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An organization’s systems and applications contain many vulnerabilities that security professionals must deal with. But how do you decide which ones to address first and which can wait? How do you balance the risk to the business with the cost and effort of remediation and patching? And how do you communicate your priorities to stakeholders and justify your decisions?
Vulnerability prioritization is the key to efficiently managing these challenges, allowing security teams to methodically assess and rank vulnerabilities based on risk factors and business impact.
This post discusses how to prioritize vulnerabilities efficiently and effectively using cybersecurity best practices. We also will explore vulnerability prioritization tools and challenges.
What is vulnerability prioritization?
Vulnerability prioritization is the process of ranking the vulnerabilities in your environment according to their severity, business impact, and likelihood of exploit. This approach helps you to focus your resources and efforts on the most critical and urgent issues that pose the greatest threat to your organization.
Vulnerability prioritization is an essential component of the larger vulnerability risk management workflow. Vulnerabilities are identified, prioritized and sent out for remediation.
Why is it important to prioritize vulnerabilities?
A vulnerability can be exploited within 15 days (on average) after it is discovered, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). For effective protection against cyberattacks, it is essential to perform remediation as soon as possible. However, security teams often focus on vulnerabilities that don’t pose a real risk to their organization and ignore the ones that do. The purpose of vulnerability prioritization is to address this particular issue.
Other reasons it is important to prioritize vulnerabilities:
- Vulnerability prioritization reduces the exploitable attack surface and minimizes the risk of data breaches, service disruptions, compliance violations, reputational damage, and legal liabilities.
- The ranking process optimizes your security budget and allocates your resources more efficiently and effectively.
- Prioritization also helps you to align your security strategy with your business goals and objectives.
- Effective prioritization methods enable security teams to demonstrate their due diligence and accountability to management, auditors, regulators, customers and partners.
- Prioritizing vulnerabilities for remediation ensures the patching phase only disrupts business processes for risks that matter the most.
- Prioritizing vulnerabilities helps build trust with remediation owners and service owners. By avoiding unnecessary or low-priority tasks, security teams can foster a better working relationship with other departments within your organization, ensuring a more coordinated and efficient approach to managing security risks.
Common methods for prioritizing vulnerability remediation
Prioritizing vulnerability remediation involves evaluating and ranking them based on factors such as potential business impact, exploitability, and the importance of affected systems.
This table provides additional details about key factors:
|Vulnerability prioritization factors||Description|
|Severity||Common scoring standards, such as CVSS or OWASP Top 10, can be used to assess the severity of vulnerabilities.|
|Business impact||The potential consequences of a vulnerability on an organization's operations and bottom line.|
|Exploitability||The likelihood of a vulnerability being exploited by threat actors depends on the availability of exploits and ease of exploitation.|
|Asset context||The importance and value of the affected asset or systems to the organization.|
|Threat intelligence feeds||Threat intelligence data is used to gain insights into potential or active threats to an organization’s cybersecurity.|
|Compensating security controls||The effectiveness of your organization's existing security controls in mitigating the identified vulnerabilities must also be factored into your ranking.|
Vulnerability prioritization framework
The following model ensures a data-driven approach to risk-based prioritization, enabling your organization to focus on the most critical risks first.
- Asset inventory and classification: Begin by creating a comprehensive inventory of your organization’s assets, including hardware, software, cloud and network components. Classify these assets based on factors such as their importance to business operations, the sensitivity of the data they store and the potential impact in the event of a security breach.
- Discovery: Leverage vulnerability scanning tools and perform regular penetration testing to identify and catalog vulnerabilities across your IT infrastructure. Incorporate additional sources of vulnerability information, such as advisories and threat intelligence feeds, to ensure a complete understanding of your organization’s risk landscape.
- Severity assessment: You may use a standardized scoring system, such as the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS), to assess the severity of each identified vulnerability. However, relying on CVSS alone gives you an incomplete view, as low-ranked vulnerabilities can be chained together to expose a network or system. You need to combine multiple factors, such as potential business impact and ease of exploitation when evaluating the severity of each vulnerability as it pertains to your business.
- Threat landscape analysis and EPSS: Incorporate threat intelligence data and the Exploit Prediction Scoring System (EPSS) to gain insights into the vulnerabilities being exploited in the wild. Prioritize vulnerabilities that are actively being exploited, associated with known attack campaigns, linked to emerging threat actors, or have a high EPSS score, indicating more likelihood of exploitation.
- Security control evaluation: Assess the effectiveness of your organization’s existing security controls in mitigating the identified vulnerabilities. Prioritize vulnerabilities that can easily bypass these controls or for which no effective security controls are in place.
- Business impact alignment: Align vulnerability prioritization with your organization’s business priorities and objectives. Prioritize vulnerabilities that impact mission-critical systems, sensitive data, or key business processes. For instance, a vulnerability discovered in a revenue-generating product line is a much higher priority than one found in a developer sandbox.
- Remediation effort estimation: Evaluate the complexity, time and resources required to remediate each vulnerability. Use this information to balance the urgency of addressing high-severity vulnerabilities with the practicalities of implementing patching measures.
- Optimization: Regularly update your vulnerability prioritization process to incorporate new vulnerability information, threat intelligence, and lessons learned from previous remediation efforts. Continuously refine your approach to ensure it effectively addresses evolving threats and adapts to changes in your organization’s risk appetite and objectives.
Adopting a comprehensive approach that combines multiple methods and techniques is essential to achieve the most effective vulnerability prioritization. Cyber threats evolve constantly, with attackers employing new tactics and techniques to exploit vulnerabilities. Different methods provide unique perspectives on assessing vulnerabilities, allowing for a more thorough understanding of the risk landscape.
Watch our webinar on reframing risk prioritization for more valuable information and insights.
What are the challenges of vulnerability management prioritization?
Vulnerability management prioritization presents the following challenges to organizations:
- Determining the most urgent and relevant vulnerabilities according to your organization’s business context requires understanding your critical assets’ value, exposure, dependencies and context. Without the right vulnerability management process and asset discovery tools, this task can be complex and time-consuming.
- Keeping up with the growing number of vulnerabilities and striking the right balance between addressing critical vulnerabilities and considering the feasibility of remediation efforts can be an uphill battle. According to The Stack, 26,448 software security flaws were discovered in 2022, with a 59% increase in critical vulnerabilities over 2021.
- Vulnerability management prioritization involves coordinating with multiple stakeholders and overcoming silos. Security teams need to work with IT and dev teams to assess the risk of vulnerabilities and coordinate remediation efforts. Business teams must understand the potential consequences of vulnerabilities and support security initiatives. The executive team should know the organization’s overall vulnerability posture and allocate resources accordingly.
- Maintaining visibility and oversight can be challenging, especially in large organizations. A vulnerability management program can become less effective if the mean time to remediation (MTTR) isn’t properly tracked or there is no final review of vulnerability status and remediation results.
- A 2022 ISACA report shows that nearly two-thirds of security teams were understaffed, and 63% had unfilled vacancies. Team members leaving for other opportunities leads to hard-to-replace tribal knowledge and expertise. With limited resources and capabilities, optimizing vulnerability prioritization becomes challenging for organizations but more important than ever.
The Brinqa SaaS Platform includes vulnerability prioritization technology
While we have covered some fundamental aspects of vulnerability prioritization, it is important to recognize there is more to the process than just the points discussed here. Effective vulnerability management is a dynamic and evolving practice that requires continuous monitoring, learning and adaptation. Equipping yourself with the right tools, however, is a good starting point.
The Brinqa platform is a comprehensive cyber risk management solution that addresses modern vulnerability management challenges. Brinqa unifies findings from various security tools and goes beyond CVSS scores using Smart Scoring and Brinqa risk-scoring best practices developed from years of successful implementations with Fortune 500 customers. Personalized vulnerability scores are created according to business priorities with unique risk factors, ensuring optimal prioritization of discovered vulnerabilities.
Brinqa’s Cyber Risk Graph further enhances these scores with asset context, giving you a holistic picture of your attack surface. The platform streamlines remediation efforts through automated ticket creation, assignment and tracking that syncs bi-directionally with popular IT service management (ITSM) tools.
We also know how necessary it is in cybersecurity to overcome organizational silos and improve cooperation between stakeholders. The platform offers extensive reporting capabilities, allowing organizations to create tailored reports and dashboards that cater to the specific needs of different teams. Business users can make informed decisions by better understanding the risk landscape through a high-level, business-centric overview. At the same time, technical personnel can drill down into the details of specific risks, assets or vulnerabilities for deeper insights.
Interested in seeing how the Brinqa platform works or looking to address a specific use case? Request a personalized demo.
Frequently asked questions
Why do we need to prioritize identified vulnerabilities?
Prioritizing identified vulnerabilities is needed to allocate resources efficiently, reduce cyber risk, meet regulatory and compliance requirements, ensure business continuity, enable efficient remediation, and adopt a proactive approach to threat management.
What is a vulnerability management strategy?
A vulnerability management strategy is a systematic and proactive approach to identifying, prioritizing and addressing vulnerabilities in an organization’s IT infrastructure, applications and processes. This strategy aims to identify security gaps, protect sensitive data, and prevent business disruptions.
What are vulnerability severity levels?
Vulnerability severity levels are a way to categorize and communicate the potential impact and risk posed by identified vulnerabilities. Ranging from critical to low, these levels are determined based on various factors, such as the potential impact on the integrity, availability and exploitability of an organization’s systems.