security, but they aren't enough. You need a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy that includes vulnerability assessment and penetration testing.

What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?

A vulnerability scan will identify the weaknesses and flaws in your network, but it doesn't explain the magnitude of these vulnerabilities. You'll know your network has vulnerabilities, but you have no idea the extent of the damage that these vulnerabilities can inflict on your business.

To understand the damage that these vulnerabilities can cause, you need to conduct a vulnerability assessment, as it takes into account all the assets in your IT infrastructure. The first stage of the vulnerability assessment is to match all the assets in your environment with their vulnerabilities. This will include your networks, hardware, software, web applications, etc. Once you've matched assets with their vulnerabilities, you will start evaluating the effects the vulnerabilities can have on your business. This will typically require you to assess the impact a weakness can have and the probability of it occurring.

A vulnerability assessment is considered essential as it gives you an idea of what your system can handle, the threats it's facing, and the magnitude of the threats.

What Is Penetration Testing?

The primary aim of vulnerability assessments and vulnerability scans is to identify vulnerabilities; in contrast, penetration testing seeks to exploit these vulnerabilities. Penetration tests are typically conducted by third parties several times a year as opposed to vulnerability scans, which are conducted more frequently.
Penetration testing begins by identifying weaknesses such as insecure business processes, vulnerable databases, etc. In the next phase, the penetration tester tries to exploit these vulnerabilities. 
All three are important and should be part of your cybersecurity strategy. However, you should prioritize vulnerability assessments to keep up with ever-lurking cyberattackers. In contrast, penetration tests can be performed once or twice a year.

Wrapping It Up

Cyberattackers will always try to breach your security, and their primary target will be vulnerabilities that they can exploit. As long as you're in a connected world, there is always a risk that your network will be hacked. Hackers will breach even the best defenses as long as there is a weak link.
However, you can prevent these attacks by constantly scanning your IT infrastructure for vulnerabilities. Don't stop there. Conduct a vulnerability assessment to help you identify these vulnerabilities, and rank them according to the degree of damage they can cause. Include penetration testing bi-annually or annually to test how your IT infrastructure would fare against an external attack.
Cyberattackers are constantly poking around your network looking for weaknesses, and if you don't implement measures to strengthen your cybersecurity, they will eventually find these flaws and exploit them. You don't need complex security measures; a simple vulnerability scan will act as a good starting point.

About the author

CMCrossroads is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.