Threat Vulnerability Assessments And Risk Analysis – If you’ve read a lot about cyber attacks or data breaches, you’ve probably come across the terms vulnerabilities, threats, and exploits. Unfortunately, these terms are often left undefined, misused, or worse, used interchangeably. This is a problem because misunderstanding these terms (and some other key terms) can lead to wrong assumptions about security, focusing on the wrong or irrelevant security issues, establishing unnecessary security controls, taking actions unnecessary (or failure to take necessary action), and leaving them unprotected or with a false sense of security.
It is important that security professionals have a clear understanding of these terms and their relation to risk. After all, the goal of information security is not just to “protect things” indiscriminately. The high-level objective is to help the organization make informed decisions about risk management for information, yes, but also for its business, operations and assets. There is no point in protecting “things” if ultimately the organization cannot sustain itself because it has failed to successfully manage risk.
Threat Vulnerability Assessments And Risk Analysis
In the context of cyber security, risk is often expressed as an “equation” – threat x vulnerability = risk – as if vulnerability is something that can be multiplied by threats to become at risk. As we shall soon see, this is a misleading and incomplete representation. To explain the danger, we will define its main components and draw some analogies from the well-known children’s tale “The Three Little Pigs”.1
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Wait! Don’t decide to bail just because you think a children’s story is too young to explain the complexities of information security. In the world of Infosec, where perfect analogies are hard to come by, The Three Little Pigs has some useful ones. We recall that the hungry Big Bad Wolf threatens to eat the three little pigs by destroying their houses, the first of which is made of straw and the third of bricks. (We’ll ignore the second pig with the stick house, since it’s pretty much in the same boat as the first pig.)
Discussing vulnerabilities, threats and exploits raises many questions, not the least of which is: what is at stake? So let’s start with the definition of assets.
An asset is anything that has value to an organization. This applies not only to systems, software and data, but also to people, infrastructure, facilities, equipment, intellectual property, technology and more. Infosec focuses on information systems and the data they process, exchange and store. In the children’s tale, the houses are the property of the pigs (and perhaps the pigs themselves are property, as the wolf threatens to eat them).
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Inventorying and assessing the value of any asset is an important first step in risk management. This can be a big deal for many organizations, especially large ones. But it’s important to accurately assess risk (how do you know what’s at risk if you don’t know what you have?) and then determine what type and level of protection each asset warrants.
A vulnerability is any weakness (known or unknown) in a system, process or other entity that could lead to a breach of security through a threat. In the children’s tale, the straw house of the first pig is inherently susceptible to the powerful spirit of the wolf, while the brick house of the third pig is not.
In information security, vulnerabilities can exist almost anywhere, from hardware devices and infrastructure to operating systems, firmware, applications, modules, drivers, and APIs. Tens of thousands of software bugs are discovered every year. Details of this are published on websites such as cve.mitre.org and nvd.nist.gov (and hopefully on the websites of affected vendors), along with results that attempt to measure their severity.2
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Responsible vendors usually release timely patches to address specific known vulnerabilities. However, this does not guarantee that organizations using these vulnerable products will apply the patch. In fact, some of the most high-profile attacks and data breaches have occurred in organizations that have not patched vulnerabilities that have been known for years. (A zero-day refers to a newly discovered vulnerability for which a fix does not yet exist.)
A threat is any action (event, incident, circumstance) that can disrupt, damage, destroy or otherwise adversely affect an information system (and thus an organization’s business and operations). Seen through the lens of the CIA’s triad, a threat is anything that could compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of systems or data. Except in the case of a natural disaster such as a flood or hurricane, threats are created by threat agents or threat actors, ranging from so-called inexperienced hackers to notorious hacker groups such as Anonymous and Cozy Bear (also known as APT29). Threats can be intentional or accidental and come from internal or external sources. In The Three Little Pigs, the wolf is an obvious threat; the threat lies in his stated intention to blow up the pigs’ houses and eat them.
To use as a verb means to take advantage of a weakness. Used as a noun, an exploit refers to a tool, usually in source or binary form. This code allows attackers to easily exploit certain vulnerabilities and often gives them unauthorized access to something (networks, systems, applications, etc.). A payload chosen by the threat and delivered via an exploit performs the chosen attack, such as downloading malware, elevating privileges, or stealing data.
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In a children’s tale, the analogies are not perfect, but the powerful spirit of the wolf is the closest thing to a tool of exploitation, and the charge is his destruction of a house. After that, he hoped to eat the pig, his “secondary” attack. (Note that many cyber attacks are multi-layered.)
Exploit code for many vulnerabilities is available in the public domain (on the open Internet at sites like exploit-db.com, as well as on the dark web) to be purchased, shared, or used by attackers. (Organized attack groups and nation-state actors write their own exploit code and keep it private.) It is important to note that exploit code does not exist for every known vulnerability. Typically, attackers spend time developing exploits for vulnerabilities in widely used products and those that have the greatest potential for a successful attack. So while the term “exploit code” is not part of the “equation” of threats x vulnerability = risk, it is an integral part of what makes a threat real.
For now, let’s refine our previous, incomplete definition and say that risk is a specific vulnerability that corresponds to (rather than multiplied by) a specific threat. In this story, the pig’s unprotected thatched house, combined with the wolf’s threat to blow it up, creates danger. Similarly, an SQL injection threat corresponding to a specific vulnerability found in, for example, a specific SonicWall product (and version) and described in CVE-2021-20016, 4 is a risk. But to fully assess the level of risk, you also need to consider probability and impact (more on these two terms in the next section).
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Without going into an in-depth discussion of risk assessment, 5 let’s identify two important elements of risk calculation that are often overlooked.
Probability is the chance or probability that a particular threat will exploit a particular vulnerability. Factors that affect the probability include things like the motivation and capabilities of the threat actor, how easily the vulnerability can be exploited, how attractive the vulnerable target is, security measures that can prevent a successful attack, etc. If exploit code exists for a particular vulnerability, the attacker is experienced and highly motivated, and the vulnerable target system has few security controls, the likelihood of an attack is potentially high. When the opposite of either of these cases is true, the probability decreases.
For the first pig, the probability of attack was high because the wolf was hungry (motivated), had the opportunity, and had a clever tool to use (its powerful breath). However, if the wolf had known in advance about the pot of boiling water in the third pig’s chimney—a “safety check” that ultimately killed the wolf and saved the pigs—the probability of him climbing down the chimney would be zero. The same is true for skilled and motivated attackers who, when faced with compromised security controls, may decide to move on to easier targets.
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If…if…if. There are endless variations in motivation, ability, ease of use, security controls, and other factors that affect probability.
An impact describes the damage that could be caused to an organization and its assets if a specific threat exploits a specific vulnerability. Of course, it is impossible to accurately assess the impact without first determining the value of the assets, as mentioned earlier. Of course, some assets are more valuable to a business than others. Compare, for example, the consequences of a company losing an e-commerce website that generates 90 percent of its revenue with the consequences of losing a rarely used web application that generates minimal revenue. The first loss can put a failing company out of business, while the second loss may be minor. Not unlike our children’s fairy tale, where the blow was hard for the first pig, who was left homeless after being attacked by a wolf. If his straw house was only a temporary shelter from the rain, which he rarely used, the impact would be negligible.
Assuming there is a corresponding vulnerability and threat, this is important
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