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Imagine yourself standing in a local fair at night. The bright lights from the games beckon you, and you see your favorite game, the one you’re best at – Whack-A-Mole. You excitedly walk up to the booth, plunk down your few dollars, and get ready to whack a bunch of plastic, animatronic moles back into their holes. You have the best time of your life that night as you hit an all time high score. 

Now, you’re sitting at your computer, reviewing the vast myriad of vulnerabilities that your static application security testing (SAST) tool generated. You might be feeling overwhelmed, like you’re standing in front of the fastest Whack-A-Mole game of your life. 

When understanding the vulnerability remediation challenges in application security, you can work towards finding a solution that enables you to build more secure software. 

Overview of the Vulnerability Remediation Process

The application vulnerability remediation process helps you secure your software by scanning for security weaknesses that attackers can use to compromise personally identifiable information (PII), like credentials or cardholder data. The process typically includes the following steps:

  • Performing a vulnerability scan: using specialized software to identify potential security weaknesses
  • Vulnerability risk assessment: identifying the weaknesses that pose the greatest risk to sensitive data
  • Prioritization and remediation: determining which vulnerabilities to fix first and which ones can wait without compromising security
  • Testing and continuous monitoring: ensuring that the remediation worked as intended then monitoring for new vulnerabilities arising from coding issues, open-source components, or software supply chain attacks

While conceptually these steps are fairly straightforward, implementing and maintaining them is difficult. 

What makes vulnerability remediation challenging?

No single issue makes vulnerability management difficult. However, when you add up the various challenges across each part of the process, the whole suddenly becomes overwhelmingly greater than the sum of its individual parts. 

Vulnerability Scanning

Using automated application vulnerability scanners should theoretically make your life easier. While critical to securing your application, the alerts they generate can become overwhelming, especially since they often lack context like:

  • Criticality: impact to the application’s security and data
  • Exploitability: attackers’ ability to use them within the context of your source code
  • Dependency complexity: interactions between various proprietary and open-source components
  • Business logic: ways attackers can use functionalities in unintended ways

Vulnerability Risk

Without the appropriate context, you may have a hard time assessing the potential and actual risk that a vulnerability poses to sensitive data. Most vulnerability severity and impact metrics fail to address application security issues. Problematically, vulnerabilities that post high risk to corporate systems and networks may be a low risk within the context of a specific application and vice versa. 

For example, the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) works well for corporate systems and networks, yet it lacks capabilities to:

  • Identify specific attack vectors and techniques for exploiting applications
  • Apply to general system vulnerability risk rather than granular application issues

The Exploit Prediction Scoring System (EPSS), which uses the CVSS, also suffers from these issues. 

Prioritization and Remediation

If you can’t tell which vulnerabilities pose a high risk to your application’s security, you have no way to triage your next steps. In appsec, keeping pace with vulnerabilities easily becomes overwhelming because the process can:

  • Disrupt functionality leading to service outages
  • Use time-consuming manual processes that increase time-to-market
  • Require training that less experienced developers may lack

Too often, developers lack visibility into which vulnerabilities are critical within the context of their source code. Without the ability to accurately prioritize remediation, they work feverishly to fix all vulnerabilities which becomes overwhelming, cost ineffective, and time consuming. 

Testing and Continuous Monitoring

Vulnerability remediation isn’t the last whack at your moles. You still need to test that the fix worked as intended. Additionally, since you likely use third-party components, you need to monitor for newly identified vulnerabilities that can impact your application’s security. You end up in a cycle where you start with the vulnerability scanning process all over again, including all the challenges that you already faced the first time around. 

Overcoming Vulnerability Remediation Challenges

With a plethora of application vulnerability tools available, you may have a difficult time finding one that meets your needs. When researching solutions, you should consider the following capabilities. 

Visibility into Components and Dependencies

To understand how a vulnerability impacts your application, you need visibility into all third-party components and their dependencies. Just as you use open-source repositories, the people building the components you incorporate into your application use third-party components. Any solution that you purchase should:

Container and Secret Scanning

Your application is only as secure as containers they run in and your ability to protect secrets. When evaluating an SAST, you should consider whether it:

  • Scans all containers that your applications use
  • Correlates results with the application scans