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It’s been a tough few weeks for those of us that are responsible for patching vulnerabilities in the companies we work at. Not only do we have the usual operating system and application patches, we also have patches for VENOM and Logjam to contend with. The two aforementioned vulnerabilities are pretty serious and deserve extra attention. But, where to start and what to do first? Whether you have hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of systems to patch, you have to start somewhere. Do you test and deploy patches for high severity vulnerabilities first, or do you continue to deploy routine patches, prioritizing systems critical to the functioning of your business?

It depends. You have to take a risk-based approach to patching, fully considering several factors including where the system is on the network, the type of data it has, what it’s function is and whether or not the patch in question poses a threat.

There’s an old adage in risk management (and business in general): “When everything’s a priority, nothing a priority.” How true it is. For example, if you scan your entire network for the Heartbleed vulnerability, the tool will return a list of all systems that the vulnerability has been found on. Depending on the size of your network, this could seem like an insurmountable task – everything is high risk.

A good habit to get into for all security professionals is to take a risk-based approach when you need to make a decision about resources. (“Resources” in this context can be money, personnel, time, re-tasking an application, etc.) Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the asset I’m protecting? What is the value?
  • Are there are compliance, regulatory or legal requirements around this system. For example, does it store PHI (Personal Health Information), is in-scope for Sarbanes-Oxley or does it fall under PCI?
  • What are the vulnerabilities on this system?
  • What is the threat? Remember, you can have vulnerability without a threat – think of a house that does not have a tornado shelter. The house is in California.
  • What is the impact to the company if a threat exploited the vulnerability and acted against the asset? Impact can take many forms, including loss productivity, lost sales, a data breach, system downtime, fines, judgments and reputational harm.

A Tale of Two Systems

Take at look at the diagram below. It illustrates two systems with the same web vulnerability, but different use cases and impact. A simple vulnerability scan would flag both systems as having high-severity vulnerabilities, but a risk-based approach to vulnerability mitigation reveals much different priorities.


This is not to say that Server #2 could not be exploited. It very much could be, by an insider, a vendor or from an outside attacker and the issue needs to be remediated. However, it is much more probable that System #1 will be compromised in a shorter time-frame. Server #2 would also be on the list to get patched, but considering that attackers external to the organization have to try a little harder to exploit this type of vulnerability and the server is not critical to the functioning to the business, the mitigation priority is Server #1.

Your Secret Weapon

Most medium-to-large companies have a separate department dedicated to Business Continuity. Sometimes they are in IT as part of Disaster Recovery, and sometimes they are in a completely separate department, focusing on enterprise resiliency. Either way, one of the core functions of these departments is to perform a business impact analysis on critical business functions. For example, the core business functions of the Accounting department are analyzed. Continuity requirements are identified along with impact to the company. Many factors are considered, including financial, revenue stream, employee and legal/regulatory impact.

This is an excellent place to start if you need data on categorizing and prioritizing your systems. In some cases, the business impact analysis is mapped back to actual server names or application platforms, but even if it’s not, you can start using this data to improve your vulnerability management program.

It’s difficult to decide where to deploy scarce resources. The steps outlined above truly are the tip of the iceberg but are nonetheless a great first step in helping to prioritize when and where to start implementing mitigating controls. The most successful Information Security departments are those that able to think in risk-based terms naturally when evaluating control implementation. With practice, it becomes second nature.


tony martin-vegueAbout the Author: Tony Martin-Vegue works for a large global retailer leading the firm’s cyber-crime program. His enterprise risk and security analyses are informed by his 20 years of technical expertise in areas such as network operations, cryptography and system administration. Tony holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Economics from the University of San Francisco and holds many certifications including CISSP, CISM and CEH.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.

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