While the internet and network infrastructure make up the engine that drive small business operations and growth, they also make up its greatest vulnerability for attacks. Most often, SMB owners know they should do more to protect their network and data but aren’t sure what that change entails. For millions of businesses, the first step to cybersecurity lies in understanding the role and importance of a vulnerability assessment in fostering that change.

For small businesses, a network security breach is not a matter of if but when. The rise of phishing, advanced malware, zero-day and ransomware attacks resulted in nearly 70 percent of small businesses experiencing a cyberattack in 2017 according to a 2018 State of Cybersecurity study conducted by the Ponemon Institute.

Clearly, guarding against SMB network vulnerability must go beyond installing firewalls and anti-virus software.

Even the most secure network is likely to have some unknown vulnerabilities to both external and internal threat vectors. To understand the risks they face, companies must run both external and internal network scans for potential vulnerabilities and identify all network-connected devices. Those are just two of the primary purposes that increase the need for a vulnerability assessment.

What is a Vulnerability Assessment?

A vulnerability assessment is testing completed by independent security and IT system experts. The rigorous, customized process is designed to identify the hidden and overlooked weaknesses in technology systems, processes, and practices that leave gaps in a business’s defense against internal or external threats.

A 360-degree view of the business’ IT environment including all hardware and software assets is the first step. The initial goal is to uncover the basic vulnerabilities that are the focus of many cyberattacks that go unnoticed including:

  • Poor patch management procedures
  • Weak passwords and insufficient identity access management
  • Web-based personal email services
  • Lack of end-user education and sound security policies
  • Configuration errors

As a fundamental part of the process, the security assessment includes rigorous system inspections using sophisticated software and automated testing tools. These are used to probe a business’s network to identify vulnerabilities in computers, networks, and communications equipment. Depending on the scope, a comprehensive vulnerability assessment may test:

  • Access control parameters
  • Application workflow sequences
  • Authentication processes
  • Session management
  • Web server configuration
  • SSL versions, key exchange methods, algorithms, and key lengths
  • Script, SQL, OS Command, and LDAP injections

Some vulnerabilities will be more dangerous than others, so the assessment will find and rank them from low to high threat based on the massive public National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) National Vulnerability Database. The assessment and consultative process can only be effective if businesses understand its purpose, which is to lower the risk of data loss and business interruption.

Why Undergo a Vulnerability Assessment?

Common network security measures like antivirus software, Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS), and firewalls are only effective against known threats. Since threats like malware attacks are constantly evolving, these protections are inadequate. Vulnerability assessments provide in-depth analysis of the network to identify weak points that can be exploited by the latest attacks that basic protections are unable to detect, which guards against:

  • Targeted attacks that come from internal sources, such as careless employees, bad actors or third-party vendors that can exploit these vulnerabilities
  • Locked data, stolen passwords, and hefty fines because of compliance violations
  • Significant financial setbacks caused by lost productivity, data, and customer trust
  • Regulatory audit requirement failures

The external expertise marshalled by a proven assessment provider partners with the workforce and internal IT to bring a fresh viewpoint to systems on a macro and micro level. This enables the business to avoid costly mistakes when configuring and deploying new hardware and software.

Most importantly, the right provider brings partnerships that enable them to harness collected data from sources around the country and the world for increasingly comprehensive assessments. Without this vulnerability assessment support, small businesses face serious financial and operational repercussions.

The High Costs of Not Conducting Vulnerability Assessments

Business owners are most accustomed to measuring business strength through a broad lens of profit and loss tempered by high and low risk potential. The associated costs for high risk vulnerabilities can be very high and include the following:

  • Operating systems and software that is no longer supported by the manufacturer posing real vulnerability threats due to a lack of new security patches and updates
  • Shadow IT such as collaboration and other process applications that bypasses internal IT in the age of on-demand cloud, SaaS, and freeware for collaboration that lead to unknown security risks
  • A workforce lacking good security hygiene education for password management, email attachment protocols, and other protocols that increase threat vectors

Any one of these hidden or overlooked vulnerabilities can result in catastrophic bottom- and top-line loss to a small business. According to the Accenture 2019 Cost of Cybercrime Study, malware, web-based attacks, and denial-of-service attacks are the main contributing factors to revenue loss. The study goes on to show these annual costs in 2018 to an average business as:

  • $2.6 million annually for malware attack
  • $1.6 million annually for malicious insider attacks
  • $13.0 million annually for the total cost to a business due to each type of cyberattack

This last figure from the study represents the total calculated cost of paying for cybercrime discovery, investigation, containment, and recovery from any single instance. There is also the added costs of lost productivity, customers, and trust, which illustrates why many small businesses struggle to recover financially and operationally from an attack.

Vulnerability assessments are the first tool in a comprehensive security program focused on gaining deep understanding of organizational risks. That enables the independent IT and security expert to help the business tie that knowledge to effective policies and technologies for addressing them. With the right vulnerability assessment partner, businesses gain access to cost-effective solutions with clear return on investment (ROI).