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Vulnerability scanning tools: What are they and how should they be used?
Part of the challenge of creating a robust security posture is collecting the right toolbox full of tools and services. There’s a wide world out there full of tools that can enhance your security, but one of the most productive types of tools every organization needs is a vulnerability scanning tool. To help you navigate these types of tools and recognize how they fit into your information security system, we’re taking a closer look at these tools and how they work.
What are vulnerabilities?
Before we dive into vulnerability scanning tools, let’s get on the same page about the problems that these tools aim to solve. What are vulnerabilities?
A vulnerability is a flaw in a piece of code that creates an opportunity for unauthorized access. These often come from simple human error, and they may be within your own code or the code of software that is integrated with your system. Some vulnerabilities are riskier than others based on the data they can grant access to.
What is a vulnerability scanner and how does it work?
Now that you know what we’re referring to as vulnerabilities, what is vulnerability scanning? Vulnerability scanning is the process of running an automated tool that goes through your code looking for potential vulnerabilities. A vulnerability scanner is a tool that performs vulnerability scans.
Typically, vulnerability scanners work by having a database of known vulnerabilities and looking for them among your code. They often use a particular list called Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures or CVE. In some cases, they can also use various scenarios and functions to look for coding flaws so that they can find both known and unknown vulnerabilities.
Types of vulnerability scans
There are many different types of vulnerability scans and ways these scans can be conducted based on the types of vulnerabilities they’re looking for. For example, there are:
- Authenticated vs. Unauthenticated Scans: authenticated scans look for vulnerabilities that could be exploited by people with valid log-in credentials while unauthenticated scans look for vulnerabilities that could be exploited by people without log-in credentials
- Internal vs. External Scans: Internal scans are conducted from within your system to see how a user can move throughout the system laterally while external scans are conducted from outside your system to find vulnerabilities that could let external personnel gain access
Note that many vulnerability scanners offer the ability to perform each or all of these types of scans, so, for example, you could choose an internal scan, an external scan, or both.
Types of vulnerability scanners
Vulnerability scanners differ based on the types of digital assets they scan. In other words, some scanners evaluate different parts of your system than others. There are two primary types of vulnerability scanners: web app and network vulnerability scanners.
Web app vulnerability scanners
A web application vulnerability scanner is a scanning tool that assesses the code of all your web apps. The goal is to look for vulnerabilities that could allow hackers to get into the back end of your app and to potentially access confidential data. This is critical for any organization that uses web-based applications, such as SaaS providers.
Network vulnerability scanners
While web app vulnerability scanners review the code of your web apps, network vulnerability scanners review your network infrastructure. They scan parts of your infrastructure like servers, server operating systems, and any services connecting your servers to the internet like daemons and database services. This allows the scanner to find any vulnerability that could compromise your network’s security.
What does a vulnerability scan output look like?
When you run a vulnerability scan, the output will look different with each tool. Each one may collect and report different types of data and present it in its own way. Some tools will give you a spreadsheet while others may have a dashboard interface.
Your report from your vulnerability scanner should include information about the vulnerabilities it found and data that can help you address each one. For example, it may list:
- The type of vulnerability
- Where the vulnerability is located in the codebase
- A score for the vulnerability to indicate how severe of a risk it poses to your organization
- Metrics to allow you to track your security performance, like a graph of your vulnerabilities over time
What to look for in a vulnerability scanner
If you’re looking for a vulnerability scanner for your organization, there are plenty of criteria beyond price you need to evaluate. Consider these top factors, for example.
Before you start shopping for a vulnerability scanner, make sure you know your organization’s data system well. What does your network and infrastructure look like? Where and how is your data stored? What types of digital assets are involved in your system? With this, you can compare what each vulnerability scanner is capable of and choose one that covers all the necessary aspects of your system.
Running the types of scans you need
As we noted, there are various types of scans, such as internal vs. external and authorized vs. unauthorized. You may need a particular type (or multiple types) depending on how your system is configured and on the depth and comprehensiveness you need from your scans. Be sure to define what your organization needs based on its security goals and its compliance needs and choose a vulnerability scanner that offers the types of scans you need.
If your organization must comply with a particular security standard or is pursuing compliance with a security standard, be sure to look at that standard to determine what types of scans it requires. For example, if you must be PCI DSS compliant, you need vulnerability scans from a PCI Approved Scanning Vendor or ASV. Find out any of these specifications so you can select a scanning vendor that meets those needs.
Taking advantage of vulnerability scanning tools
Vulnerability scanning is incredibly useful for strengthening your security, especially if you have the right scanning tool in your toolbox. It’s only one piece of the puzzle, though. Make your vulnerability scanning part of a comprehensive automated compliance strategy that protects your organization with less work on your part. Find out how by learning more about Vanta automated compliance software today.
Determine whether the GDPR applies to you and if so, if you are a processor or controller (or both)
Do you sell goods or service in the EU or UK?
Do you sell goods or services to EU businesses, consumers, or both?
Do you have employees in the EU or UK?
Do persons from the EU or UK visit your website?
Do you monitor the behavior of persons within the EU?
Create a Data Map by taking the following actions
Identify and document every system (i.e. database, application, or vendor) which stores or processes EU or UK based personally identifiable information (PII)
Document the retention periods for PII in each system
Determine whether you collect, store, or process “special categories” of data
Determine whether your Data Map meets the requirements for Records of Processing Activities (Art. 30)
Determine whether your Data Map includes the following information about processing activities carried out by vendors on your behalf
Determine your grounds for processing data
For each category of data and system/application have you determined the lawful basis for processing based on one of the following conditions?
Take inventory of current customer and vendor contracts to confirm new GDPR-required flow-down provisions are included
Review all customer contracts to determine that they have appropriate contract language (i.e. Data Protection Addendums with Standard Contractual Clauses)
Review all in-scope vendor contracts to determine that they have appropriate contract language (i.e. Data Protection Addendums with Standard Contractual Clauses)
Have you performed a risk assessment on vendors who are processing your PII?
Determine if you need to do a Data Protection Impact Assessment
Is your data processing taking into account the nature, scope, context, and purposes of the processing, likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of natural persons?
Review product and service design (including your website or app) to ensure privacy notice links, marketing consents, and other requirements are integrated
Does the notice to the data subject include the following items?
Does the notice also include the following items?
Do you have a mechanism for persons to change or withdraw consent?
Update internal privacy policies to comply with notification obligations
Update internal privacy notices for EU employees
Determine if you need to appoint a Data Protection Officer, and appoint one if needed
Have you determined whether or not you must designate a Data Protection Officer (DPO) based on one of the following conditions (Art. 37)?
If you export data from the EU, consider if you need a compliance mechanism to cover the data transfer, such as model clauses
If you transfer, store, or process data outside the EU or UK, have you identified your legal basis for the data transfer (note: most likely covered by the Standard Contractual Clauses)
Have you performed and documented a Transfer Impact Assessment (TIA)?
Confirm you are complying with other data subject rights (i.e. aside from notification)
Do you have a defined process for timely response to Data Subject Access Requests (DSAR) (i.e. requests for information, modification or deletion of PII)?
Are you able to provide the subject information in a concise, transparent, intelligible and easily accessible form, using clear and plain language?
Do you have a process for correcting or deleting data when requested?
Do you have an internal policy regarding a Compelled Disclosure from Law Enforcement?
Determine if you need to appoint an EU-based representative, and appoint one if needed
Have you appointed an EU Representative or determined that an EU Representative is not needed based on one of the following conditions?
If operating in more than one EU state, identify a lead Data Protection Authority (DPA)
Do you operate in more than one EU state?
If so, have you designated the Supervisory Authority of the main establishment to act as your Lead Supervisory Authority?
Implement Employee Trainings to Demonstrate Compliance with GDPR Principles and Data Subject Rights
Have you provided appropriate Security Awareness and Privacy training to your staff?
Update internal procedures and policies to ensure you can comply with data breach response requirements
Have you created and implemented an Incident Response Plan which included procedures for reporting a breach to EU and UK Data Subjects as well as appropriate Data Authorities?
Do breach reporting policies comply with all prescribed timelines and include all recipients i.e. authorities, controllers, and data subjects?
Implement appropriate technical and organizational measures to ensure a level of security appropriate to the risk
Have you implemented encryption of PII at rest and in transit?
Have you implemented pseudonymization?
Have you implemented appropriate physical security controls?
Have you implemented information security policies and procedures?
Can you access EU or UK PII data in the clear?
Do your technical and organizational measure ensure that, by default, only personal data which are necessary for each specific purpose of the processing are processed?
Develop a roadmap for successful implementation of an ISMS and ISO 27001 certification
Implement Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) process to recognize challenges and identify gaps for remediation
Consider ISO 27001 certification costs relative to org size and number of employees
Clearly define scope of work to plan certification time to completion
Select an ISO 27001 auditor
Set the scope of your organization’s ISMS
Decide which business areas are covered by the ISMS and which are out of scope
Consider additional security controls for business processes that are required to pass ISMS-protected information across the trust boundary
Inform stakeholders regarding scope of the ISMS
Establish an ISMS governing body
Build a governance team with management oversight
Incorporate key members of top management, e.g. senior leadership and executive management with responsibility for strategy and resource allocation
Conduct an inventory of information assets
Consider all assets where information is stored, processed, and accessible
- Record information assets: data and people
- Record physical assets: laptops, servers, and physical building locations
- Record intangible assets: intellectual property, brand, and reputation
Assign to each asset a classification and owner responsible for ensuring the asset is appropriately inventoried, classified, protected, and handled
Execute a risk assessment
Establish and document a risk-management framework to ensure consistency
Identify scenarios in which information, systems, or services could be compromised
Determine likelihood or frequency with which these scenarios could occur
Evaluate potential impact of each scenario on confidentiality, integrity, or availability of information, systems, and services
Rank risk scenarios based on overall risk to the organization’s objectives
Develop a risk register
Record and manage your organization’s risks
Summarize each identified risk
Indicate the impact and likelihood of each risk
Document a risk treatment plan
Design a response for each risk (Risk Treatment)
Assign an accountable owner to each identified risk
Assign risk mitigation activity owners
Establish target dates for completion of risk treatment activities
Complete the Statement of Applicability worksheet
Review 114 controls of Annex A of ISO 27001 standard
Select controls to address identified risks
Complete the Statement of Applicability listing all Annex A controls, justifying inclusion or exclusion of each control in the ISMS implementation
Continuously assess and manage risk
Build a framework for establishing, implementing, maintaining, and continually improving the ISMS
Include information or references to supporting documentation regarding:
- Information Security Objectives
- Leadership and Commitment
- Roles, Responsibilities, and Authorities
- Approach to Assessing and Treating Risk
- Control of Documented Information
- Internal Audit
- Management Review
- Corrective Action and Continual Improvement
- Policy Violations
Assemble required documents and records
Review ISO 27001 Required Documents and Records list
Customize policy templates with organization-specific policies, process, and language
Establish employee training and awareness programs
Conduct regular trainings to ensure awareness of new policies and procedures
Define expectations for personnel regarding their role in ISMS maintenance
Train personnel on common threats facing your organization and how to respond
Establish disciplinary or sanctions policies or processes for personnel found out of compliance with information security requirements
Perform an internal audit
Allocate internal resources with necessary competencies who are independent of ISMS development and maintenance, or engage an independent third party
Verify conformance with requirements from Annex A deemed applicable in your ISMS's Statement of Applicability
Share internal audit results, including nonconformities, with the ISMS governing body and senior management
Address identified issues before proceeding with the external audit
Undergo external audit of ISMS to obtain ISO 27001 certification
Engage an independent ISO 27001 auditor
Conduct Stage 1 Audit consisting of an extensive documentation review; obtain feedback regarding readiness to move to Stage 2 Audit
Conduct Stage 2 Audit consisting of tests performed on the ISMS to ensure proper design, implementation, and ongoing functionality; evaluate fairness, suitability, and effective implementation and operation of controls
Address any nonconformities
Ensure that all requirements of the ISO 27001 standard are being addressed
Ensure org is following processes that it has specified and documented
Ensure org is upholding contractual requirements with third parties
Address specific nonconformities identified by the ISO 27001 auditor
Receive auditor’s formal validation following resolution of nonconformities
Conduct regular management reviews
Plan reviews at least once per year; consider a quarterly review cycle
Ensure the ISMS and its objectives continue to remain appropriate and effective
Ensure that senior management remains informed
Ensure adjustments to address risks or deficiencies can be promptly implemented
Calendar ISO 27001 audit schedule and surveillance audit schedules
Perform a full ISO 27001 audit once every three years
Prepare to perform surveillance audits in the second and third years of the Certification Cycle
Consider streamlining ISO 27001 certification with automation
Transform manual data collection and observation processes into automated and continuous system monitoring
Identify and close any gaps in ISMS implementation in a timely manner
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Determine which annual audits and assessments are required for your company
Perform a readiness assessment and evaluate your security against HIPAA requirements
Review the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights Audit Protocol
Conduct required HIPAA compliance audits and assessments
Perform and document ongoing technical and non-technical evaluations, internally or in partnership with a third-party security and compliance team like Vanta
Document your plans and put them into action
Document every step of building, implementing, and assessing your compliance program
Vanta’s automated compliance reporting can streamline planning and documentation
Appoint a security and compliance point person in your company
Designate an employee as your HIPAA Compliance Officer
Schedule annual HIPAA training for all employees
Distribute HIPAA policies and procedures and ensure staff read and attest to their review
Document employee trainings and other compliance activities
Thoroughly document employee training processes, activities, and attestations
Establish and communicate clear breach report processes
to all employees
Ensure that staff understand what constitutes a HIPAA breach, and how to report a breach
Implement systems to track security incidents, and to document and report all breaches
Institute an annual review process
Annually assess compliance activities against theHIPAA Rules and updates to HIPAA
Continuously assess and manage risk
Build a year-round risk management program and integrate continuous monitoring
Understand the ins and outs of HIPAA compliance— and the costs of noncompliance
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