External Attack Surface Management vs Vulnerability Management

External Attack Surface Management vs Vulnerability Management
Organizations used to rely on vulnerability management, penetration testing, and web application assessments to improve their security posture. However, with remote work and cloud migration, these techniques are no longer enough. Vulnerability management is a structured process that helps organizations reduce the risk of security incidents and data breaches. However, it has limitations, such as data problems, limited scope, and false positives.
External Attack Surface Management vs Vulnerability Management

For years, organizations looking to improve their security posture relied on performing vulnerability management (VM), along with penetration testing and web application assessments. However, with the rise of remote work, migration to cloud environments, and the vast digital footprint of organizations today, it is no longer safe to rely on any of these techniques solely.

Detecting vulnerabilities is merely the first phase. To create an effective security program, it is crucial to carry out subsequent stages such as validation, triaging, prioritization, assignment, and follow-up. This is where External attack surface management(EASM) comes in.

Both External Attack Surface Management(EASM) and Vulnerability Management are security techniques that aim to achieve the common goal of improving the overall security posture of an organization. However, it is important to avoid confusing the two approaches while seeking a cybersecurity solution.

Vulnerability management as a practice

A vulnerability is a weakness in the system or network that can be exploited to launch a successful cyberattack. Vulnerability management, also known as vulnerability scanning, is a structured process used by cybersecurity professionals to find and classify vulnerabilities, entry points, and exploit points in an organization's networks and applications.

It is an ongoing process that helps organizations maintain a strong security posture and reduce the risk of security incidents and data breaches. Using vulnerability management, organizations can rate the specific vulnerabilities in their network. This helps their IT and security teams to view the issues on the basis of their severity.

Organizations can’t protect assets they don’t know exist. In order to recognize and patch vulnerabilities, complete visibility over the asset inventory is essential. Traditionally, vulnerability management (VM) has focused on individual assets that may be vulnerable to threat actors. However, this approach overlooks the interconnections between threats and assets and only targets the immediate impact of a vulnerable asset. As a result, the VM process might have a very myopic focus.

To keep up with the fast-paced and ever-evolving technology landscape, security teams need to move away from solely reacting to security alerts and start collaborating with other business departments to make them accountable for their own security concerns. This involves effectively communicating security issues with appropriate business context and risk management assessment.

Hence, even though VM helps organizations realize the severity of the issues, it cannot be relied upon to aid security teams with communications across business functions for solving these issues. External attack surface management(or Attack surface management) on the other hand aims to provide ample business context and prioritize the continuous stream of security issues. This allows security teams to look at the big picture and manage their entire attack surface instead of simply addressing vulnerabilities.

Things that vulnerability management doesn’t account for(limitations)

According to IBM, the average time to identify a breach in 2021 was 212 days. Modern organizational environments are dynamic, dispersed, and constantly expanding. This makes it impossible for security teams to mitigate all potential entry points. To protect the entire attack surface adequately, companies need full visibility over it.

Limitations of VM-

1. Data problems

Vulnerability management tools only gather basic data, such as the total number of vulnerabilities identified, affected assets, or technical severity. While that data is helpful, it lacks the context needed for teams to resolve these issues quickly and efficiently.

2. Limited scope

The main objective of a vulnerability scanner is to identify software vulnerabilities within a set of IP addresses that the organization provides. As a result, these scanners will only detect IT assets within the known ranges of defined IP addresses, while ignoring any unknowns outside these ranges.

3. Delayed remediation

Managing vulnerabilities can be resource-intensive, requiring dedicated staff, hardware, and software to regularly scan, identify, prioritize, and remediate vulnerabilities. If the vulnerability management program is not aligned with the patching process, it can cause delays in the organization's patch management timeline.

4. False Positives

Vulnerability scanners don’t always the access to the information that they need to accurately determine whether a vulnerability exists. Due to this limitation, they may generate false positives or false negatives, meaning that they may incorrectly identify a vulnerability or fail to detect one that does exist. False negatives are particularly dangerous as they can leave an organization's systems vulnerable to attacks. Therefore, it is important to carefully evaluate vulnerability management tools and ensure that they are configured correctly to minimize the risk of false positives and false negatives.

5. Lack of Inherent Continuity

Vulnerability management is not inherently a continuous process. Organizations lacking cybersecurity maturity often take a scattergun approach, managing vulnerabilities on an ad hoc basis, despite the Center for Internet Security's recommendation of continuous vulnerability management as a Critical Security Control. A solution that only provides ad hoc asset discovery and monitoring is insufficient for keeping up with the pace of evolving threats.

External Attack Surface Management as a practice

External Attack surface management is a cybersecurity practice that employs software tools to continuously detect, monitor, classify, and remediate potential vulnerabilities within an organization's IT infrastructure. It aims at providing greater visibility into an organization's attack surface by identifying how cyber assets are connected and their potential impact on internal systems in the event of a breach.

External Attack surface management (EASM) analyzes the connections between the assets and the potential impact that one breached asset could have on others in the network. It allows organizations to view themselves from an attacker’s perspective.

This helps them to prioritize issues related to critical assets, as well as those assets that are more likely to be targeted by hackers. Furthermore, it consistently tracks domains, IPs, and open services of interest.

By employing EASM, organizations can get a complete picture of their assets and potential vulnerabilities. EASM prioritizes the identified threats to improve a company's security posture, reduce the attack surface, and mitigate security risks within specific assets.

In addition, EASM solutions also provide other features, such as:-

  • In-depth scan of various illicit network channels for finding Leaked credentials
  • Look-a-like domain discovery

Vulnerability management as a subset of ASM

Vulnerability management is a component of attack surface management. It focuses on a particular vulnerability within the overall attack surface. It is narrower in scope, centred on code-based scans, and has a more specialized strategy for addressing vulnerabilities. The primary goal of vulnerability management is to detect, classify, prioritize, and resolve security vulnerabilities within a network or system that could be exploited by threat actors.

Attack surface management takes a comprehensive and strategic approach to an organization's cybersecurity posture by considering both internal and external-facing assets, including technology surfaces and human factors such as phishing scams. This approach recognizes the interconnectivity of cyber assets and how they can impact each other during a security breach, with the attack surface expanding due to factors like IoT and BYOD.

Vulnerability management, on the other hand, focuses on the internal software-based cyber landscape and individual assets that may be targeted by threat actors. This approach doesn't necessarily concern itself with understanding the interconnectedness of systems and devices, but it can figure out if action is needed.


External Attack Surface Management (EASM) vs Vulnerability management (VM)

How do Attack Surface Management and Vulnerability Management Work Together

Both attack surface management and vulnerability management have the same goal: to assist organizations in identifying vulnerabilities in their attack surfaces and addressing them before they are exploited by attackers. In the current threat environment, it is critical for organizations to be aware of their vulnerable assets. A minor security breach can result in the loss of millions of dollars in ransom payments. Organizations may select to use either security management concept, but it's best to use them in combination to create a complete and robust cybersecurity program.

Although vulnerability management doesn't detect third-party vulnerabilities, it provides a more focused approach to identifying and resolving cybersecurity vulnerabilities. While vulnerability management is often necessary for identifying internal IT issues and compliance requirements, organizations must also address external threats that may permit unauthorized access. Attack surface management provides comprehensive coverage, offering a holistic view of an organization's internet-facing assets to facilitate comprehensive cyber risk management.

Hence, both approaches are essential for maintaining the security of an organization’s systems and networks, and they should be implemented as part of a comprehensive security strategy.

Implementing an automated and continuous external attack surface management tool such as Horizon can significantly enhance an organization's security posture. By using Horizon, organizations can identify and tag assets based to provide business context. Horizon can also prioritize vulnerabilities based on their impact on business operations. In addition to this, Horizon offers digital footprint monitoring and continuous asset discovery, which provide organizations with a comprehensive view of their attack surface. This enhances visibility and allows organizations to identify and remediate issues as soon as they arise. Hence, reducing the risk of a security breach. Furthermore, Horizon's real-time vulnerability management capabilities ensure that organizations can respond to threats as they emerge, rather than waiting for a scheduled scan. Thus, implementing a proactive and effective EASM tool like Horizon will help organizations strengthen their overall security posture.

Back to blog