Vulnerability Management vs. Risk Management: Everything you Need to Understand

Risk management and vulnerability management are often used interchangeably, but they are two different practices. Risk management includes vulnerability management, but vulnerability management doesn’t necessarily involve risk management.

To understand why, we need to hone in on the definitions of risks, vulnerabilities, and threats in a cybersecurity context. These terms may seem similar, but they have essential differences. They are both critical for your overall understanding and assessment of your cybersecurity posture and compliance. 

Both vulnerability and risk management should be conducted regularly to protect against cyberattacks, ensure business continuity, and provide regulatory compliance. 

A study by the World Economic Forum discovered that malware and ransomware attacks are up by 358% and 435%, respectively. These figures highlight how cyberattacks are outpacing the ability to prevent or respond to them. Understanding when to conduct a vulnerability assessment instead of a risk assessment can help maximize capital expenditure to stay ahead of cyber attacks.

Additionally, vulnerabilities, risks, and threats are not limited to cyberattacks. Creating a holistic view of your entire organization will help ensure business continuity by preparing for all types of threats facing your organization. 

It’s time to dive into the differences between these terms and examine the differences in how they are assessed. Read on to learn more about vulnerability management vs risk management and how both processes can improve your security. 

Vulnerability Management vs. Risk Management: Everything you Need to Understand

Understanding the Terminology: Risk vs Threat vs Vulnerability

To fully understand vulnerability management vs risk management, we must define both terms. Additionally, we need to understand threats as they apply in a cybersecurity context. 

What is a Threat?

Threats are anything that has the potential to damage data, disrupt business operations, or generally harm the business. There are three categories of threats to understand:

  1. Intentional threats: Any activities carried out with the intent to harm your business fall into this category. Most commonly, intentional threats are malware, phishing, ransomware, or compromised credentials. Although less common, physical penetration of facilities also falls into this category. 
  2. Unintentional threats: This category typically comprises any events related to human error. Anything ranging from leaving the door to the server room unlocked to missing a critical firewall update is considered an unintentional threat. 
  3. Natural threats: This category is usually overlooked but can often be the most devastating. A natural threat encompasses floods, earthquakes, tornados, and any other event that can physically harm company data and business continuity. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic is considered a natural threat. 

Each type of threat should be considered as they relate to vulnerability assessment and risk management. 

Now that we fully understand threats let’s hone in on vulnerability vs risk.

What is a Vulnerability?

A vulnerability is any weakness in your software, hardware, procedures, process, or physical facilities that allows threats to occur. Simply put, threats exploit vulnerabilities

The Log4Shell bug in the log4j Java library is a well-known vulnerability that affected millions of web applications. Companies that were quick and able to patch the bug removed the possibility of an intentional threat exploiting this vulnerability. Conversely, those that could not patch the bug in time may have been attacked.

What is a Risk?

Risk is the potential for damage, loss, or general destruction of a company asset, when a threat exploits a vulnerability. 

A simple equation to describe this relationship is:

Threats + Vulnerability = Risk

To go back to the infamous Log4J example, companies worldwide suddenly had the risk of a malicious actor (threat) exploiting the bug (vulnerability) to harm company assets (risk).

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An Overview of Risk Assessment vs Vulnerability Assessment

Understanding your risks requires understanding your vulnerabilities. As a result, vulnerability assessments are often included in risk assessments — a vulnerability risk assessment. 

However, you can perform a vulnerability assessment independently of a risk assessment. Let’s give a brief overview of both processes to understand the difference:

High-Level View of Vulnerability Assessment

A vulnerability assessment typically involves the following key steps:

  1. Identify assets and threats: Begin by determining every critical IT asset in the organization. You should understand their location, such as on-premises, remote, or cloud-based. Next, list all known threats facing these assets. 
  2. Define a system baseline: Make a detailed overview of the IT infrastructure, including all networks, software and hardware. This overview allows you to isolate any weaknesses and prioritize fixes.
  3. Perform a vulnerability scan: Next, scan for vulnerabilities across your entire IT ecosystem. Specialized software exists specifically for this purpose. Additionally, skilled IT staff can assess publicly known vulnerabilities to understand if they apply to your assets.
  4. Create a vulnerability report: The result of the scan is a vulnerability report. The report should include potential threats as well as proposed mitigation measures. This can be analyzed to determine prioritization and make informed decisions.

High-Level View of Risk Assessment

A risk assessment follows a similar workflow but is distinctly unique. A risk assessment includes:

  1. Identify threats and vulnerabilities: Risks are composed of both variables, so they must be identified. A recent vulnerability assessment completes this step; otherwise, you’ll need to conduct one.
  2. Analyze the likelihood of a threat occurring: What vulnerabilities are likely to be exploited? If exploited, what is the potential impact on the business? You can also save time later by doing preliminary research into how to mitigate the threat by fixing the vulnerability. 
  3. Evaluate risks: The second step results in an inventory of your business’s known risks. It’s impossible to eliminate every known risk, so each risk needs to be evaluated. The cost of a risk occurring should be weighed against the cost of mitigating said risk. You can then direct resources to the most cost-effective risk mitigation strategies. Based on its impact and likelihood, you can choose to mitigate, accept or ignore the risk, taking into account the consequences.

What is Vulnerability Risk Management?

Now we can see how these often-confused terms relate to one another. Above, we discussed assessments. So what is vulnerability management and risk management? 

Assessments can be considered a micro-level process of vulnerability or risk management. Assessments aim to break down known threats, vulnerabilities, and risks into identifiable categories, including their impact on the business. 

Vulnerability or risk management is the macro-level process of assessing and prioritizing threats, and creating mitigating strategies to prevent threats from exploiting vulnerabilities. 

Organizations can isolate these processes to avoid spending time and resources on unnecessary tasks. For example, a vulnerability assessment can be regularly conducted without undergoing a complete risk assessment. In addition, data from the completed vulnerability assessment can inform current mitigation plans to gauge the effectiveness and change current strategies.

Stay Ahead of Threats with a Robust Risk Management Platform

The right software can make a significant difference in understanding threats, vulnerabilities, and risks. A quality risk management platform can generate reports to ensure and prove regulatory compliance, and provide a streamlined tool to comprehensively assess risks and vulnerabilities.

Centraleyes is a valuable risk management platform that can significantly streamline risk and vulnerability management. Ready to transform your security processes? Book a demo with our compliance experts to see Centraleyes in action.

Start Getting Value With
Centraleyes for Free

See for yourself how the Centraleyes platform exceeds anything an old GRC
system does and eliminates the need for manual processes and spreadsheets
to give you immediate value and run a full risk assessment in less than 30 days

Start building your risk management program
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