As data breaches continue to dominate the headlines, suggestions for enhancing your cybersecurity stance are everywhere. While much of this advice may be worth following, it’s often complicated, entailing multi-step processes or requiring expert intervention. However, before you start exploring advanced options, it’s important to begin with the basics. When it comes to cybersecurity, the simplest advice is to always implement patches. Unfortunately, this step is still commonly overlooked, and attackers continue to find doorways through unpatched systems. In this blog, we’ll go over four key aspects of patch management, and why they’re important.
1. Apply Patches as Soon as Possible
Rapidly applying patches is a deceptively simple task. While some companies release patches for their products on a set day, many others are released on an ad hoc basis. Since they’re unscheduled, it’s easy to let patch implementation slip to the bottom of the pile so your workflow isn’t interrupted.
However, threat actors count on and benefit from your delay. Whenever a new patch is released, attackers can then set to work reverse engineering the patch, which provides insights into the vulnerability it is fixing, making it that much easier to exploit. Additionally, the patch may be for a vulnerability that isn’t known publicly and the patch release inadvertently notifies threat actors of its existence.
Ultimately, efficiency may be the most important part of patch management. While prioritizing patches as they arise may cause an unexpected disruption, it is a small inconvenience when compared to the massive disturbance a breach can cause.
2. Ensure You’ve Applied Patches Properly
While patch implementation should be relatively straight-forward, it is still possible to make mistakes that end up in either misconfiguration, or an incomplete implementation. For example, many patches require a reboot. Even though the patch has been installed, it may not take effect until a restart is complete. One the best ways to verify your patches are actually in place and working is with a pen test. Automated pen testing tools like Core Impact can run remediation validation tests to ensure that a vulnerability has been patched and can no longer be exploited.
3. Be Proactive in the Patching Process
Sometimes, failing to patch isn’t just a matter of a task that fell off the radar—an update may simply never have been on the radar. In order to reduce alert fatigue, notifications are often suppressed or sent to a generic account that is checked infrequently. It may be necessary to refine your settings to make sure updates aren’t missed.
Additionally, though many applications have a built-in function to inform you of updates, not every asset in your environment may have this feature. Instead, you may need to take the initiative to search for them, or get on the appropriate mailing lists to receive communications about the latest patches.
Organizations also need to be proactive to make sure their employees are regularly updating their workstations, since any device connected to the network could serve as an attack vector. If regular email reminders aren’t sufficient, IT teams may need to consider updating them remotely.
As for the rest of the IT environment, businesses should keep an up-to-date inventory of all their assets. It is surprisingly easy to lose track of things, given how many applications and assets are utilized, even in a small organization. However, keeping a record is crucial, as you can’t remember to update a device that you don’t know you have.
4. Know When to Upgrade
Though any unpatched asset is dangerous, the most dangerous asset is one that no longer has the option of updating. When a model version, device, or application has been deprecated or reached end of life, no additional updates will be released. This means that if any new vulnerabilities are uncovered, no patch will become available. While other security barriers may be in place, it is still very risky, especially if a particularly critical vulnerability emerges. Though it may still be perfectly functional in your environment, it should still become an immediate priority to upgrade to a new or different product.
Building a Patch Management Program
Though patching is a basic technique, it is often presented as one of the easiest security measures. However, in practice, patching does have its challenges—it if were that easy, everyone would be doing it consistently. But coordination is a time-consuming process that involves keeping track of updates, scheduling downtime, communicating relevant information to employees, and more. Ultimately, patching is still so foundational to security that having an effective patch management program is worth the effort.
Is patching part of your security strategy?
Watch our webinar, How to Take Your Vulnerability Management Program to the Next Level, to learn how patching fits into a broader vulnerability management program.