Real vulnerability management goes beyond NIST’s Cybersecurity Framework

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Rather than solely relying on the typical defensive playbook, state and local government agencies must develop a proactive and risk-based approach to cybersecurity.

State and local government agencies are facing a dynamic and ever-expanding threat landscape. Security teams find themselves mired in fragmented infrastructure, siloed functions and resource constraints, enabling cybercriminals to slip through the cracks and carry out record-breaking breaches. 

Although state and local agencies adhere to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Cybersecurity Framework, simply being NIST compliant isn’t enough to keep data and networks safe. Attacks against Fremont County, Colorado; Guadalupe County, Texas; and the Newport, Rhode Island, City Hall illustrate the urgent need for local government agencies to develop a proactive and risk-based approach to cybersecurity rather than solely relying on the typical defensive playbook. 

Compliance is critical, yet not synonymous with strong security

Government agencies invest significant resources in technology to secure their environments based on the NIST framework. Agencies that have satisfied the checklist might assume they must be safe, and this kind of thinking often leads to overlooked gaps that can be exploited.

Compliance frameworks such as NIST were designed to help organizations better understand and manage potential network and data risks. However, complying with these frameworks still leaves gaps, so they should only be one facet of a security strategy. For instance, the focus of NIST 800-41 only pertains to security controls and firewalls at a network’s perimeter and zone-to-zone access. What about the full spectrum of security measures needed for user identity, virtualization or container security?

A piecemeal approach to cybersecurity based on traditionally reactive cybersecurity frameworks might have been an effective strategy at the turn of the millennium. But, since the start of the pandemic, security teams have been facing rapidly evolving regulatory requirements amidst an increasingly hostile threat landscape. A proactive, risk-based approach to cybersecurity uses compliance frameworks as a foundation to build a secure network model.

Vulnerabilities reach an all-time high

The lack of visibility into siloed, on-premise, hybrid and multi-cloud environments across agencies has made juggling compliance and vulnerability management increasingly difficult and prone to human error. A recent Skybox Security cybersecurity benchmarking study indicates that ransomware events are expected to jump over the next two years, with government entities in the crosshairs. New vulnerabilities in the wild rose by 24% in 2022, demonstrating just how quickly threat actors move to capitalize on an organization’s weaknesses

Millions of vulnerability alerts are plaguing many large organizations. Reactive strategies centered on scanning and patching have proved overwhelming, especially considering staff and resource constraints. As a result, traditional approaches rooted in checking the box with compliance frameworks often fail to catch modern threats. Government agencies would be better off taking a proactive approach that includes identifying critical risks that are actually exposed to adversaries.

Going beyond the NIST framework 

The evolving threat landscape faced by state and local government agencies requires proactive, risk-based strategies that go beyond the NIST Cybersecurity Framework with a comprehensive vulnerability management plan. This approach enables agencies to locate, quantify, classify and manage all risks within an agency’s attack surface. 

While there are multiple aspects to a proactive risk-based strategy, agencies should look to four critical components for successful implementation:

  • Risk scoring: Advanced vulnerability prioritization considers a range of risk factors. This method enables security teams to identify and prioritize their organization's riskiest assets and vulnerabilities and prioritize remediation efforts by focusing on the vulnerabilities within their environment that could be most harmful to their operations if exploited. By considering various factors, including the potential financial impact of an incident, evidence of exploitation in the wild, exposure and the security controls in place, agencies can ensure that they are focusing their resources on the areas of greatest risk. This approach enables them to effectively and systematically reduce risk. 
  • Exposure analysis: Exposure analysis is a critical component of a proactive cybersecurity strategy. By identifying exposed vulnerabilities and correlating data with an organization's network configurations and security controls, exposure analysis can help determine if a system is vulnerable to attack. Path analysis, which determines which attack vectors or network paths could be used to access vulnerable systems, is a key part of exposure analysis. By understanding the potential ways that an attacker infiltrates an environment, security teams can take steps to mitigate the risks and protect their assets. 
  • Exploitability: Exploitability data regarding vulnerabilities and malware is important for vulnerability prioritization. In addition to the exploitation information from the CVSS temporal vector, exploited vulnerabilities in the intelligence feed also include exploitability level and information about which malware or exploit kit can attack them.
  • Visualization: A visual representation of an organization’s entire attack surface allows agencies to comply with specific objectives for complete visibility into all devices on the network and zero in on how best to reduce exposure.

The siloed nature of modern network environments creates varying levels of risk. Agencies must adopt a risk-based approach to comply with current and future directives and adhere to Security Technical Implementation Guide standards and triage vulnerabilities. Such an approach that looks beyond NIST framework has been found to reduce the number of breaches compared to simply adhering to the framework. With a modern risk-based approach, organizations not only maintain compliance—they effectively defend against threats.

Ed Mosquera is the technical director at Skybox.

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