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Weighing compliance mandates vs. security vulnerability management

Should security vulnerabilities be prioritized based on compliance needs? Mike Chapple discusses this approach to vulnerability management.

I read about a product that promises to map security vulnerabilities to common enterprise compliance mandates. While this would, in theory, enable vulnerability remediation to be prioritized based on compliance needs, is this approach recommended? Shouldn't vulnerabilities be prioritized and remediated based on the risk they pose to the organization?

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Information security and risk management go hand in hand. In fact, the primary responsibility of any information security professional is to effectively manage the security risks posed to the organization's information assets. As you point out in your question, all of the time and resources invested in security controls should be based on sound risk assessments and prioritized to reduce risk. Vulnerability management should follow the same risk prioritization scheme other organizational security activities use.

Keep in mind, however, that risks come in many forms and different organizations have varying risk tolerances. In some organizations, reputational risk may be paramount, driving activities that reduce the risk of a public embarrassment. Other organizations may be driven by financial risk, attempting to limit the firm's fiscal vulnerabilities. The compliance risk associated with a particular law or regulation is only meaningful when assessed relative to a particular firm's tolerance toward the penalties of failing to comply with that obligation.

Products such as the one you describe seek to map security vulnerabilities detected in an organization's infrastructure with the organization's compliance obligations. This is clearly valuable information, but it also must be weighed against the other risks facing an organization. For example, consider an organization that identifies two vulnerabilities: one in a key financial system and another in a system containing health information. Which one should be remediated first? The decision may vary depending upon whether the organization in question is a hospital or a financial services firm.

There's certainly nothing wrong with including compliance information in your vulnerability assessment process. Indeed, it can be very helpful. I would caution you, however, that this information should only be one factor in your risk analysis and should be weighed against other types of risk.

This was last published in April 2013

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