4 Types of Vulnerability Scans You Should Be Performing

As digital infrastructures become more complex, cybersecurity vulnerabilities are increasing in volume: 93% of organizational networks are currently vulnerable to external attacks. Mitigating these risks requires a well-organized cybersecurity strategy, including one or more vulnerability scans to identify and neutralize threats before they become full-on attacks.

Proactivity is preparation and performing vulnerability scans exercise both. Let’s extend this discussion to break down the four vulnerability scans you should deploy at your organization. 

What Are Vulnerability Scans?

Vulnerability scanning is an umbrella term that describes many different approaches to looking for, identifying, analyzing and mitigating cyber threats. Other forms of cybersecurity monitoring focus on assets themselves—pieces of hardware, software or networks—or their functionality.

A vulnerability scan is designed to isolate vulnerabilities, gaps and weaknesses in your cybersecurity infrastructure. Vulnerabilities are prone to be exploited by threats or threat actors (i.e., hackers). The relationship between threats and vulnerabilities is referred to as “risk.”

Why Are Vulnerability Scans So Important?

No matter what size or type of business, this critical relationship between threats and vulnerabilities makes vulnerability scanning so important.

Risk metrics differ depending on an organization’s IT environment. Still, all businesses should aim to minimize the relative likelihood of a cyberattack and the likely impact that attacks will have.

Undetected vulnerabilities leave your organization open to attack. The more vulnerabilities an IT environment has and the longer they go undetected, the more severe they will likely become. Vulnerability scans reveal these issues so they can be fixed, making exploitation less likely.

Simply put: vulnerability scans reduce risk, keeping your company and its stakeholders safe.

Vulnerability scanning can also be a requirement for regulatory compliance, depending on your industry, customer base, location, payment infrastructure and other factors. Failing to perform vulnerability scans could lead to penalties and other repercussions in these cases.

New exploits and techniques are constantly surface. And as technologies are updated and integrated, new vulnerabilities can develop in tandem, putting your sensitive data at risk.

What Are the Four Types of Vulnerability Scans?

Given the sheer depth and breadth of cybersecurity vulnerabilities, there are four primary approaches to (or types of) vulnerability scans your company should consider implementing:

  • Objects of analysis (what is being scanned) and scanning tools used
  • Vulnerabilities sought after (what exactly scanners are searching for)
  • Other reasons for scanning (legal and regulatory compliance issues)
  • Scope or relevance of scan (real-time testing vs. passive scanning)

Let’s take a closer look at each type of vulnerability scan, what specific weaknesses it prioritizes, how it works in practice and how to perform it effectively in your organization.

Vulnerability Scans on Specific Network Infrastructure

One of the most common ways to define vulnerability scans is by the specific network architecture they target—the objects of analysis. The analytical tools used to target vulnerabilities in the target software or hardware are equally important. 

Some common options are:

  1. Network scans – Also known as port scanning, network vulnerability scans monitor how attackers may gain access to your networks. They often begin with simple access requests, which may escalate into more advanced brute force or exploit scans.
  1. Host-based scans – These vulnerability scans focus on individual computers, phones or other network-connected devices. They typically operate via centralized agentless programs or standalone discrete programs installed on every device.
  1. Cloud-based scans – Scans focused on cloud hosting or computing infrastructure often prioritize cloud-specific vulnerabilities such as segmentation or authentication errors.
  1. Web app scans – These scans mitigate weaknesses that allow hackers to spoof or otherwise corrupt web apps intended for internal, external or mixed uses. They are often trained to identify attacks like “cross-site scripting” and “SQL injection.”

This is not an exhaustive list. Vulnerability scans can be optimized to any piece of your cybersecurity infrastructure (i.e., firewalls or web scanners) or generalized across all systems.

In any case, the vulnerability scanning tools used will monitor for irregularities and deviations from a defined security baseline. Any missing patch may constitute a vulnerability that a threat actor could exploit.

Vulnerability Scanning for External and Internal Threats

Another approach to vulnerability scanning focuses less on the kinds of infrastructure being scanned and more on the vulnerabilities being targeted (often across all infrastructure).

On the one hand, external vulnerability scans may focus primarily on threats and system-wide vulnerabilities most susceptible to them. For example, you might focus a scan on weaknesses in your security perimeter exploitable by those outside your network. Or you might concentrate on third-party risks, such as data privacy and access practices across your network of vendors.

On the other hand, some vulnerability scans focus primarily on insider threats, such as staff susceptibility to social engineering attacks. In addition, these types of scans combine user behavior monitoring with more qualitative metrics, such as surveys, to gauge users’ IT and cybersecurity awareness.

Compliance-Informed Types of Vulnerability Scans

Vulnerability scanning programs are often designed around regulatory requirements, focusing on identifying and mitigating security risks to the privacy and integrity of specific data classes.

For example, two widely applicable compliance frameworks that require vulnerability scans are:

  • HIPAA – Applicable to covered entities in and around healthcare, HIPAA safeguards protected health information (PHI). The Security Rule requires regular vulnerability scanning and risk analysis management to prevent unauthorized uses and disclosures.
  • PCI-DSS – Applicable to Merchants and Service Providers that process card payments, the PCI-DSS protects cardholder data (CHD). Compliance requires vulnerability scans conducted by a PCI-approved scanning vendor to ensure CHD environments are safe.

If either framework applies to you, you’ll need to run vulnerability scans to ensure the privacy and security of PHI or CHD, respectively—although the specific tools you choose may vary.

Other regulations depend on your business’s location (for the CCPA) or the citizenship of individuals whose data you process (for the EU GDPR). To that end, you must work with a compliance partner to design and implement a vulnerability scanning program to satisfy your regulatory needs.

Alternative Vulnerability Scanning: Penetration Testing

The last type of vulnerability scan constitutes an alternative approach to the mostly passive models detailed above. Penetration testing, also known as “ethical hacking,” simulates an attack on your systems to identify vulnerabilities in real-time. Then, the testing team demonstrates the vulnerabilities and how an attacker would exploit them—for maximum insight.

One common approach is called external or “black-hat” pen-testing. The testers assume little to no prior knowledge or access to your systems, focusing only on their initial entry point.

Another common approach is called internal or “white-hat” pen-testing, in which the testers assume a pre-negotiated position of knowledge on, or special access to, your systems. 

The focus is on how fast they move once inside. These scans effectively predict how an insider threat—such as a disgruntled current or former employee—might compromise your data.

Organizations often take a hybrid or “gray-hat” pen-testing approach, combining elements of external and internal scans. These offer the most significant insights about system-wide vulnerabilities and how hackers might act upon them (how threats might make them risks).

Protect Your Network With Helixstorm Managed Security Services

Cyberattacks can happen at any time. Protecting against them requires proactive security measures that identify risk factors long before they become actual incidents. Vulnerability scanning, in any of the types listed above, is one of the best ways to safeguard your company.

At HelixStorm, we provide 24/7 support for detecting threats and preventing data breaches. In addition, our security experts find vulnerabilities in your system to help your business stay ahead of cyberthreats. 

Contact us today to design and implement the right vulnerability scan for your business.