Security debt continues to pile up, with 42% of organizations attributing remediation backlogs to a breach, a new study shows.

Most businesses can’t keep up with the influx of vulnerabilities affecting their software and infrastructure:  every six months the average firm fails to patch 28% of the vulnerabilities in their hardware and software, leading to a backlog of more than 57,000 unfixed security issues, a new study found.

Such a security “debt” leaves companies vulnerable, according to the Ponemon Institute study, which was released today by IBM. More than half of organizations suffered a security breach in the past year, and 42% of those respondents blame the breach on a known but unpatched security vulnerability. In addition, most companies — 57% — have not identified which vulnerabilities pose a highest risk, and only a quarter of firms are prioritizing vulnerabilities based on business impact.

The underlying problem is that once vulnerabilities have been identified by automated systems, the prioritization and patching process is mostly manual, which slows an organization’s response, says Charles Henderson, global managing partner and head of IBM’s cybersecurity services team, X-Force Red.

“You think of vulnerability management as ‘find a flaw, fix a flaw,'” he says. “The problem is that we have gotten really good at finding flaws, and we haven’t seen … as an industry the same attention paid to actually fixing stuff that we find.”

Patching continues to be a significant problem for most companies. Only 21% of organizations patch vulnerabilities in a timely manner, the survey found. More than half of companies cannot easily track how efficiently vulnerabilities are being patched, have enough resources to patch the volume of issues, nor have a common way of viewing assets and applications across the company. In addition, most organizations do not have the ability to tolerate the necessary downtime.

Overall, most companies face significant challenges in patching software vulnerabilities, according to the survey of 1,848 IT and IT professionals by the Ponemon Institute for its State of Vulnerability Management in the Cloud and On-Premises report. 

“I think it comes down to the fact that we have an issue with level-setting expectations within the organizations, understanding the processes, and a breakdown in communication between those responsible for keeping things patched and those response for keeping the systems running,” says Henderson. “They are not necessarily aligned in terms of goals.”

The average company in the study identified nearly 780,000 vulnerabilities over a six-month period, and failed to mitigate more than 57,000, or 28%, of the issues. Organizations are increasingly using agile development methodologies, and the signs of that are in the report: About a third of the companies scan applications and systems at least daily for vulnerabilities.

With that many vulnerabilities, however, companies need a way to cull down the herd of security issues to a manageable level. More than a third of firm (38%) prioritize the results based on the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) score, which prior research has proven to be a less-than-reliable method of prioritization. A slightly lower number, 37%, of companies are prioritizing based on what vulnerabilities have been weaponized by attackers, the report found. A quarter of organizations prioritize based on the assets most important to the business and which vulnerabilities affect those critical resources.

“Prioritization is the weak spot,” Henderson says. “We think a blend of asset enrichment along with a model that focuses on exploitability, commonality, and marketability of vulnerabilities is key.”

Marketability includes the likelihood that an exploit will end up in an automated hacking tool or exploit kit, he explains.

In addition to prioritization, the study found that companies were missing some key infrastructure components in their security efforts. 

The failure to evaluate containers and test the encapsulated software for security vulnerabilities, for example, is another challenge facing companies. Most companies — 57% — did not evaluate the design of containers to see if they were created securely, and a similar number did not scan containers for security issues. 

While companies continue to move to processes that produce more secure software and infrastructure, compliance — not security — continues to be a driving force for many companies, Henderson says.

“Organizations are focused on meeting compliance requirements with vulnerability management rather than actually eliminating the vulnerabilities,” he says. “People are so focused on what their performance reviews say or what their compliance reports say, but to meet those marks, they are sacrificing security.”

 

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT’s Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline … View Full Bio

 

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