Vulnerabilities: The Weeds of Your Digital Terrain
In the warmer months when I’m not traveling I often get up early and wander my property pulling and spraying weeds. This is an endless and thankless task, yet a necessary evil to preserve my investment and maintain appearances. I am amazed how quickly weeds grow and by the places they find purchase. In just a few days, given the right conditions whole beds can be overtaken.
A few days ago I was meandering about my yard wondering why I don’t have a gardener when it struck me. My own personal battle for yard supremacy provides a great parallel to the efforts of cybersecurity professionals. It occurred to me that vulnerabilities are the weeds of the digital terrain. They are constantly popping up in the strangest places; you can never seem to get them all; and they can quickly get out of hand if you let your attention slip.
Just like weeds, all vulnerabilities are not created equal. Their type, and more importantly their location, are factors we need to consider. The poison ivy at the far end of the property where no one goes is a concern, but far less of one than the poison ivy on the kids’ play set. In the digital terrain, this is the equivalent of vulnerabilities on assets that don’t provide access to critical data verses those that do — whether directly or via pivot attacks. So, it’s not the type of vulnerability that’s important, it’s the exposure that vulnerability delivers to critical resources that is the true cause of risk. The common practice of focusing on CAT1 vulnerabilities is inherently flawed, since the severity of the vulnerability has little to do with the risk it causes for the organization.
People have been fighting weeds since the first crops were sown sometime around 9000 BC. We know weeds and have developed many tools to fight them, yet they persist. We pull them, spray them and set up lines of defense for them to cross. Sound familiar? This is akin to patching, firewalls, and micro segmentation.
I’m making two points here: first and most importantly I need a gardener, but also it is worth reminding ourselves that vulnerabilities aren’t going away anytime soon. Regardless of how much effort you put in, you’ll never have the necessary resources to patch them all. A better strategy is to prioritize what you patch based on the actual risk it causes for your organization. A CAT1 vulnerability isolated by firewall rules provides little risk, but that CAT3 vulnerability exposed directly to the internet may provide a beachhead that exposes your most important data and systems. To quote the old adage, we need to work smarter not harder. For cyber, that means moving from a patch-based methodology to one that focuses on risk.