Security Audit

What, Why, and How of Vulnerability Scanning

Updated on: May 18, 2022

What, Why, and How of Vulnerability Scanning

While the pandemic has put the entire economy off balance, a large number of businesses have bounced back by adapting to digitized models. With unprecedented digital dependency across industries, things are looking good for Software as a Service providers. Applications are being launched in a hurry with user experience as the central focal point. 

We have entered an era of digital ease and the hackers across the world are absolutely loving it. According to a survey an average website is visited 2608 times per week by bots. Some of these visits are made by search engine crawlers but others are made by malicious bots looking for vulnerabilities. 

The rapidity with which software updates are launched nowadays, it is only a matter of time before a critical vulnerability takes root and gets exploited. It poses a serious threat to organizations of all sizes irrespective of their verticals. Hence, we shall talk about vulnerability scanning at length. You will learn what it is, why you need it, and how you can get it done.

What is vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is a process where an automated tool is used to scan IT networks, applications, devices, and other internal or external assets of an organization for known potential security loopholes and vulnerabilities. It is a pretty self-explanatory phrase. At the end of every vulnerability scan, you receive a report that documents the vulnerabilities that were found along with risk scores for each vulnerability and in some cases security recommendations.

Also Read- Docker Hub Vulnerability Scanning

What is a vulnerability?

Mistakes are an inevitable part of software design. These mistakes are referred to as bugs, and generally a bug may affect the performance of a certain piece of software. Now, if a bug opens a way for a nefarious actor to break into a system that bug is called a vulnerability and it is registered as a CVE (Common Vulnerability or Exposure). As of 2019, 46% of websites had critical vulnerabilities and 87% had medium risk vulnerabilities (Source). We will get to these categories later.

While some vulnerabilities are deep-rooted and difficult to detect without an in-depth manual penetration testing by security experts, a large number of them can be detected through automated vulnerability scanning. 

Classification of vulnerabilities in terms of severity

The impact and exploitability of a vulnerability is calculated by taking multiple factors into account – the ease of access, authentication, its spread, the availability of mitigation, etc. Then exploitability and impact is concatenated to assign a severity score between 0.0 and 10.0 for each vulnerability. This is called the CVSS score (Common vulnerability scoring system). The vulnerabilities can be classified into high, medium, and low severity categories depending on their CVSS score. 

The CVSS score of a vulnerability is calculated based on three different metric groups – base, tempora and environmental. Firstly the CVSS base score is determined by assessing intrinsic properties of a vulnerability that do not change with time or the user’s environment.

The base score is then modified by taking temporal metrics into account that represent such characteristics of a vulnerability that change over time. Finally, the characteristics specific to a user’s environment are considered to get the environmental score. All these scores are applied to calculate the overall CVSS score.

Vulnerabilities with a score between 7 and 10 are considered highly severe. Vulnerabilities scoring 4 to 6.9 fall into the medium severity category and those with a score between 0 and 3.9 are put in the low severity category. These scores allow the developers, and security experts to prioritize the vulnerabilities according to their severity so that the most critical ones are mitigated first.

Let us look at some easily detectable vulnerabilities which can be potentially disastrous for your software, if left unchecked. 

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Most found vulnerabilities and security risks in software

There are awareness-building projects and communities like the OWASP and NIST that document the most critical vulnerabilities at a given time. They publish lists of vulnerabilities that pose the most critical and pervasive threats. These lists are usually followed while checking scanning systems for vulnerabilities. 

Let us talk about the top five vulnerabilities from OWASP top 10: 2021

#1 Broken Access Control

Access control refers to the application of constraints on who can perform a certain action or access certain information. In the case of web applications, access control is usually maintained through authentication and session management. 

Authentication ensures that the identity of the entity requesting access is true. Session management identifies the HTTP requests made by the user. Access control ensures that the entity is authorized to perform the operation or access the information requested.

Designing Access Control is a crucial part of software development and broken access control can allow a person to perform unauthorized action or access data that they’re not supposed to access.    

#2 Cryptographic Failures

Cryptographic failure is a generalized phrase that describes a situation where sensitive data can be accessed without authorization. It refers to a condition where the data in transit, or at rest, is not secured through encryption.

When your data is in transmission from users to systems or the other way round, it should ideally be secured with transport layer security (TLS). If the data is at rest in your devices, it has to be encrypted too. If data is encrypted it is not searchable, which is not good for its utility. Hence, a lot of databases are always online making security a challenge. Successful cryptography comes to the rescue and ensures access control by employing cyphers along with initialization vectors.

Now, let’s say you ignore initialization vectors (an arbitrary number required alongside a secret key to encrypt data) or reuse them, it increases the chances of information leak. It would be an example of failed cryptography.

#3 Injection

Injection has been on the list of critical vulnerabilities for a long time now. SQL injection (SQLi) and cross site scripting (XSS) are some of the most popular modes of injection attacks. So, here’s how it works.

An attacker makes a malicious code input to the target program. An interpreter processes the code as part of the command or query. That in turn alters the execution of the program.

An attacker can use an SQL statement to interfere with the preexisting parameters that control the exchange of data between a web application and its database. As such, the attacker can gain administrative access to the database.

#4 Insecure Design

Insecure design points at those vulnerabilities which come into existence in software owing to the lack of security implementations during its development. For instance, the lack of input validation can make way for injection attacks. Implementing security in the software development life cycle can be a challenge as it demands a completely different perspective – threat modelling.

You can discover such vulnerabilities through vulnerability scanning, however remediating them in a production site is a bit more difficult than preventing them during the SDLC.

#5 Security Misconfiguration

Security misconfigurations are caused by inaccurate configuration or complete abandonment of security controls. For instance, if a developer writes flexible firewall rules and creates network shares for convenience in a development phase and does not restore the original settings, it remains as a security misconfiguration. Similarly, an administrator may authorize configuration changes for troubleshooting or some other purpose, then forget to reset them.

These things do happen, and honestly, it is not very difficult to end up with a bunch of security miscofigurations given the intricacy of network configuration used today and the state of flux applications are always in.

The practice should be to review your security posture continually and frequent vulnerability scanning and penetration testing is a good way to do that. There are different types of vulnerability scanners that you can use for different situations.

Learn about Website Vulnerability Testing

Types of Vulnerability Scanners

Network based scanners are used to uncover anomalies on your IT network like open ports, unauthorized remote access servers, and vulnerable applications that may be active on the network. One can use host based scanners to scan servers and workstations. Other than that there are wireless scanners, application scanners, and database scanners.    

A vulnerability scanner can be authenticated in which case it can scan behind login pages. For instance, Astra Security has a login recorder extension which keeps the scanner authenticated even if the session times out. It allows the automated scanner to scan logged in pages while not requiring the user to authenticate the session repeatedly.

An unauthenticated scanner can only perform vulnerability scans from the outside. 

How does a vulnerability scanner detect a vulnerability?

By now you are familiar with a bunch of vulnerabilities. You have understood how they occur and how they can impact your systems negatively. It is time to learn how a vulnerability scanner detects a vulnerability.

A vulnerability scanner is an automated tool that checks a network, or an application for known vulnerabilities by referencing a database of details about various attack vectors (attack signatures). It is somewhat comparable to diagnosing a patient by symptoms.

Once the scan is done, a report is created that documents the vulnerabilities and assigns risk scores to them. The report may or may not include remediation guidance for the developers. After the report is produced, the developers can take a shift-left approach to find the code bugs, configuration errors, or other factors that contributed to the vulnerabilities and remediate the issues.

How is vulnerability scanning different from pentesting?

Both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are important procedures to understand the security posture and resilience of an organization – its network, applications, and devices. They have some fundamental differences.

Vulnerability scanning detects vulnerabilities and provides you with risk scores for those vulnerabilities so as to help you prioritize the critical vulnerabilities over the less severe ones while fixing them. It is usually an automated procedure which is very fast and not intrusive.

Vulnerability scanning doesn’t exploit the identified security loopholes to assess how much damage it could cost. That is where penetration testing comes in. It involves security experts employing hacker-like strategies to safely exploit certain vulnerabilities to answer questions like how easily it was exploitable, how much access the said vulnerability could grant a malicious actor, whether it could allow someone to access sensitive data.

Penetration testing attempts a more in-depth analysis of the security situation than vulnerability scanning. Whether you should conduct penetration testing on top of vulnerability assessment depends on multiple factors. If your business deals with a lot of sensitive and valuable data and if your industry vertical is governed by stern security regulations, you may want to opt for both.

Related: Learn Why Penetration Testing is Important

Why you should conduct frequent vulnerability scans

You need a vulnerability management regime that fits the DevOps environment. It has to be fast, continuous, and accurate. Automated vulnerability scanning with a great vulnerability scanner is your best bet. Here’s what you achieve by conducting frequent scans.

Accurate reports

A machine learning driven vulnerability scanner gets better at scanning your system with every use. Hence, the reports are increasingly accurate with a decreasing number of false positives. And you do not have to wait for weeks to get the vulnerability report.

Automatic scans

You can automate the vulnerability scanner so as to run a scan whenever there is a code update. Each new edition of an application invites new vulnerabilities. Hence, running an automated scan with every update can be a lifesaver.

Stay compliant and build trust

A lot of industries mandate security audits and vulnerability reports are a huge part of those exercises. So, it plays a significant role in compliance. Moreover, if you stay ahead of security threats, it is easier to build trust and ensure that clients are not spooked away by potential data security threats in your organization.

How to pick a Vulnerability Scanner for your organization?

There are a lot of vulnerability scanners in the market with overlapping features. It is difficult to judge a vulnerability scanner by how many tests it conducts or how fast it reports. Those are all important qualities but present in a lot of good scanners. 

When it comes to vulnerability scanning, the user experience can be improved a lot with small additional features.

For instance, if a vulnerability scanner can scan behind login without repeated authentication, it saves you a lot of time and effort. Another recent feature launched by Astra Security called Pentest Compliance, helps you visualize in real time which compliance regulations you are passing or failing according to your security stature.

Features like these make a lot of difference when you are trying to make security a continuous part of your development drives.

The best vulnerability scanning tool – Astra Pentest

Vulnerability scanning is usually an automated process where you just determine the scope of the scan and the rest is done by the tool. That means choosing the right tool for the purpose is important. The automated vulnerability scanner by Astra Security sets the global benchmark in this respect.

Vulnerability Scanning Report
Image: Vulnerability Scanning Report

The intelligent vulnerability scanner by Astra conducts 3000+ tests to detect a wide range of vulnerabilities including but not limited to those listed by OWASP, SANS, and NIST.

It is one small security loophole v/s your entire website / web app

Get your web app audited & strengthen your defenses!
See Pricing
Starting from $99/month

Astra Security has set the bar high by making the entire process incredibly user friendly. Take for instance, the login recorder which allows the automated scanner to scan behind the login pages without requiring the site owners to authorize it repeatedly. 

Your vulnerability scanning experience with Astra is controlled through an interactive dashboard where you can visualize the vulnerability analysis and remediation status. The security experts at Astra also ensure that your vulnerability report does not have false positives.

The Pentest Compliance feature launched by Astra also shows you the what all compliance regulations you meet or fail to meet according to the state of vulnerabilities found in your system during the scan.

In fact, you can integrate platforms like GitHub to make your remediation effort independent from the dashboard. You use the most competent vulnerability scanning and pentest tool to detect vulnerabilities in your system without losing any time reinventing the workflow.

To Conclude

Vulnerability scanning is an automated tool based procedure, hence, the importance of choosing the right tool cannot be emphasized enough. The importance of converging DevOps with DevSecOps also needs some extra stress in the context of vulnerability management. It is always easier and less expensive to find and deal with vulnerabilities during the software development life cycle. In fact, you should partner up with a pentesting company that is comfortable with both static analysis of code and dynamic analysis of the application in production. It always helps if your vulnerability scanning report comes with zero false positives.

Have any questions or suggestions? Feel free to talk to us anytime!

We are also available on weekends 😊

What is the cost of vulnerability scanning?

The monthly cost of vulnerability scanning for web applications is between $99 and $399. Check out our pricing.

How much time does it take to conduct vulnerability assessment and penetration testing?

It usually takes 4-7 days to complete the process. After which you can fix the issues identified in the test and run a rescan. The rescan takes half the time needed for the initial test. Get a security audit with 1250+ tests, right now!

How often should I conduct vulnerability scans?

The industry best practice is to run vulnerability scans at least once a quarter. However some verticals may require more frequent scans. Scan your website now!

Can I have continuous scans for new product versions?

Yes, you can integrate CI/CD platforms with Astra Pentest suite, thus enabling continuous scans for product updates.

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Ananda Krishna

Ananda Krishna is the co-founder & CTO of Astra Security, a SaaS suite that secures businesses from cyber threats. He has been acknowledged by the Indian Navy, Microsoft, United Airlines, etc. for finding critical security vulnerabilities in their systems. Winner of the Best Security Product at Global Conference on Cyberspace 2017 (awarded by Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India) & French Tech Ticket, Paris (awarded by François Hollande, former President of France). At Astra he's building an intelligent security ecosystem - web application firewall (WAF), malware detection & analysis, large scale SaaS applications, APIs & more. He's actively involved in the cybersecurity community and shared his knowledge at various forums & invited talks.
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