Today’s IT professionals must have at least a basic understanding of cybersecurity in order to excel in their careers. The global cyber security market size is projected to reach USD 281.74 billion by 2027. That means that whether the specialty is network, hardware, or software-focused, it’s critical to know about and protect against possible internal and external cyber-attacks. The following is an overview of the many layers of vulnerability in security and what IT professionals need to know to stay ahead.

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Vulnerabilities in Information Security

A vulnerability in security refers to a weakness or opportunity in an information system that cybercriminals can exploit and gain unauthorized access to a computer system. Vulnerabilities weaken systems and open the door to malicious attacks.

More specifically, The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines a vulnerability in security as the weakness of an asset or group of assets that can be exploited by one or more cyber threats where an asset is anything that has value to the organization, its business operations, and their continuity, including information resources that support the organization's mission

Vulnerabilities, Exploits, and Threats at a Glance

In cybersecurity, there are important differences between vulnerabilities, exploits, and threats.

While a vulnerability refers to weaknesses in hardware, software, or procedures—the entryway for hackers to access systems—an exploit is the actual malicious code that cybercriminals use to take advantage of vulnerabilities and compromise the IT infrastructure.

A threat is a potentially dangerous event that has not occurred but has the potential to cause damage if it does. Exploits are how threats become attacks, and vulnerabilities are how exploits gain access to targeted systems.

Examples and Common Types of Vulnerabilities in Security

The four main types of vulnerabilities in information security are network vulnerabilities, operating system vulnerabilities, process (or procedural)  vulnerabilities, and human vulnerabilities.

  1. Network vulnerabilities are weaknesses within an organization’s hardware or software infrastructure that allow cyberattackers to gain access and cause harm. These areas of exposure can range from poorly-protected wireless access all the way to misconfigured firewalls that don’t guard the network at large. 
  2. Operating system (OS) vulnerabilities are exposures within an OS that allow cyberattackers to cause damage on any device where the OS is installed. An example of an attack that takes advantage of OS vulnerabilities is a Denial of Service (DoS) attack, where repeated fake requests clog a system so it becomes overloaded.  Unpatched and outdated software also creates OS vulnerabilities, because the system running the application is exposed,  sometimes endangering the entire network.
  3. Process vulnerabilities are created when procedures that are supposed to act as security measures are insufficient. One of the most common process vulnerabilities is an authentication weakness, where users, and even IT administrators, use weak passwords.
  4. Human vulnerabilities are created by user errors that can expose networks, hardware, and sensitive data to malicious actors. They arguably pose the most significant threat, particularly because of the increase in remote and mobile workers. Examples of human vulnerability in security are opening an email attachment infected with malware, or not installing software updates on mobile devices.

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When Should Known Vulnerabilities Be Publicly Disclosed?

The timeframe for disclosing known vulnerabilities in security can vary between researchers, vendors, and cybersecurity advocacy organizations. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) provides guidelines for the remediation and public disclosure of newly identified cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Their recommendations vary based on variables like whether a vulnerability is severe, activ exploitation of the vulnerability, or if there are serious and likely threats.

What Is the Difference Between Vulnerability and Risk?

Vulnerabilities and risks differ in that vulnerabilities are known weaknesses. They’re the identified gaps that undermine the security efforts of an organization’s IT systems.

Risks, on the other hand, are potentials for loss or damage when a threat exploits a vulnerability.

A common equation for calculating it is Risk = Threat x Vulnerability x Consequence.

When Does a Vulnerability Become Exploitable?

A vulnerability becomes exploitable when there is a definite path to complete malicious acts. Taking basic security precautions (like keeping security patches up to date and properly managing user access controls) can help keep vulnerabilities from becoming more dangerous security breaches.

What Is a Zero-Day Exploit?

Zero-day vulnerabilities are security software flaws that an organization’s IT security professionals haven’t discovered or patched. A zero-day exploit is one used to attack a zero-day vulnerability. 

What Causes Vulnerabilities?

  1. Human error – When end users fall victim to phishing and other social engineering tactics, they become one of the biggest causes of vulnerabilities in security.
  2. Software bugs – These are flaws in a code that cybercriminals can use to gain unauthorized access to hardware, software, data, or other assets in an organization’s network. sensitive data and perform unauthorized actions, which are considered unethical or illegal.
  3. System complexity – When a system is too complex, it causes vulnerability because there’s an increased likelihood of misconfigurations, flaws, or unwanted network access.
  4. Increased connectivity – Having so many remote devices connected to a network creates new access points for attacks. 
  5. Poor access control – improperly managing user roles, like providing some users more access than they need to data and systems or not closing accounts for old employees, makes networks vulnerable from both inside and outside breaches.

What Is Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability management is a practice that consists of identifying, classifying, remediating, and mitigating security vulnerabilities. It requires more than scanning and patching. Rather, vulnerability management requires a 360-degree view of an organization's systems, processes, and people in order to make informed decisions about the best course of action for detecting and mitigating vulnerabilities. From there, IT security teams can remediate through patching and configuring of the appropriate security settings.

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What Is Vulnerability Scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is a process of identifying vulnerabilities within an organization’s applications and devices. The process is automated by the use of vulnerability scanners, and takes a snapshot of a network’s vulnerabilities, allowing security teams to make informed decisions regarding mitigation. 

What Is a Cybersecurity Vulnerability and How Is It Different From a Cybersecurity Threat?

A cybersecurity vulnerability doesn’t actually pose a real or imminent danger to an organization’s IT networks. Rather, it’s the pathway for malicious actors to access its target. Cybersecurity threats are the actual means by which cyber attackers exploit vulnerabilities. Threats can be anything from specifically-targeted hacker attacks to ransomware that holds systems hostage until payment is made.

How to Find and Fix These?

When it comes to protecting against cyber attacks, the best defense is a great offense. First, organizations have to identify potential vulnerabilities and threats using the appropriate tools and processes like vulnerability scanners and threat detection technology. It’s also important to prioritize vulnerabilities and threats once they’ve been identified so that they are eliminated or mitigated in order of importance.

After finding the vulnerabilities and threats, some of the most common fixes are:

  • Using antivirus software and other endpoint protection measures
  • Regular operating system patch updates
  • Implementing Wi-Fi security that secures and hides Wi-Fi networks
  • Installing or updating a firewall that monitors network traffic
  • Implementing and enforcing secure access through least privileges and user controls
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Wrapping Up

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About the Author

Karin KelleyKarin Kelley

Karin has spent more than a decade writing about emerging enterprise and cloud technologies. A passionate and lifelong researcher, learner, and writer, Karin is also a big fan of the outdoors, music, literature, and environmental and social sustainability.

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