With cybercrime on the rise, organizations need to have a plan in place to protect their data and infrastructure. Security patches are more than just an optional security measure. Today’s threat actors are equipped with the tools, tactics, and techniques to exploit software vulnerabilities across all computing environments, including unique exploitations for specific operating systems (OSs). It is critical that organizations stay up to date with security patches.
Software-related vulnerabilities have become one of the leading causes of data breaches, including breaches targeting corporate supply chains. In an average organization, users often interact with a mixture of Windows-based software and third-party applications. These tools need to be monitored for vulnerabilities as well as fixes to ensure that critical processes are protected from unauthorized actors.
Most cybersecurity leaders understand the importance of security patches. Many are unaware, however, of the extent to which human intelligence and automation can be equally leveraged in tandem to facilitate the security patching process. Such an oversight usually occurs due to sole reliance on automation and/or a poor understanding of one’s security maturity levels.
In this article, we will explain the importance of staying up to date with security patches while leveraging both humans and machines to deliver a robust systems security posture.
Security risks associated with ignoring security patches
Any kind of security patch is beneficial as a whole, and despite the reluctance of vendors to tweak software features, the patching cycle is an essential part of keeping an organization protected against the growing number of advanced persistent threat (APT) actors. Ignoring essential security patches can leave your security posture lagging.
Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, has cautioned companies against “fighting against the problems posed by the now while using technology from the past,” emphasizing the importance of keeping IT infrastructure updated and protected. Old software is not powerful enough to protect itself against the sophistication of today’s threat actors.
Some of the most detrimental business cybersecurity risks associated with failing to consistently implement security patches include:
- Ransomware attacks. Organizations hold more data than ever before, and when threat actors exploit security vulnerabilities in your software, they can gain access to your data and encrypt it. Threat actors can then request large sums of money to decrypt breached data.
- Prolonged downtime. Software-related vulnerabilities are capable of affecting business continuity by rendering basic software functionalities unavailable. For organizations that solely rely on specific systems for profit generation, this lack of availability could cost millions of dollars.
- Vendor or third-party supply-chain attack. Supply chain attacks cannot be prevented if the security posture of your software vendor or third-party supplier is not as sophisticated as your own. Applications indirectly managed by your IT department, such as those which operate in an open-source manner, can be subject to attacks from established threat actors. Often this vector of attack can only be prevented by carrying out a security assessment and investing in software vendors who possess more robust security policies and updates.
- Data spillage (data theft/data corruption). Almost 60% of all data breaches can be attributed partly to the failure of IT departments to implement necessary OS or application patches. Your data, even when secured by passwords or encryption keys, can be easily exposed by sophisticated threat actors. Outdated software makes data theft easier for threat actors who employ innovative tools capable of infiltrating data guarded by lower-grade security measures. When data is stored in outdated environments, backdoors and vulnerabilities can be exploited by any threat actor with the right tactics, techniques, and procedures.
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How does patch automation enhance security posture?
When it comes to security patching for any kind of OS or software vulnerability, machines will always be more efficient than humans. For an organization to protect itself most effectively, the time it takes to approve and implement a security patch must be minimal. From the moment a software vulnerability is found, your cybersecurity department must immediately approve and roll out the corresponding security patch.
Patch automation lowers your security risk by minimizing downtime and lowering your attack surface against APTs (assuming the patch is fully operational and there are no further security issues). Automated patching provides full visibility of your systems. Updates and patches can be tracked and implemented outside of working hours. Operational risk is reduced as a result of automating the Windows patching process, and this helps maintain direct access to critical data and systems that would otherwise be sacrificed with a manual approach.
Leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and human intelligence to mitigate software vulnerabilities
Automated patching is an essential part of keeping your security posture robust enough to fight the growing number of threat actors. It remains vital, however, to retain a human element in your patching process, primarily to guard against the threat of “bad patches,” which may not be reversible.
Relying on automated patching alone can leave your IT infrastructure vulnerable. Without human oversight, there is no system in place to screen for bad patches. There is no way of predicting whether a problematic patch can be removed, or if an automated patch will lead to user experience (UX) limitations. When all patches are applied without human supervision, complications are inevitable.
Leveraging automated patching with human involvement is often seen as the most risk-averse way of implementing security patches quickly and safely. The patching cycle is a process that you will need to implement consistently, and the best way to do that is to leave the patching to the machine and the approval process to your IT department. The safety of your data is the priority, and any software you run will always flag vulnerabilities: as long as patches are deemed safe for use by your cybersecurity team, then you should automate all software security patches so that issues are addressed the moment you are notified of them.
Software vulnerabilities will always be a common problem faced by your organization. What matters most is that you respond to them quickly and safely. Software patching and Windows patching have transitioned from being a recommended measure to a necessity, thanks to the growing number of software vulnerabilities and the growing number of sophisticated threat actors entering the threat landscape.
Balancing speed with safety is key to ensuring your end users do not fall victim to different vectors of attack. While implementing any kind of automated approach to security patching is useful, it will only prove effective if your software deployments incorporate automation themselves. Any legacy applications should involve a human element to ensure operational risk is managed. Patches must always be verified for safety and compliance first before being rolled out to the rest of your organization.
A high-quality managed service provider will often be willing to provide a free network assessment. Consulting with a reputable managed service provider is the most reliable way to get an independent, third-party assessment of your security patching cycle. Organizations who outsource some or all of their IT support to a managed service provider enjoy consistent, reliable oversight of their patching cycle and a strong overall security posture.
Software vulnerabilities should be one of the top priorities of any IT decision-maker. The longer a patch is left to sit, the more exposed you leave your attack surface. Threat actors will always try to work faster than you. To address vulnerabilities before they are exploited, you must work to patch your systems with speed, automation, and most critically, human intelligence.