Website Vulnerability Assessment 101 – Everything You Need to Know

It’s no secret that a lot of issues have arisen in the world of cybersecurity in such a short while. Every day, there’s a new statistic regarding SQL injections, cross-site scripting attacks, misuse of access privileges, etc. That’s where vulnerability assessments and penetration testing, or the VAPT process, come in.

Even though used as an integrated acronym, VA & PT are two different processes, which complement each other for holistic security testing. The key difference between these complementary processes is that – Vulnerability Assessments are more automated in nature whereas Penetration Testing employs human intelligence and acumen into account.

In this post, we’ll, however, restrict our discussion strictly to vulnerability assessments and common FAQs about this part of the VAPT procedure.

Before we step forward, we should clarify what vulnerability assessments are and how they help you in recognizing security risks in your system.

Vulnerability assessments are a comprehensive and systematic review of possible vulnerabilities and security risks within the system. It also tests the system for any weaknesses that make it susceptible to certain kinds of attacks or hacking attempts. Security risks and vulnerabilities discovered in such a manner are usually assigned a number to communicate the level of risk they present. After this, suited remedial measures are suggested and implemented to strengthen the overall system.

Here are some other questions that we can take out of your way:

What is a vulnerability?

A vulnerability is a particular aspect or configuration within your organization’s system (including employees) that can be misused by hackers to gain illegal access. Once they gain access, they can steal sensitive company and customer data, or manipulate the system to work for their will.

Because of the importance of data and websites for any organization, most realize the importance of conducting cybersecurity checks. One way of going about this is the Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing (VAPT) procedure, of which the vulnerability assessment is what we’re going to talk about now.

Common vulnerabilities found in websites

VAPT procedures – and vulnerability assessments – are designed to find a range of issues within websites and systems that could compromise your security. Here are a few of the commonly found:

  • Code injection attacks such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks
  • Misuse of access privileges due to lack of adequate authentication measures
  • A faulty configuration such as software with easy-to-guess passwords

What is a Vulnerability Assessment – How does it benefit you?

Here’s the deal – the probability of having your vulnerabilities exploited isn’t far away. Research reports claim that the method of discovering and misusing vulnerabilities is rapidly becoming the topmost preferred attacking method. That’s at least 30% more attacks under this category, surpassing phishing attacks. Hackers are always on the prowl, so it helps your purpose a lot to keep yourself safe.

Vulnerability assessments are an organized and efficient process of discovering these security issues and vulnerabilities so that you can resolve them before it gets misused. It basically gets you a list of weaknesses that you can work through and give yourself a fighting chance against hackers. From vulnerability assessment, comes the intermediary report with which you proceed into the penetration testing process for actual remediation.

By 2020, over 20000 vulnerabilities have popped out throughout software applications and it doesn’t show signs of stopping. Sometimes, vulnerabilities by themselves don’t pose any harm, but combined with other system weaknesses and security risks, it can prove to be damaging.

Let’s also talk about compliance requirements for organizations within certain industries. Following certain standards and regulations will both ensure you’re remaining compliant and give a competitive advantage over those who don’t. There are some standards that are geography-specific and industry-specific, but here are some of the common ones:

  • HIPAA – Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act
  • GDPR – General Data Protection Regulation
  • ISO 27001 – from the International Organization for Standardization for maintaining security standards
  • PCI-DSS – Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard

Beyond this, vulnerability assessments are a highly useful standard to assure system hardening measures. In this manner, you can secure systems by strengthening the security barriers and then minimizing possible attack vectors. Vulnerability assessments will provide a picture on unnecessarily open ports, ensuring updates of any outdated software/services, etc. Sometimes, major services will require separate servers, which will also be visible through this procedure.

How to conduct a successful vulnerability assessment?

Once you’ve armed yourself with the right information and tools, the only step left is to follow through with the required steps.

Step 1: Define your assets

This step basically covers defining the aspects of your network that need to be scanned. It isn’t a random decision and requires one to be aware of the system infrastructure, its possible flaws, or strengthening needs.

For example, if you deal with IoT elements as part of your organization’s functioning, it’s probably majorly connected to mobile networks. Devices used to connect to the system (mobiles, laptops, etc.) often connect and disconnect frequently from different locations. There’s also the question of the right balance between ease of accessibility and adequate safety when it comes to cloud-based services.

The good thing is that this step of the vulnerability assessment process is better done with automated tools. Vulnerability assessment tools have the ability to scan large public-facing systems while connecting with cloud service providers. This will help them to look into cloud-based infrastructure as well.

Step 2: Define your goals

As extensive as your system is, it may be difficult to run an extensive vulnerability assessment into all components. Beyond the scope of conducting such a test, often vendors charge per asset scanned, so it becomes important to prioritize.

Do you wish to look into databases with sensitive data first? Or, is your preference to check internet-facing servers and customer-facing applications? Often, the target of mass, generalized attacks (like brute force or DDoS) is employees’ systems and internet-facing components.

Step 3: Find out the kind of vulnerability scan

There are network vulnerability, host-based vulnerability, and wireless-based vulnerability scans.

The first kind investigates the networks, all communication channels, and supporting equipment used in the environment. This will also include the software and hardware devices, like routers, hubs, firewalls, switches, clusters, etc.

The second type goes a bit further and analyzes potential weaknesses with hosts based on these networks. You’ll need this kind of scanning to check into user directories, file systems, or memory settings. It majorly focuses on the endpoints and the level of functionality of the internal systems.

Finally, the third kind looks into the type and number of wireless devices on your network, plus their attributes for proper configuration. There could be possible rogue access points that can be exploited which need to be removed immediately as they can listen in on your wireless traffic. You will also need to test the LAN infrastructure and the wireless access points for extra security.

Step 4: Scan for vulnerabilities

These scanners work to find out the weaknesses in your system with possible remediation measures. Since they find out known security risks, there will be information regarding where to find these loopholes and fix them. First, the scanner sends probes to note down the software versions used, the configuration settings currently present, and any open ports or running services. This information is used to find out if any vulnerable devices or software are hidden within the network.

There are also probes to identify individual vulnerabilities through an ethical exploit which shows the location and intensity of risk. Issues identified usually include command injections (SQL) or cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks. How complicated the system is, the number of components, etc determine the time of a typical vulnerability assessment.

Step 5: Results & Resolution

After the detailed vulnerability assessment, the next important step is the final report prepared. The report includes all of the system details that need to be used for designing the right penetration testing procedure. There are a couple of general features that you must be aware of when reading a vulnerability assessment report;

Exposure to vulnerabilities – While the probability is higher, vulnerabilities are not always on public-facing systems. You can find equally concerning vulnerabilities on internet-facing systems that can be exploited by hackers. The next priority is employee systems with potentially vulnerable software installed. All systems that host sensitive data of any kind or can negatively impact your business if compromised should be checked.

Identify the criticality – You should always be able to identify vulnerabilities based on the risk they possess, ideally on a quantifiable scale. This is so that remediation can focus on the most severe issues before moving onto the rest. Smaller vulnerabilities shouldn’t be ignored for too long, since hackers sometimes club multiple small ones to create one large security risk.


What are the different types of vulnerability assessments?

There are various kinds of vulnerability assessments depending on the scanning requirements, industry type, and other unique needs of your organization. Some of these are:

  1. Network and Wireless Assessment – This assessment specifically deals with the policies and general practices implemented within the company to ensure the safety of data. It will assess the steps taken to prevent illegal and forced access into the company servers, private or public networks, and connected resources.
  2. Scanning applications – Looking into web applications is crucial to identify the associated security vulnerabilities and any faults in the source coding. This can be done either through automated scans (done from the front-end) or static or dynamic analysis of the source code.
  3. Host assessment – Some servers need to be assessed based on their criticality, vulnerability to attacks, and if they’re tested periodically and within requirements.
  4. Assessing the database – the database of a website often contains sensitive data related to the owner, company, and customers accessing it. Therefore, big data systems need to be assessed regularly and in a detailed manner for any misconfigurations, vulnerabilities, etc. Sometimes, rogue databases pop up or issues arise due to insecure developing/testing environments, which need to be dealt with. Also, make sure to classify the data used according to its importance, sensitivity, and frequency of use throughout the organization’s infrastructure.

How will you identify vulnerabilities for a website?

Now that we’ve listed the steps of an ideal vulnerability assessment procedure and the types of such procedures, let’s step onto the next part of identifying vulnerabilities for a website. What are some vulnerability assessment scanning tools that will help you find out the hidden security risks?

  • Web application scanners – For testing and simulating known attack patterns and analyzing the response of the website
  • Network scanners – Understand the networks of the organization and look out for potential issues like unprotected IP addresses, suspicious generation of packets, or spoofed packets from one IP address.
  • Protocol scanners – Looks out for vulnerable ports, network services, or protocols

OWASP provides an open source list of the different issues that need to be kept in mind for web application security. Check this out to get a better perspective on what applies to your situation and plan accordingly.

What vulnerability assessment are small website owners looking for?

Small or big, if you’re a company that has an online presence (and gains quite a lot of benefits from it) or uses technology in daily operations, then read further. Cyber threats, from malicious code to ransomware, are ever-present dangers that have the potential to terminally affect your business. Computers, their hardware, and software can present security risks at any time, for which regular updates and specific patch-ups are required. However, to know this, testing is crucial at periodic intervals.

The first concern that you need to address is the kind of partner you prefer for conducting such a procedure. Your company’s IT team is majorly focused on operations and infrastructural flaws, which doesn’t necessarily relate to security all the time. In fact, some companies have two teams dealing with infrastructural concerns and security concerns separately, rightfully so. However, small businesses cannot afford such an expensive distinction, so instead, we choose to keep updated on such security procedures and outsource them to trusted security professionals.

When contacting security service providers, they’ll probably conduct vulnerability assessments and provide a nice and detailed list of everything that’s wrong. This can also be done with a good vulnerability scanner – but the important part is knowing to prioritize and focus on steady progress. You need to know what’s important, identify the level of risk associated with each vulnerability, and then know the timeline of how it’s going to be fixed. That’s it – that’s what you need to expect from your basic vulnerability assessment partner. The technical requirements can be learned later if you follow this foundational concept.

You can always ask for ‘sample deliverables’ from your preferred service provider to judge the quality of their service, their experience, and other parameters. Ask about their process, so you know what they typically focus on, and if It fits your requirements. Do they understand the functioning of your business so that they can tweak the process to fit its unique requirements and prioritize accordingly? Will they provide maturity road-maps so that you can get a good perspective on short-term and long-term security? These are some of the questions you want to be answered.

No matter how long this guide goes on, there’s still plenty of information about vulnerability assessments to be covered. We at Astra Security are ready to help you out!

*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from Astra Security Blog authored by Amal Raju. Read the original post at: