Cybersecurity Threats or Vulnerabilities – What is Top Priority?


Threats, vulnerabilities, and risks are three key factors in determining your business’ cybersecurity plan. But, how do you know which factor to prioritize, especially without a background in information security? What is more important to address, cybersecurity threats or vulnerabilities? And what’s the difference between them?

Risk-based vulnerability management refers to cross-referencing threats and vulnerabilities to determine your level of risk. Neither should be ignored – threats and vulnerabilities are intertwined.

In the coming paragraphs, we’ll define threat, vulnerability, and risk as used by cybersecurity professionals, explain the relationship between the three with a handy formula, and expand on risk-based vulnerability management.

Defining Key Terms

A Breakdown of Threats

A threat is a person or event that has the potential to damage, steal, or destroy data, disrupt your business, or cause harm in general.

Threats can come from either within or outside of your organization. When one has entered your system or network, they can wreak all kinds of havoc. 

There are three main categories of threats:

  1. Intentional threats – These threats are programs or methods that cyberattackers use to gain access to and compromise your network or software. The most common types of intentional threats are malware, ransomware, malicious code, phishing, or unauthorized access of password restricted data. Once the bad actors have access to your data, they can misuse, sell, or destroy it easily.
  2. Unintentional threats – These manifest gaps in your business’ cyber defenses. Openings left by human error or ignorance. They can vary widely from unlocked doors to an employee forgetting to update their security software. These threats can go unnoticed over time, but all it takes is one bad actor poking around to find and exploit them.
  3. Natural threats – These threats have the most infrequent impact on cybersecurity, but they’re still worth mentioning. Natural disasters such as flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, or fires can damage or weaken the hardware data is stored on. While these threats may not result in data misuse, the data could be lost, which would still negatively impact your business.

Ways to Address Threats

The prevention of intentional threats includes continuous monitoring of all your data environments and employing privacy best practices. Methods such as encryption, multi-factor authentication, passwords, etc. protect against these threats. 

Preventing unintentional threats involves thorough and frequent cybersecurity training for all your employees. Teach them how to recognize and report phishing attacks and other methods attackers use to trick people into giving them access to sensitive data. Show them the importance of secure connections and updating security software (if updates aren’t rolled out automatically). 

Natural threats are not 100% preventable – after all, we will always be at the mercy of Mother Nature. Developing a secure and fast disaster response protocol can help, but also consider keeping redundant backups of data in a secondary location to ensure that a natural threat at one location of your business doesn’t wipe out all your data.

Looking at threats alone can help to protect your business from cyberattacks, but it isn’t the most thorough or reliable method. 

After all, there are a lot of threats your data or network may not be susceptible to due to your industry, the usefulness of your data to bad actors, or the lack of specific vulnerabilities within your hardware and software systems. 

So, how do you discern which threats to address? That’s where vulnerabilities come into play. 

Everything You Need to Know About Vulnerabilities

To put it simply, a vulnerability is a weak spot in your infrastructure, networks, hardware, software, or processes. It’s an opening through which an attacker can gain access to your data. 

Cyber attacks happen when known threats exploit your system’s vulnerabilities. Of which there can be thousands, depending on the scope of your organization.

Even more worrisome is the fact that small to medium-sized businesses tend to be more vulnerable to attacks and less resilient to the aftermath of them. Most small businesses don’t invest in dedicated IT/Cybersecurity staff, decreasing the likelihood that there are cybersecurity or business recovery measures in place.


What to Do About Vulnerabilities

Vulnerability scanning or penetration testing can help you search for and identify your business’ vulnerabilities. Then you’ll know exactly where your defenses need shoring up.

Now, you can try to remediate every single vulnerability in your network. In fact, this approach to cybersecurity used to be the norm. Identify and patch every vulnerability and become a bastion of security… until new vulnerabilities pop up, anyway. But that takes an incredible amount of resources and time.

According to Kenna Security’s Prioritization to Prediction research, “only around 2% of vulnerabilities are actively exploited in the wild.” Yes, you read that correctly. 

So if your organization has 100 cybersecurity vulnerabilities, there are only about 2 that could actually impact you or your clients negatively.

If you’re analyzing and responding to vulnerabilities alone, it becomes difficult to tell which 2 are the highest priority for your team to patch. This is where knowing relevant threats comes into play. 

By examining and studying threats facing organizations within the same industry as you, you can see which vulnerabilities pose more risk to your network and data. You’ll do yourself more harm than good by analyzing these two factors separately. 

An Overview of Risk

Cyber risk is the intersection of threats, vulnerabilities, and your sensitive data. Risk is the loss, damage, destruction, disruption, or harm to data and infrastructure you’ll incur if vulnerabilities and threats aren’t fixed.

The direct relationship between threats, vulnerabilities, and level of risk is clear with a simple formula.

Calculating Risk

Each of the three terms covered in this article are part of a basic formula for good cybersecurity: 

Threats + Vulnerability = Risk 

Assessing your overall risk requires research into and understanding of the types of threats that are out there for businesses like your own, and up-to-date knowledge of your vulnerabilities as an organization. 

With that frame of reference, it becomes clear what you need to do to keep your cyber risk low and your data protected without wasting your valuable time and resources. Re-assess risk frequently because the landscape of threats changes quickly in cybersecurity. 

Managing cyber risk is an important ongoing practice that is key in today’s digital work environment. Remote work environments are powerful tools, but they can open your business up to a variety of vulnerabilities if implemented incorrectly or hastily.

cyber risk

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Risk-based vulnerability management (RBVM) is the preferred tactic among cybersecurity professionals today. 

It allows your security team to prioritize threats/vulnerabilities in order of risk and address them accordingly, directing their time and resources to what is important for preserving your business’s systems and data.

The larger your organization, the less likely it will be that your cybersecurity team can actually fix every vulnerability within your organization. Every company smartphone, every laptop, every single piece of technology can add vulnerabilities as you grow.

This is when risk-based vulnerability management becomes increasingly important, because you don’t want to leave high risk vulnerabilities open while closing low risk ones. 

To take it a step further, you can also factor in the assets or data which are at risk. If it’s sensitive personal data of customers, fast-track that vulnerability for patching. If it’s your Microsoft Word templates for basic emails sent to the public, it can probably wait.

The success of RBVM does hinge on the quality of the data your team makes these informed decisions with. If they’re working with a list of known threats from 5 years ago your priorities won’t be in line with what attackers are doing to access data at all.

In order for this strategy to work, it’s important to ensure you are doing frequent vulnerability scanning or penetration testing. Make sure your IT and Security team is keeping an eye on current events in cybersecurity within your industry.

If you have any questions or would like a free preliminary cybersecurity analysis of your company, please contact us. We’d love to talk with you about your concerns and needs.

In Summary

Threats are anything that has the potential to damage, steal, or destroy data, or disrupt your business. There are three kinds of threats: intentional, unintentional, and natural. 

Intentional threats are malicious methods used to access your business’ data. Prevention consists of monitoring and security practices.

Unintentional threats are mistakes made internally that allow data to be compromised. Prevention entails good cyber hygiene within your organization.

Natural threats are disasters or accidents such as floods, fires, storms, etc. Prevention is impossible, but the mitigation of potential damage happens with a good disaster recovery plan.

Vulnerabilities are weak spots in your digital ecosystem through which attackers access data. Patching can solve the problem, but there are often many vulnerabilities which can be very resource heavy to fix.

Cyber risk is the relationship between threats, vulnerabilities, and a business’ assets or data. It is best expressed with the formula Threats + Vulnerabilities = Risk.

Risk-based vulnerability management is my recommended approach to threats, vulnerabilities, and risk. It takes all these factors into account and helps businesses to prioritize issues based on their potential impact to the business. 

Protecting yourself from cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities without overextending your budget is easy with an informed, precise, and responsive approach. 

You’ll never be able to predict with 100% certainty where attacks will come from. Knowing the terrain and potential attacker’s M.O. can help you to refine your defense and maximize your IT/Security team’s efficiency. 

After all, the best offense is a good defense.

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