Imagine if a gang of burglars arrived on your street and started going from house to house each night testing windows and doors to see if any of them could be forced open. While many houses would be perfectly secure, it’s likely that there would be one or two — especially on a long street — that could be burglarized in this way.
This analogy can be applied when we think about software vulnerabilities. A software vulnerability refers to any software flaw that manifests itself in a way that can be negatively exploited by bad actors. While a software bug refers to a part of a piece of software that doesn’t behave exactly as intended, these are mostly just minor annoyances to users. A vulnerability, on the other hand, poses a serious threat to data privacy and system integrity as a whole.
The difference between the burglar analogy and real cybersecurity vulnerabilities has to do with scale. Many cities have a crime problem, but fortunately not every street has a gang of criminals constantly going house to house trying to break in. Such incidents are statistically rare. Software vulnerabilities are another story. Cybercriminals are always looking to exploit new vulnerabilities, and with upward of 23,000 vulnerabilities discovered each year, they have plenty of opportunities to capitalize.
The vulnerability problem
In most cases, software vulnerabilities can be plugged using patches. Patches refer to software updates, usually distributed via downloads, that rewrite problematic parts of a piece of software so as to fix the flaw. Like cyberattackers — only this time fighting on the side of good — reputable developers are constantly on the lookout for vulnerabilities in their own software.
When these vulnerabilities are discovered, a good developer will create a patch and push it out to users. By keeping on top of security focused updates, users can therefore keep themselves protected.
Problem solved, then? Sadly, it’s not quite as simple as that. Keeping on top of patch management can be a major headache. No user will use every piece of software in existence, of course, but most will rely on several dozen software packages. Downloading and installing software updates can be time-consuming. It is also difficult to know which updates to prioritize, especially if the bug fixes they cover are not a well-known, highly publicized vulnerability. With more cybersecurity threats than ever, overworked and understaffed security teams often have more pressing priorities to take care of in an enterprise environment.
Attackers hurry to exploit vulnerabilities
Unfortunately, vulnerabilities don’t hang around for too long before being exploited. In some cases, criminals will act to exploit flaws within minutes of their details being published on the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) database, a list of publicly known vulnerabilities and exposures. They do this because, the longer they wait, the more time a developer has to create and release a patch, and the more users will have time to download and install it.
In order to get access to the largest number of potential targets, cyber attackers therefore rush to exploit vulnerabilities as quickly as they can. To speed up the process, criminals now rent cloud computing setups to scan the internet for systems deemed vulnerable. In some cases, attackers even discover zero-day exploits, referring to exploits not yet discovered by developers or security researchers. This gives them extra time to develop ways of exploiting these vulnerabilities to cause maximum damage.
The results of an exploited vulnerability could be extremely damaging. It may allow hackers to inject malware into vulnerable systems or let them remote control computers or systems.
The importance of virtual patching
When it comes to effectively managing vulnerabilities, the best solution is what is known as virtual patching. Despite its name, virtual patching doesn’t refer to patches of the kind made available by developers. Instead, they are a series of rules that block malicious behavior capable of inflicting damage. Virtual patching covers tools such as Web Application Firewalls (WAFs) and Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) that spot and block bad inputs and request payloads. Instead of having to wait for official patches to be released, and to have to download and install each of these as they arrive, virtual patching is a game-changer that makes it far easier to protect yourself from attacks.
It’s impossible to ever fully quell the problem with software vulnerabilities. Every piece of software of a certain size has bugs, and a proportion of those bugs will tip over into vulnerabilities that can be exploited. However, by taking the right precautions you can make sure that you’re protected from the worst of these attacks.
It’s a major reason why virtual patching should be a part of your cybersecurity strategy when it comes to safeguarding against bad actors.