There’s a global divide in how organizations assess cyber risk

Nearly 48 percent of organizations globally have embraced strategic vulnerability assessment – defined as mature or moderately mature programs that include targeted and tailored scanning and prioritizing computing resources based on business criticality – as a foundational element of their cyber defense and a critical step toward reducing risk, a new Tenable report has revealed.

Of those organizations, however, only five percent display the highest degree of maturity, with comprehensive asset coverage as a cornerstone of their programs. On the other end of the spectrum, 33 percent of organizations take a minimalistic approach to vulnerability assessments, doing the bare minimum as required by compliance mandates and increasing the risk of a business-impacting cyber event.

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What’s your vulnerability assessment strategy?

The company’s previous report revealed that attackers generally have a median seven-day window of opportunity to exploit a known vulnerability, before defenders have even determined they are vulnerable. The resulting seven-day gap is directly related to how enterprises are conducting vulnerability assessments – the more strategic and mature the approach, the smaller the gap is likely to be and the lesser the risk to the business.

“In the not too distant future, there will be two types of organizations — those who rise to the challenge of reducing cyber risk and those who fail to adapt to a constantly evolving and accelerating threat landscape in modern computing environments,” said Tom Parsons, senior director of product management, Tenable.

“This research is a call to action for our industry to get serious about giving the advantage back to cyber defenders, starting with the rigorous and disciplined assessment of vulnerabilities as the basis for mature vulnerability management and ultimately, cyber exposure.”

Tenable Research analyzed telemetry data for over three months from 2,100 organizations in more than 60 different countries using data science to identify distinct security maturity styles and strategic insights which can help organizations manage, measure and ultimately reduce cyber risk. The objective was to analyze and ultimately help to improve how defenders are responding.

Tenable found that there are four distinct strategies of vulnerability assessment:

  • The Minimalist executes bare minimum vulnerability assessments as required by compliance mandates. 33 percent of organizations fall into this category, running limited assessments on only selected assets. That represents a lot of enterprises which are exposed to risk and still have some work to do, with critical decisions to make on which KPIs to improve first.
  • The Surveyor conducts frequent broad-scope vulnerability assessments, but with little authentication and customization of scan templates. 19 percent of organizations follow the Surveying style, placing them at a low to medium maturity.
  • The Investigator executes vulnerability assessments with a high maturity, but only assesses selective assets. 43 percent follow the Investigative style, indicating a solid strategy based on a good scan cadence, targeted scan templates, broad asset authentication and prioritization. Considering the challenges involved in managing vulnerabilities, securing buy-in from management, cooperating with disparate business units such as IT operations, maintaining staff and skills, and the complexities of scale, this is a great achievement and provides a solid foundation upon which to mature further.
  • The Diligent represents the highest level of maturity, achieving near-continuous visibility into where an asset is secure or exposed and to what extent through high assessment frequency. Only 5 percent of organizations fall into this category, displaying comprehensive asset coverage, targeted, customized assessments and tailoring scans as required by use case.
  • Across all levels of maturity, organizations benefit from avoiding a scattershot approach to vulnerability assessment and instead making strategic decisions and employing more mature tactics such as frequent, authenticated scans to improve the efficacy of vulnerability assessment programs.

“There is nothing wrong with being at a low maturity. What is wrong is choosing to remain there,” noted Oliver Rochford, research director at Tenable.

“If you’re a later adopter, it means you have more work to do to catch up. It also means you can learn from the mistakes and experiences of early adopters. Rather than having your organization serve as a testing bed for untried, novel and immature solutions, you’ll benefit from the availability of tried-and-tested offerings. There’s also an existing pool of expertise you can tap into, rather than trying to develop your strategies from scratch. Skipping the experimentation phase, you are poised to jump right into optimization and innovation.

“And, if you identify with the most mature vulnerability assessment strategies highlighted here, it doesn’t mean you can take a lengthy sabbatical. Even the most sophisticated defenders know their work is never done.”