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Application Security

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5/25/2021
01:00 PM
Sean Keef
Sean Keef
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Your Network's Smallest Cracks Are Now Its Biggest Threats

Bad actors have flipped the script by concentrating more on low-risk threats. Here's how to address the threat and the tactics.

Before I joined Skybox in 2011, I specialized in cybersecurity at IBM and several smaller companies, helping enterprises measure network performance and manage security events. Back then, backdoors looked like backdoors: Networks were comparatively straightforward, and if you took the time to map them, big threats were fairly obvious in sizes and numbers.

That's no longer the case. Hackers have flipped the script on security teams by exploiting their focus on high-severity vulnerabilities. As noted in a recent report, traditional remediation practices tackle only critical- and high-severity vulnerabilities — roughly 60% of the total — while leaving 40% of supposedly lower-tier vulnerabilities unpatched for prolonged times. Armed with this knowledge, attackers target tiny cracks, turning them into backdoors for increasingly complex attacks that have increased at record rates.

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While truly distributed workforces were not the norm once upon a time, now modern organizations rely upon untold numbers of laptops and tablets connected to home office networks, radically expanding their attack surfaces. Combined with continued growth in malware samples, organizations of all types and sizes are now actively looking to reinforce their defenses. 

In 2021, the key point is that low severity doesn't mean low risk; properly exploited low-severity vulnerabilities are bringing enterprises to their knees. For example, a single financial institution reported over 267,322 attacks in a 24-hour period, an overwhelming number by any measure. But since financial organizations have relatively small teams, prioritizing threats is critical. Unfortunately, sifting through vulnerabilities to select ones requiring immediate remediation is like finding needles in a haystack. 

Security teams focusing on severity will chase the top 25% to 30% of threats identified by profiles. Given that many organizations are battling millions of vulnerabilities, they're still leaving the majority unaddressed, and moreover, they're focusing on threats that might not matter. Instead, enterprises should measure risk by aggregating severity, asset importance, exploitability, and exposure, then wipe out the top perfect-storm threats.

Perfect-storm threats are when the answer is yes to all these questions:

  • Could the vulnerability cause a significant amount of damage? (Severity)
  • Is the vulnerability on a mission-critical asset? (Asset importance)
  • Has the vulnerability been exploited in real-world attacks? (Exploitability)
  • Do security controls protect the vulnerable asset? (Exposure)

Enterprises can then use a carpet-bombing approach to patch remediation, followed up by high-touch remediation of high-risk outliers, to decimate the network's threats. Critically, they can use the context gained by full network awareness to address their environment's actual highest risk vulnerabilities, regardless of whatever severity scores they might theoretically achieve in isolation.

Think Big, Get Proactive
Right now, enterprises are facing massive swarms of attacks, and security teams too often lose the battles, risking everything from ransomed hospitals to poisoned water supplies. Any security professional who thinks malicious cyber actors won't continue to evolve and expand is setting a company up for potential disaster.

There's no going back to the old days where networks and assets were all hardwired in a single building or part of one well-controlled campus. Data now flows across clouds, multiple wireless networks, and client devices. Security teams simply cannot control every network's configuration or manually manage vulnerabilities.

Enterprises need bigger-picture insights, spanning diverse infrastructures and assets to locate threat origin points and pathways. Vulnerability and asset data aggregated in one location can be sifted and sorted to identify high-risk threats for immediate attention. Only a comprehensive view will let security professionals distinguish between exposure and exploitability levels, the differentiation that pushes limited resources toward vulnerabilities that matter.

The last year has been tough for everyone, but overwhelming for security teams. The copious amounts of data, rapid network expansions, and asset changes have created challenging circumstances where security teams are doing more with less. To stay ahead of the curve in attack prevention, modern enterprises should choose tools that use context-aware threat assessment and automation to quickly uncover the most dangerous vulnerabilities — regardless of whether they look like big backdoors or tiny network cracks — before they're exploited by attackers.

Sean Keef is an accomplished security engineer with over 20 years of industry experience. For nearly the past decade, Sean has served as technical director at Skybox Security, a global leader in Security Posture Management. He embraces the company's forward-thinking platform ... View Full Bio
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