Breach and Attack Simulation vs. Vulnerability Assessment

Multi-Layered Defense Strategy

Building a Robust Defense-in-Depth Strategy with Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS)

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In the ever-changing landscape of organizational IT environments, unaddressed vulnerabilities in the security posture become prime targets for adversaries, resulting in severe breaches and consequential damage to reputation and revenue. Recognizing the limitations of traditional vulnerability assessment methods, which concentrate on specific vulnerabilities and struggle to offer a holistic and risk-based security analysis, organizations are increasingly seeking modern, proactive tools that surpass the mere identification of isolated vulnerabilities in an organization's system or network. Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) stands out as a forward-looking solution that continuously tests and validates implemented security measures within the context of business risk. BAS excels in assessing how likely an adversary is to chain multiple attack vectors within an organizational environment to reach the crown jewels. By offering real-world and up-to-date cyber threat simulations along with actionable mitigation strategies, BAS provides a comprehensive approach that enhances cybersecurity defenses. 

This blog provides a deep comparative analysis between traditional vulnerability assessment and the advanced capabilities BAS offers.

What Is Vulnerability Assessment?

Vulnerability Assessment is a comprehensive examination of an organization's information systems, software, and networks. Its goal is to identify, analyze, and prioritize vulnerabilities in order to enhance the overall security posture of the organization.

It begins with a thorough examination of IT infrastructure, uncovering not only known issues like CVE-listed vulnerabilities and common misconfigurations, such as default credentials or outdated SSL certificates but also delving into more complex security weaknesses. This process extends to categorizing these vulnerabilities based on their impact and severity, leading to a well-defined strategy for remediation. This strategy encompasses various types of assessments – including host, network, and application scans – and integrates a series of steps from vulnerability identification to risk assessment and remediation.

Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) Explained

BAS is an innovative approach to cybersecurity designed to assess and enhance an organization's security posture proactively. By simulating a wide array of cyberattacks, BAS tools mimic the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by real-world attackers. These simulations encompass various attack vectors, including network and email infiltration, lateral movement, and data exfiltration. 

The purpose of these simulations is not just to identify vulnerabilities but also to provide a realistic assessment of how the organization's security controls would perform against actual cyber threats. This process results in detailed reports highlighting security gaps, enabling organizations to prioritize remediation efforts based on the level of risk.

Breach and Attack Simulation vs. Vulnerability Assessment

BAS and vulnerability assessment, while both essential in cybersecurity, serve distinct functions with different methodologies and results.

BAS is dedicated to conducting automated and comprehensive attack simulations, aimed at continuously and thoroughly assessing an organization's security controls at every level of its defense-in-depth strategy. These tests challenge the organization's defenses against a range of known and emerging cyber threats, providing insights into vulnerabilities within its security posture. Through this, BAS demonstrates how real-world threats could potentially breach the existing security measures. This proactive approach helps organizations identify and rectify security weaknesses before they are exploited.

On the other hand, vulnerability assessment concentrates on pinpointing and examining specific vulnerabilities in systems, software, and networks. It systematically identifies known security weaknesses, including those in CVEs and misconfigurations, offering in-depth insights for precise remediation. Contrary to BAS, vulnerability assessment does not simulate real attack scenarios to confirm these vulnerabilities. Instead, it methodically inventories and evaluates potential security gaps for prioritized correction.

Combined, BAS and vulnerability assessment create a holistic strategy to enhance an organization's cybersecurity stance. While each addresses distinct facets of security preparedness, they complement each other to provide a robust defense.

Feature

Breach And Attack Simulation (BAS)

Vulnerability Assessment

Fully automated

Consistent and continuous assessments

Validates security control effectiveness

Identifies vulnerabilities

Has an up-to-date comprehensive threat library

Simulates attacks targeting specific CVEs

Performs testing across the cyber kill chain

Supplies mitigation insights (both vendor-based and vendor-neutral) for security controls

Limited

Accelerates adoption of security frameworks

Generates quantifiable metrics

Safely assesses production environments

(some risk)

In the following section, we explore five key characteristics that clearly differentiate BAS from vulnerability assessment. This detailed examination seeks to go beyond a mere surface-level comparison, offering a comprehensive understanding of how these two distinct methodologies approach security control assessment.

  1. Security Control Validation vs. Vulnerability Assessment

  2. Risk Exposure and Impact Analysis vs. Isolated Vulnerability Identification: BAS vs. Vulnerability Assessment

  3. Real-time Feedback and Adaptability vs. Snapshot Visibility of Vulnerabilities: BAS vs. Vulnerability Assessment

  4. Comprehensiveness of Threat Simulation: BAS vs. Vulnerability Assessment

  5. Actionable Mitigation Insights: BAS vs. Vulnerability Assessment

First, we'll contrast their primary targets: BAS assessing the effectiveness of organizations' security controls against known and emerging threats and vulnerability assessment pinpointing system vulnerabilities.

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Download Now: "Achieving a Threat-Centric Approach with BAS"

Security Control Validation vs. Vulnerability Assessment

The core distinction between BAS and vulnerability assessment lies in their objectives and methods. BAS, an automated and continuous process, aims to evaluate the effectiveness of an organization's security controls within a multi-layered defense strategy starting from network to data, addressing both known and emerging cyber threats. 

Layer

Solutions

Network

NGFW, IPS, IDS, VPN, NAC, SWG

Host

EPP, EDR, HIPS, HIDS, Anti-Virus Software, Anti-Malware Software

Application

WAF, SEG

Data

DLP

Cross-Layer Solutions

SIEM, SOAR, XDR

BAS's approach involves simulating the TTPs of actual cyber adversaries, offering a holistic assessment of an organization's defenses. This simulation is not just about identifying isolated vulnerabilities in systems, software, or networks; it's about testing the organization's entire set of security measures against realistic attack scenarios crafted based on real-world TTPs. This method not only proactively assesses the strength of security solutions but also keeps organizations informed with the latest threat intelligence. For instance, it allows them to simulate emerging threats that are particularly active in their specific geographic location or industry sector, providing a more contextually relevant evaluation of their cybersecurity readiness.

Vulnerability assessment, distinct from BAS, focuses on detecting and cataloging specific security vulnerabilities within an organization's IT infrastructure. This method excels in identifying known issues like software flaws and configuration errors but does not simulate how these vulnerabilities could be exploited in an actual cyberattack. Unlike BAS, which actively tests and evaluates the resilience of security controls against complex threat scenarios, vulnerability assessment primarily provides a detailed inventory of potential security weaknesses. It does not assess the effectiveness of security measures in preventing or countering real-world, multi-vector attacks.

This limitation highlights a key difference: 

Vulnerability assessment offers critical insights into where vulnerabilities lie but does not measure the robustness of an organization's defensive strategies under simulated cyberattack conditions.

Risk Exposure and Impact Analysis:  BAS vs. Vulnerability Assessment

We will now examine the effectiveness of BAS and vulnerability assessment methods in analyzing risk exposure and remediation. 

Earlier, we highlighted that BAS utilizes advanced attack techniques, integrating them with the MITRE ATT&CK framework and the cyber kill chain. This approach effectively simulates comprehensive adversary strategies. BAS goes beyond merely identifying vulnerabilities; it integrates these into a realistic, multi-stage attack simulation. This mirrors the complex tactics employed by actual adversaries. In contrast to just highlighting isolated, unvalidated, and unconnected attack vectors or vulnerabilities, BAS provides a thorough, risk-oriented evaluation of an organization's cybersecurity readiness. It assesses how well current security measures will perform during an actual attack, considering both the likelihood and the potential impact of sophisticated cyber threats.

In the figure presented below, we observe an example of a user employing the Security Control Validation module, which is enabled by cutting-edge BAS technology offered by Picus Security. This demonstration showcases how each simulation and its corresponding attack actions are aligned with the MITRE ATT&CK framework. This alignment is crucial as it helps identify areas within the user's defense system that are deficient according to the framework, pinpointing where immediate remediation is necessary.

MITRE-ATT&CK-Framework

Figure 1. An Arbitrary Host’s Security Control Validation Simulation Results Mapped to MITRE ATT&CK Framework with Picus.

In contrast to BAS, vulnerability assessment employs a more compartmentalized approach, primarily focusing on pinpointing individual system vulnerabilities. However, it lacks contextualizing these vulnerabilities within a broader, cohesive attack strategy. While effective in identifying specific security weaknesses, vulnerability assessment does not replicate the sequential and interconnected nature of real-world cyber attacks. Consequently, it provides a more static perspective on security risks, essentially cataloging potential vulnerabilities without delving into their practical exploitability or their cumulative impact in a coordinated cyber assault. This methodology tends to offer a narrower view of an organization's susceptibility to sophisticated, multi-vector threats.

Real-Time Feedback and Adaptability vs. Snapshot Visibility of Vulnerabilities:  BAS vs. Vulnerability Assessment

Now, it's time to discuss our third characteristic that differ BAS from vulnerability assessment methods: real-time feedback on the security posture of an organization.

BAS stands out for its capability to provide real-time feedback and adaptability in security defense. By continuously simulating a range of cyberattacks, BAS tools offer immediate insights into how an organization's security controls perform against evolving threats. This real-time analysis is crucial for understanding the current state of security defenses, allowing organizations to dynamically adjust and strengthen their security measures in response to emerging threats. BAS's adaptability is further enhanced by its integration with the latest threat intelligence, ensuring that the simulated attacks remain relevant and reflective of the current threat landscape. This ongoing, automated process facilitates a proactive security posture, enabling organizations to stay ahead of potential breaches.

For example, the figure below illustrates the ready-to-run emerging threats provided by the Picus’ Security Control Validation module. Each threat scenario is meticulously crafted by our specialized red team engineers, leveraging in-depth cyber threat intelligence. These simulations undergo rigorous testing to ensure they are non-disruptive and safe for use, posing no risk to the systems and networks under test. 

emerging-threats
Figure 2. Ready-to-Run Emerging Threat Templates by Picus’ Security Control Validation Module.

By utilizing these pre-designed templates, users are relieved from the extensive effort of constantly monitoring the latest threat intelligence services and reports. Instead, they can conveniently assess their networks and systems against these carefully constructed attack simulations that represent the whole kill chain of these threat groups, which are based on the most recent threats observed in the wild.

In contrast to BAS, vulnerability assessment typically provides a snapshot of vulnerabilities at a specific point in time. This method involves scanning systems, networks, and applications for known vulnerabilities and generating a report that catalogs these findings. While comprehensive, these assessments are inherently static, reflecting the security state only at the time of the scan. As a result, Vulnerability Assessments may not capture new vulnerabilities that emerge shortly after a scan, nor do they offer real-time insights into how these vulnerabilities might be exploited in an actual attack scenario. The periodic nature of these assessments can lead to gaps in security awareness, potentially leaving organizations vulnerable to newly developed threats. Additionally, the lack of real-time adaptability means that responses to identified vulnerabilities are reactive rather than proactive, often requiring manual intervention for updates and patches. This approach, while essential for baseline security hygiene, may not provide the agility needed to respond to the rapidly evolving cyber threat environment.

 

Comprehensiveness of Threat Simulation: BAS vs. Vulnerability Assessment

Now, let's delve into one of the most pivotal advantages of BAS over vulnerability assessment. 

BAS distinguishes itself through its ability to execute a diverse range of attack simulations, utilizing multiple attack vectors. This capability is underpinned by its extensive and regularly updated threat library. BAS solutions cover a broad spectrum of cyber threats, ranging from typical malware campaigns to advanced tactics employed by APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) groups. The ability of BAS to simulate diverse attack scenarios across different vectors, such as

  • network infiltration
  • endpoint attacks across various operating systems
  • web application attacks
  • email attacks, and 
  • data exfiltration

provides a comprehensive assessment of an organization's defensive capabilities. The dynamic and ever-evolving nature of the BAS threat library ensures that the simulations remain relevant and cover the latest cyber threats, thus providing organizations with up-to-date security assessments.

In Figure 3 below, you'll see a snapshot of the threat library from the Security Control Validation platform provided by Picus. As previously emphasized, this platform is powered by BAS technology and offers users a comprehensive threat library. This library includes a wide range of attack vectors meticulously developed based on the most recent threats identified in the wild. Notably, even zero-day vulnerabilities with publicly available proof-of-concepts are incorporated into the Picus Threat Library within 24 hours. Users are promptly informed about these updates through informative alerting emails, including a technical analysis of the threats.

Figure 3. Threat Library of the Picus’ Security Control Validation Module.

In contrast, vulnerability assessment focuses primarily on identifying vulnerabilities within systems, networks, software, and hardware configurations. This process involves scanning for known vulnerabilities across these areas but does not extend to simulating complex attack scenarios or encompassing the variety of tactics used by sophisticated cyber adversaries. While crucial for detecting potential security weaknesses in systems and networks, vulnerability assessments do not conceptualize how these vulnerabilities might be exploited in coordinated attack campaigns.

Unlike BAS, which provides real-world context for threat scenarios through its extensive threat library, vulnerability assessments offer a more static view, isolating system and network vulnerabilities without the broader context of their potential use in multi-vector attacks. This highlights the complementary nature of BAS and Vulnerability Assessment: BAS provides a dynamic and holistic approach to understanding an organization’s security posture against a diverse range of cyber threats, while vulnerability assessments are key for identifying specific points of weakness in systems and networks.

Actionable Mitigation Insights: BAS vs. Vulnerability Assessment

In this section, we are going to discuss the final advantageous characteristics of BAS over vulnerability assessment methods: actionable mitigation suggestions.

BAS is particularly distinguished for providing detailed, actionable mitigation suggestions following attack simulations. In contrast to vulnerability assessment, which usually stops at identifying and listing vulnerabilities, BAS goes further by pinpointing weaknesses in security posture and offering specific steps for remediation. BAS systems provide tailored mitigation recommendations, both vendor-specific and generic, suited to the unique security environment of each organization. This means that organizations receive bespoke advice applicable to their specific security tools and configurations, as well as broader strategies that are useful regardless of the specific hardware or software employed. The detailed nature of the mitigation advice from BAS is invaluable, enabling immediate and effective actions to fortify security postures.

Discover how to enhance your defense against evolving cyber threats. Explore our comprehensive whitepaper on Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) – a cutting-edge approach that complements traditional security testing solutions.
Download Now: "Achieving a Threat-Centric Approach with BAS"

For example, consider a scenario where a user conducts an attack campaign simulation targeting Ivanti Connect Secure vulnerabilities. This campaign aims to encompass web attacks associated with Ivanti Connect Secure and specific vulnerabilities like CVE-2024-21887 and CVE-2023-46805. If the simulation reveals that the defenses are not responding as expected, the Picus Security Control Validation platform steps in. It offers immediate, actionable mitigation strategies from a range of vendors, as illustrated in Figure 4. This proactive approach ensures users can quickly address and rectify security gaps identified during the simulation.

Ivanti-connect-secure-web-attack

Figure 4. Ivanti Connect Secure Web Attack Campaign Mitigation Suggestions Provided by Picus Security.

On the other hand, while vulnerability assessments are proficient in identifying a range of system vulnerabilities, they often offer more generalized recommendations. These may not align precisely with the nuances of an organization's specific technology stack or prioritize vulnerabilities based on their potential exploitability in actual attack scenarios. As a result, organizations might find themselves needing to translate these general recommendations into specific actions—a step that is inherently integrated into the BAS methodology.

Discover Enhanced Cybersecurity: Explore our whitepaper on Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS). Gain in-depth insights into advancing your cybersecurity strategy with BAS. Learn how it complements and elevates your existing measures.
Download Now: "Achieving a Threat-Centric Approach with BAS"

 

Conclusion

In summary, in the dynamic field of cybersecurity, BAS emerges as a notably more comprehensive and automated method when contrasted with vulnerability assessment. Diverging from the primary focus of vulnerability assessment, which is identifying system and network vulnerabilities, BAS engages in continuous testing and validation of an organization’s security protocols across various layers. It brings an array of extensive, real-world threat simulations drawn from a constantly updated threat library. Additionally, BAS extends beyond just detecting vulnerabilities by offering actionable mitigation strategies, both vendor-specific and vendor-neutral. This elevates BAS from a mere diagnostic tool to an essential component in cybersecurity, providing ongoing visibility and robust, actionable responses. Consequently, BAS significantly bolsters an organization's defenses against the sophisticated and ever-changing landscape of cyber threats.

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