A vulnerability assessment, in the context of application security, is a technique to minimize application weaknesses that is becoming a crucial part of the mix to harden internet applications. Its strategic value is very high since vulnerability assessment and remediation is considered one of the best ways to harden systems and produce secure applications as a result. This post will provide an overview of this appsec technique, including definitions, benefits, and best practices.
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What is a Vulnerability Assessment?
A Vulnerability Assessment, also known as Vulnerability Testing, is a combination of tools and methodologies that find security vulnerabilities in applications. The goal is to reduce and eliminate security weaknesses that could be exploited by attackers to breach a system.
The output of a vulnerability assessment is typically a ranked list of security problems that includes the type, severity, location, and remediation advice.
From the point of view of application security, a vulnerability is any defect in the code of the applications that introduces a security risk, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), XML External Entity (XXE), and Server-side Request Forgery SSRF, but also design issues that include authentication problems and internal operational systems.
Who is the audience of a vulnerability assessment process
Since a vulnerability assessment process provides broad scope and high-level metrics, CISOs and CSOs are one of the most common audiences.
However as we show in a section below, all teams involved in the SDLC benefit from the results:
- Developers receive detailed advice to fix and release stronger apps.
- Security engineers obtain a clear understanding of the security position of the application.
- DevOps and QA teams rely on its metrics to decide when to deploy to production.
- Ops teams obtain vital telemetry data on the security of the production apps so that security fixes can be prioritized.
Vulnerability Analysis steps
The vulnerability assessment process normally includes the following analysis steps:
- Identification of security threats. This includes collecting as much information as possible about the vulnerability.
- Prioritization of the problems. Since not all issues are equally dangerous, it is very important to have smart prioritization systems.
- Vulnerability management. It incorporates other team aspects such as storing and sharing the threat information, and the creation of specific tasks for the teams to act on the collected vulnerabilities.
What should teams keep in mind when building a Vulnerability Assessment practice?
Even though the application security industry provides protection solutions that patch existing problems during runtime, we believe that it all starts with secure code. A vulnerability assessment is a fantastic way to improve the security of an application.
What’s the ROI of a Vulnerability Assessment?
Correcting security problems earlier in the lifecycle of an application is several orders of magnitude than waiting till the application is finished. This alone can result in huge labor savings.
Even worse, the cost of a breach is almost incalculable because of a combination of direct costs and indirect costs such as brand damage. Any effort that significantly reduces the chances of a breach will have a positive ROI.
Additionally, if the right tools are used, the vulnerability assessment process can be highly automated, without the need to allocate a lot of resources.
It is difficult to provide a general formula, but the combination of the three reasons above is why investments in a vulnerability assessment tend to have a very favorable return.
Vulnerability Assessment Tools
Automation is a key factor to implement a successful vulnerability assessment practice. In the context of application security, reducing manual operations and analysis is critical, so we believe that having highly automatic tools, supported by a solid methodology, is the right approach to a vulnerability assessment.
This does not mean that manual assessment techniques, such as threat modeling and penetration testing, are to be dismissed, because security tools cannot find all types of problems, but in order to scale an app sec practice, teams must minimize manual aspects.
Here are the most commonly used vulnerability testing tools:
Static analysis (SAST)
Static analysis, also known as SAST, is one of the oldest security testing techniques. As we describe in this post, static analysis tools look at the applications at source code level, by searching for known code patterns associated with security problems. They are widely available but the poor accuracy and the need to have access to the source code make them a poor choice for modern vulnerability analysis.
Web scanners (DAST)
Web scanners, also known as DAST and dynamic analysis, look for vulnerabilities by looking at the responses of an application to a high number of requests designed to expose vulnerabilities. Since they look at the systems from the outside, they miss a lot of the vulnerabilities. Also, they required long scan times and can cause applications to crash in the process.
Interactive analysis (IAST)
Interactive analysis (IAST) is the most modern approach to conduct a vulnerability assessment. It combines the benefits of the static and dynamic approaches, resulting in high accuracy, continuous monitoring, and flexibility to work through the entire SDLC. Check out our long post on IAST, which includes the key IAST benefits and use cases.
How do different teams use Vulnerability Assessments?
Here is how different teams involved in the software lifecycle can incorporate a vulnerability assessment:
Vulnerability Assessment for developers
Finding and fixing vulnerabilities early in the lifecycle of applications is much faster, efficient, and cheaper. Therefore, the earlier, the better. Thanks to modern technologies such as IAST, the vulnerability assessment can begin on the first day of programming.
Vulnerability Assessment for the QA team
The quality assurance team benefits from the tangible metrics (number, type, and severity of vulnerabilities) that a vulnerability assessment process provides. This helps making acceptance decisions based on consistent criteria, and not based on gut feeling.
Vulnerability Assessment for the Ops and Production teams
It is almost impossible to fix all security problems before going to production. Therefore, it is important to have a continuously updated communication line from the production apps to understand the existing vulnerabilities. This helps quantify the exposure risk, and prioritize which issues should be fixed first.
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