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Why Patches Don't Stop Most Attacks

Verizon's annual breach report shows few attacks exploit patchable vulnerabilities. Do you need to re-evaluate your security policies?
A fundamental component of most, if not all, IT security programs is the timely patching of vulnerabilities in critical systems.

Yet security experts are taking a new look at the strategy as data on breaches continues to show that very few attacks compromise systems using a vulnerability that could have been patched. In 2010, for example, only five vulnerabilities were exploited by attackers in the 381 breaches investigated by Verizon, according to the company's Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR). Instead, most attackers exploited misconfigurations or gained credentials for otherwise secure systems.

The data suggests the focus of corporate IT on patching could cause managers to miss other important strategies to minimize risk, said Wade Baker, director of risk intelligence for Verizon.

"In general, the security industry is far more vulnerability-minded than we are threat-minded or focused on impact," he said. "Threat, vulnerability, and impact are the components of risk, but most of our time is spent on vulnerabilities."

The data from Verizon's report underscores that patching, while a necessary component of any vulnerability management program, is not sufficient. It's a meme that other security professionals have echoed, as well: Josh Corman, Akamai's director of security intelligence, has cited the research as a reason for companies to consider other strategies to reduce their vulnerabilities to attack and the impact of breaches.

The security experts are, however, not telling businesses to toss out their vulnerability management strategies and patch processes. Companies should just make sure they are balancing their priorities, Baker said. For example, if a company patches its systems once per quarter, then pushing for faster patches is less important that ensuring that patches are applied to all systems.

Read the rest of this article on Dark Reading.
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