Vulnerability management vs. risk management, compared

Vulnerability management seeks out security weaknesses in an organization, while risk management involves looking holistically at how the company is running.

The cybersecurity industry uses many different but similar sounding terms. Two such examples are vulnerability management and risk management. Although they sound similar, they are quite different.

Let's look at vulnerability management vs. risk management and the differences between them.

What is vulnerability management?

Vulnerability management is the process of regularly identifying, categorizing, prioritizing and remediating any gaps or weaknesses before an attacker finds them. Corrective actions include upgrading or deploying the correct set of controls. For example, you may discover a server that only requires a single password for access. To upgrade this control and prevent it from being exploited, implement multifactor authentication, which offers a higher level of security.

The vulnerability management process can be broken down into the following steps:

  1. Discovery. Conduct tests to determine gaps in IT and network infrastructure. Tests include basic vulnerability scans, penetration testing and threat hunting. For discovery, pen testing is the most comprehensive test to find holes and weaknesses.
  2. Prioritization. Determine which gaps to address first, labeling issues as severe, moderate or low.
  3. Remediation. Ascertain which control(s) best handle weaknesses discovered. Test the controls in a sandboxed environment to ensure they work effectively and won't cause issues with other digital assets. Deploy the controls.
  4. Assessment. After deploying remediation controls, ensure they work as expected. Create a baseline, and determine the threshold of what is acceptable and not. If anything is outside the realm of normal behavior, further refinements of those controls are needed.
  5. Reporting. The final step is to prepare a report for the C-suite and/or board of directors describing the tests and actions taken to further protect the company.

What is risk management?

Risk management, in general, is the process of identifying and assessing threats to a business and how those threats affect the bottom line. Threats may include technology liabilities, technology issues and natural disasters.

Cybersecurity risk management, specifically, is the process of identifying and assessing cyber threat vectors and which could cause the most damage and then controlling those threats.

Like vulnerability management, threats deemed to be most harmful should be addressed first. Also, like vulnerability management, cyber-risk management should be done on a regular basis.

Conducting a cyber-risk management assessment involves the following steps:

  1. Mapping. Take an inventory of all digital and physical assets. This provides a better understanding of the attack surface and methods cyber attackers can use to infiltrate the network. Create a map on a real-time basis to gauge malicious or abnormal behavior. Determine which assets are high risk.
  2. Monitoring. Assess whether high-risk assets have been targeted before or may be in the future. Investigate the dark web to learn if your company and its digital assets are on a hit list. Note that this kind of analysis must be done as covertly as possible and only by a highly trained cyber specialist.
  3. Mitigation. All critical assets need the highest levels of protection possible. That said, assets deemed higher risk during the monitoring phase need the highest levels of attention and prioritization in terms of remediation.
  4. Management. Continually monitor and assess the threat environment, and address any threats that pose the greatest risk to your business.

Vulnerability management vs. risk management

Simply put, vulnerability management examines for gaps or vulnerabilities in your IT and network infrastructure, while risk management takes a holistic approach to examine the business as a whole and determine areas of highest risk where threats can cause the greatest degree of damage.

Both vulnerability management and risk management are key to keeping an organization secure. Both kinds of assessments should be conducted on a real-time basis; it's not enough to perform a one-time analysis. To keep your business as protected as possible, examine your security environment with vulnerability management and risk management processes constantly.

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