In computer security, vulnerability is a weakness which allows an attacker to reduce a system's information assurance. Vulnerability is the intersection of three elements: a system susceptibility or flaw, attacker access to the flaw, and attacker capability to exploit the flaw. To exploit vulnerability, an attacker must have at least one applicable tool or technique that can connect to a system weakness. In this frame, vulnerability is also known as the attack surface.
Vulnerability management is the cyclical practice of identifying, classifying, remediating, and mitigating vulnerabilities. This practice generally refers to software vulnerabilities in computing systems.
A security risk may be classified as vulnerability. The use of vulnerability with the same meaning of risk can lead to confusion. The risk is tied to the potential of a significant loss. Then there are vulnerabilities without risk: for example when the affected asset has no value. Vulnerability with one or more known instances of working and fully implemented attacks is classified as an exploitable vulnerability a vulnerability for which can exploit exists. The window of vulnerability is the time from when the security hole was introduced or manifested in deployed software, to when access was removed, a security fix was available/deployed, or the attackers was disabled see zero-day attack.
A weakness of an asset or group of assets that can be exploited by one or more threats where an asset is anything that has value to the organization, its business operations and their continuity, including information resources that support the organization's mission.
1 Data and Computer Security
Dictionary of standards concepts and terms, authors Dennis Longley and Michael Shain, Stockton Press, ISBN 0-935859-17-9, defines vulnerability as:
In computer security, a weakness in automated systems security procedures, administrative controls, Internet controls, etc., that could be exploited by a threat to gain unauthorized access to information or to disrupt critical processing.
In computer security, a weakness in the physical layout, organization, procedures, personnel, management, administration, hardware or software that may be exploited to cause harm to the ADP system or activity.
In computer security, any weakness or flaw existing in a system. The attack or harmful event, or the opportunity available to a threat agent to mount that attack.
Matt Bishop and Dave Bailey give the following definition of computer vulnerability:
A computer system is composed of states describing the current configuration of the entities that make up the computer system. The system computes through the application of state transitions that change the state of the system. All states reachable from a given initial state using a set of state transitions fall into the class of authorized or unauthorized, as defined by a security policy. In this paper, the definitions of these classes and transitions are considered axiomatic. A vulnerable state is an authorized state from which an unauthorized state can be reached using authorized state transitions. A compromised state is the state so reached. An attack is a sequence of authorized state transitions which end in a compromised state. By definition, an attack begins in a vulnerable state. Vulnerability is a characterization of a vulnerable state which distinguishes it from all non-vulnerable states.
2 National Information Assurance Training and Education Center defines vulnerability
A weakness in automated system security procedures, administrative controls, internal controls, and so forth that could be exploited by a threat to gain unauthorized access to information or disrupt critical processing.
A weakness in system security procedures, hardware design, internal controls, etc., which could be exploited to gain unauthorized access to classify or sensitive information.
A weakness in the physical layout, organization, procedures, personnel, management, administration, hardware, or software that may be exploited to cause harm to the ADP system or activity. The presence of vulnerability does not in itself cause harm; vulnerability is merely a condition or set of conditions that may allow the ADP system or activity to be harmed by an attack.
An assertion primarily concerning entities of the internal environment (assets); we say that an asset (or class of assets) is vulnerable (in some way, possibly involving an agent or collection of agents); we write: V (i,e) where: e may be an empty set.
Susceptibility to various threats.
A set of properties of a specific internal entity that, in union with a set of properties of a specific external entity, implies a risk.
The characteristics of a system which cause it to suffer a definite degradation (incapability to perform the designated mission) as a result of having been subjected to a certain level of effects in an unnatural (manmade) hostile environment.
3 Vulnerability and risk factor models
A resource (either physical or logical) may have one or more vulnerabilities that can be exploited by a threat agent in a threat action. The result can potentially compromise the confidentiality, integrity or availability of resources (not necessarily the vulnerable one) belonging to an organization and/or others parties involved (customers, suppliers). The so-called CIA triad is the basis of Information Security.
An attack can be active when it attempts to alter system resources or affect their operation, compromising integrity or availability. A "passive attack" attempts to learn or make use of information from the system but does not affect system resources, compromising confidentiality.
OWASP: relationship between threat agent and business impact OWASP depicts the same phenomenon in slightly different terms: a threat agent through an attack vector exploits a weakness (vulnerability) of the system and the related security controls, causing a technical impact on an IT resource (asset) connected to a business impact.
4 Information security management system
A set of policies concerned with information security management, the information security management system (ISMS), has been developed to manage, according to Risk management principles, the countermeasures in order to ensure the security strategy is set up following the rules and regulations applicable in a country. These countermeasures are also called Security controls, but when applied to the transmission of information they are called security services.
Vulnerabilities are classified according to the asset class they are related to:
susceptibility to humidity
susceptibility to dust
susceptibility to soiling
susceptibility to unprotected storage
lack of audit trail
unprotected communication lines
insecure network architecture
inadequate recruiting process
o inadequate security awareness
o area subject to flood
unreliable power source
lack of regular audits
o lack of continuity plans
lack of security
Complexity: Large, complex systems increase the probability of flaws and unintended access points
Familiarity: Using common, well-known code, software, operating systems, and/or hardware increases the probability an attacker has or can find the knowledge and tools to exploit the flaw
Connectivity: More physical connections, privileges, ports, protocols, and services and time each of those are accessible increase vulnerability
Password management flaws: The computer user uses weak passwords that could be discovered by brute force. The computer user stores the password on the computer where a program can access it. Users re-use passwords between many programs and websites.
Fundamental operating system design flaws: The operating system designer chooses to enforce suboptimal policies on user/program management. For example operating systems with policies such as default permit grant every program and every user full access to the entire computer. This operating system flaw allows viruses and malware to execute commands on behalf of the administrator.
Internet Website Browsing: Some internet websites may contain harmful Spyware or Adware that can be installed automatically on the computer systems. After visiting those websites, the computer systems become infected and personal information will be collected and passed on to third party individuals.
Software bugs: The programmer leaves an exploitable bug in a software program. The software bug may allow an attacker to misuse an application.
Unchecked user input: The program assumes that all user input is safe. Programs that do not check user input can allow unintended direct execution of commands or SQL statements (known as Buffer overflows, SQL injection or other non-validated inputs).
Not learning from past mistakes: for example most vulnerabilities discovered in IPv4 protocol software were discovered in the new IPv6 implementations
The research has shown that the most vulnerable point in most information systems is the human user, operator, designer, or other human: so humans should be considered in their different roles as asset, threat, information resources. Social engineering is an increasing security concern.
6 Vulnerability consequences
The impact of a security breach can be very high. The fact that IT managers, or upper management, can (easily) know that IT systems and applications have vulnerabilities and do not perform any action to manage the IT risk is seen as misconduct in most legislations. Privacy law forces managers to act to reduce the impact or likelihood of that security risk. Information technology security audit is a way to let other independent people certify that the IT environment is managed properly and lessen the responsibilities, at least having demonstrated the good faith. Penetration test is a form of verification of the weakness and countermeasures adopted by an organization: a White hat hacker tries to attack an organization's information technology assets, to find out how easy or difficult it is to compromise the IT security. The proper way to professionally manage the IT risk is to adopt an Information Security Management System, such as ISO/IEC 27002 or Risk IT and follow them, according to the security strategy set forth by the upper management.
One of the key concepts of information security is the principle of defense in depth: i.e. to set up a multilayer defense system that can:
prevent the exploit
detect and intercept the attack
find out the threat agents and prosecute them
Intrusion detection system is an example of a class of systems used to detect attacks. Physical security is a set of measures to protect physically the information asset: if somebody can get physical access to the information asset, it is quite easy to make resources unavailable to its legitimate users.
7 Vulnerability disclosure
Responsible disclosure (many now refer to it as 'coordinated disclosure' because the first is a biased word) of vulnerabilities is a topic of great debate. As reported by The Tech Herald in August 2010, "Google, Microsoft, TippingPoint, and Rapid7 have recently issued guidelines and statements addressing how they will deal with disclosure going forward."
A responsible disclosure first alerts the affected vendors confidentially before alerting CERT two weeks later, which grants the vendors another 45 day grace period before publishing a security advisory.
Full disclosure is done when all the details of vulnerability is publicized, perhaps with the intent to put pressure on the software or procedure authors to find a fix urgently.
Well respected authors have published books on vulnerabilities and how to exploit them: Hacking: The Art of Exploitation Second Edition is a good example.
Security researchers catering to the needs of the cyberwarfare or cybercrime industry have stated that this approach does not provide them with adequate income for their efforts. Instead, they offer their exploits privately to enable Zero day attacks. The never ending effort to find new vulnerabilities and to fix them is called Computer insecurity.
8 Vulnerability inventory
Mitre Corporation maintains a list of disclosed vulnerabilities in a system called Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures, where vulnerability is classified (scored) using Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS).
OWASP collects a list of potential vulnerabilities in order to prevent system designers and programmers from inserting vulnerabilities into the software.
9 Examples of vulnerabilities
Vulnerabilities are related to:
physical environment of the system
administration procedures and security measures within the organization
business operation and service delivery
communication equipment and facilities
It is evident that a pure technical approach cannot even protect physical assets: one should have administrative procedure to let maintenance personnel to enter the facilities and people with adequate knowledge of the procedures, motivated to follow it with proper care.
10 Software vulnerabilities
Common types of software flaws that lead to vulnerabilities include:
Memory safety violations, such as:
Buffer overflows and over-reads
Input validation errors, such as:
Format string attacks
Cross-site scripting in web applications
HTTP header injection
HTTP response splitting
Race conditions, such as:
Privilege-confusion bugs, such as:
Cross-site request forgery in web applications
FTP bounce attack
User interface failures, such as:
Warning fatigue or user conditioning.
o Blaming the Victim Prompting a user to make a security decision without giving the user enough information to answer it