Differences Explained: Threat vs. Vulnerability vs. Risk

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Threat, vulnerability and risk are terms that are inherent to cybersecurity. But oftentimes, organizations get their meanings confused. It is crucial for infosec managers to understand the relationships between threats and vulnerabilities so they can effectively manage the impact of a data compromise and manage IT risk.

Not only should operations expenditures lower over time, organizations will build customer confidence and potentially increase sales. This article explains the key differences between vulnerability vs. threat vs. risk within the context of IT security: 

  • Threat is what an organization is defending itself against, e.g. a DoS attack.
  • Vulnerabilities are the gaps or weaknesses that undermine an organization’s IT security efforts, e.g. a firewall flaw that lets hackers into a network. 
  • Risk refers to the calculated assessment of potential threats to an organization’s security and vulnerabilities within its network and information systems.

What is a Threat in Cybersecurity or Information Security?

A threat is anything that has the potential to disrupt or do harm to an organization. Threats can be intentional or unintentional. The cause of cyber threats vary. They can be incidents or activities, or failure to take action. The biggest threat to date was the 2017 NotPetya cyberattack. Hackers were able to spread malware globally, with the majority of victims in the Ukraine.

Types of Cybersecurity Threats 

Threats are named as such because of the negative consequences they can have on the environment. A SecOps threat, can have the undesirable consequence of granting unauthorized access to restricted, secure information. There are three major types of threats:

Natural threats: acts of nature that can be unpredictable in terms of onset, duration and impact. Examples of natural threats, also known as natural hazards, include earthquakes, floods and forest fires. 

Unintentional threats: these forms of threats can oftentimes be attributed to human error. Unintentional threats can be physical, e.g. leaving the door to IT servers unlocked, or electronic, e.g. leaving the front door to premises containing sensitive information unmonitored.

Intentional threats: activity done on purpose to compromise an IT system, brought about by threat actors or groups. Examples of intentional threats include injecting malicious code, tampering with a hardware device or stealing an encryption key to access user login credentials.

How to Reduce the Impact of Cyber Threats on Your Organization

It’s always a good idea to stay current and informed about the latest cyber threats, plus the tools and resources that can mitigate them. Some of the most common cyberattacks include:

  • Denial-of-service (DoS) and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS)
  • Man-in-the-Middle (MitM)
  • Phishing and spear phishing
  • Password attack
  • SQL injection attack

The biggest causes of data breaches include: unpatched software, social engineering and improper password management. We will explore how these causes increase the risk of a cyberattack later in this article. But for now, let’s look at vulnerabilities and how they interact with threats.

Vulnerabilities in IT Systems

A security vulnerability is a flaw that can be in an IT system, application, policy or procedure — anything that leaves an organization open to a cyberattack. Vulnerabilities can be physical or electronic, such as a software or operating system glitch. They are particularly attractive to hackers because, with the right effort, cybercriminals can perform unauthorized actions to infiltrate and compromise IT assets.

Vulnerabilities can be either intentional or unintentional and, in some cases, automated, eg. when hackers use bots. Within the context of IT security, vulnerabilities are known weaknesses. Therefore, knowing the factors that impact your vulnerability will help you to better understand your cybersecurity posture — the overall state and strength of your cybersecurity efforts.

How to Reduce IT Infrastructure Vulnerabilities

Keep licenses and security patches up to date: technology providers provide regular updates to repair patches, so make sure to keep your software and firmware up-to-date with the latest version. Make sure your application licenses are current.

Maintain and enforce a strict cybersecurity policy: keep data protected, such as with encrypted passwords locked away at an off-site location. Enforce a policy that is consistent with international information security management system standards such as ISO 27001. Make sure your data is backed up and that you have a contingency plan in place in the event of a data breach or system outage. 

Reduce vulnerabilities caused by human error: restrict access to networks, including employee access or the ability to make information changes. 

Calculate Risk Based on Threat and Vulnerability

After conducting a threat assessment and vulnerability assessment, you are ready to conduct a risk assessment, determine needs and set controls. Assess the potential for risk by reviewing, then tallying your threats and vulnerabilities. Conducting a cyber risk assessment will give you a clearer picture of the threats and vulnerabilities your organization faces.

Threat modeling is a powerful tool that can help an organization to determine risk. The activity of threat modeling enables SecOps to view security threats and vulnerabilities across the enterprise to identify risk where they may occur. Through threat modeling, continuously monitor systems against risk criteria that includes technologies, best practices, entry points and users, et al.

After the risk assessment, you may find that you are not able to fully treat all known risks. At this stage, it is important to determine the level of risk that your organization can tolerate without compromising its operations. You can then run a risk treatment plan to manage these threats. Create a regular risk assessment schedule and stick to it.

Cyber threats are ongoing and can happen at any time, with hackers using increased technical and organizational skills. An organization that makes cybersecurity a priority across the enterprise will have a better shot at protecting the data they process.

Keep stakeholders informed and engaged. Makes sure they know the difference between threat vs. vulnerability to facilitate informed decision making regarding risk. Appoint an employee group with members from all levels within the company that can help with risk management.

Secure and Scale Your Enterprise with ThreatModeler

ThreatModeler is advancing the threat modeling approach with an automated tool that, through continuous monitoring, identifies and predicts potential threats across all IT applications and devices. Threat Modeler works with all types of computing environments. ThreatModeler helps you to analyze an IT ecosystem, determine and rank threats to prioritize mitigation.

To learn more about why ThreatModeler is an excellent choice for your enterprise, request a free evaluation of the ThreatModeler platform or contact us to speak with an application threat modeling expert today.

ThreatModeler to Serve as Panelist at the 2nd Annual National Cybersecurity Summit

On Friday, September 20, Alex Bauer, Sr. Director of Threat Research at ThreatModeler, will speak as a panelist at the 2nd Annual National Cybersecurity Summit. Presented by the US Department of Homeland Security and the  National Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), security leaders will present on important topics including:

  • Technologies
  • Vulnerability Management
  • Incident Response
  • Risk Mitigation

The event addresses the important topic of protecting private and confidential data for federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial agencies, private sector organizations, and international partners. Panelists will share success stories and discuss opportunities for collective action.

For more information visit the official event page

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