How exposure management elevates cyber resilience

Attackers are adept at identifying and exploiting the most cost-effective methods of compromise, highlighting the critical need for organizations to implement asset identification and understand their assets’ security posture in relation to the whole estate.

exposure management

Instead of asking, “Are we exposed?” organizations should ask, “How exposed are we?” To understand this question, businesses must implement a programmatic and repeatable approach, imagine themselves as an attacker, and see their own network from a hostile perspective.

The current state of cyber security exposure

A cyber-attack could breach any part of a network. As a result, companies implement multiple security controls, tools and processes to protect their networks. Security efforts are frequently compartmentalized into discrete activities such as penetration testing, threat intelligence management, and vulnerability scanning. However, this segmented approach offers limited insight into the full spectrum of risks an organization faces.

This situation, compounded by a lack of comprehensive risk prioritization, leaves organizations overwhelmed by their security challenges, with insufficient guidance on which issues to address first. Organizations require a systematic and consistent strategy to gauge their exposure. This involves shifting their focus towards critical questions that consider the attacker’s perspective and question their defensive measures and response plans in the event of an attack.

Understanding an attacker’s viewpoint is crucial for pinpointing vulnerabilities, informing security teams where to apply security measures first and what additional security controls are necessary. Recognizing vulnerabilities from an attacker’s perspective enables organizations to proactively elevate their security posture. It’s a fundamental principle – visibility is the predecessor to protection. Without seeing how an attacker can infiltrate the organization, securing an organization becomes a hypothetical task.

A comprehensive approach to security

The IT ecosystem of a contemporary organization includes a broad array of assets, from identities and workstations to cloud services, each potentially a source of exposure through vulnerabilities and misconfigurations. These can be leveraged to compromise an organization’s operations and assets. The challenge is exacerbated in hybrid environments that blend cloud and on-premises assets without clear perimeters, significantly reducing visibility and control.

As organizations evolve, their attack surface invariably expands with the integration of new, interconnected assets, adding layers of complexity. This expansion is further complicated by the dynamic nature of the external threat landscape, which is continually transformed by emerging threats, including those powered by AI.

Adding to this complexity is shadow IT—unauthorized IT systems and solutions operating outside the purview of the central IT department. This not only increases business and compliance risks but also complicates the security management landscape.

The interconnectivity of assets, alongside advancing threats, poses a significant challenge for security administrators in effectively managing an organization’s security posture. Each vulnerability, if not addressed, can act as a conduit to further assets or data, creating potential pathways for attackers to exploit.

Attack paths and the dynamic threat landscape

Attack pathways that chain common vulnerabilities, leaked credentials, or misconfigured security settings to traverse the estate and gain access to organizational assets represent a significant threat. These pathways often remain hidden within the complex network ecosystem. Therefore, security teams often don’t have a comprehensive picture of the organization’s exposure to potential threats, making them ill-prepared for blended attacks that could result in ransomware deployment.

The challenge of proactively elevating the organization’s security posture to defend against high-stakes threats like ransomware is daunting, likened to an endless battle to patch vulnerabilities across an ever-expanding asset inventory. This complex task extends beyond the capacity of simple patch management, necessitating a strategic approach.

Ultimately, lack of scope and understanding of prioritization and risk, in line with high volumes of findings is leaving organizations with far too much to do regarding their exposure and little guidance on what to action first. Hence, why organizations need an approach that addresses the issue of “how are we exposed?”.

What is exposure management?

Exposure management acknowledges that an organization cannot afford to safeguard every aspect of its operations. It prioritizes the protection of critical areas, streamlining security efforts where they are most needed.

With potentially thousands of vulnerabilities to address, the task for security teams is daunting, especially when automated systems can identify weaknesses quicker than they can be remedied.

Furthermore, organizations might initially bypass security measures for quick gains, only to face significant risks later. This strategic approach ensures resources are allocated efficiently, focusing on defending the most vulnerable and crucial segments of the organization.

By reorienting their priorities, organizations can address three critical questions:

  • What does my organization look like from an attacker’s point of view?
  • Which parts of my estate are most vulnerable to an attack?
  • What is the impact if an attacker manages to compromise those attack paths?

By answering these three questions, security teams can better prioritize their workload and address critical security risks immediately.

The benefits of exposure management

Exposure management focuses on optimizing security measures to better guard against threats. Its primary objective is to highlight and fortify an organization’s most vulnerable points as a matter of urgency. This process is crucial for setting priorities; when it’s impractical to adhere to every policy or measure every metric, the focus shifts to sealing potential entry points for attackers.

The process often starts with an assessment of the external security stance, which includes simulating potential attacker actions against the organization. This might involve employing “red team” exercises, which use offensive cyber security tactics to identify security weaknesses.

One of the key benefits of this approach is the illumination of attack vectors that could be exploited, allowing companies to pre-emptively address weaknesses. This is particularly valuable when resources are stretched thin.

By initially focusing on the most critical vulnerabilities, companies can buy time as they start or continue to lay a strong foundation for a comprehensive security strategy, enhancing an organization’s defensive posture from the outset.

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