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Explaining Security Lingo

Martin Prpic published on 2015-05-06T13:30:56+00:00, last updated 2015-05-06T13:30:56+00:00

This post is aimed to clarify certain terms often used in the security community. Let's start with the easiest one: vulnerability. A vulnerability is a flaw in a selected system that allows an attacker to compromise the security of that particular system. The consequence of such a compromise can impact the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of the attacked system (these three aspects are also the base metrics of the CVSS v2 scoring system that are used to rate vulnerabilities). ISO/IEC 27000, IETF RFC 2828, NIST, and others have very specific definitions of the term vulnerability, each differing slightly. A vulnerability's attack vector is the actual method of using the discovered flaw to cause harm to the affected software; it can be thought of as the entry point to the system or application. A vulnerability without an attack vector is normally not assigned a CVE number.

When a vulnerability is found, an exploit can be created that makes use of this vulnerability. Exploits can be thought of as a way of utilizing one or more vulnerabilities to compromise the targeted software; they can come in the form of an executable program, or a simple set of commands or instructions. Exploits can be local, executed by a user on a system that they have access to, or remote, executed to target certain vulnerable services that are exposed over the network.

Once an exploit is available for a vulnerability, this presents a threat for the affected software and, ultimately, for the person or business operating the affected software. ISO/IEC 27000 defines a threat as "A potential cause of an incident, that may result in harm of systems and organization". Assessing threats is a crucial part of the threat management process that should be a part of every company's IT risk management policy. Microsoft has defined a useful threat assessment model, STRIDE, that is used to assess every threat in several categories: Spoofing, Tampering, Repudiation, Information disclosure, Denial of service, and Elevation of privilege. Each of these categories correlates to a particular security property of the affected software; for example, if a vulnerability allows the attacker to tamper with the system (Tampering), the integrity of the that system is compromised. A targeted threat is a type of a threat that is specific to a particular application or system; such threats usually involve malware designed to utilize a variety of known vulnerabilities in specific applications that have a large user base, for example, Flash, WordPress, or PHP.

A related term often considered when assessing a threat is a vulnerability window. This is the time from the moment a vulnerability is published, regardless of whether an exploit exists, up to the point when a fix or a workaround is available that can be used to mitigate the vulnerability. If a vulnerability is published along with a fix, then the vulnerability window can also represent the time it takes to patch that particular vulnerability.

A zero-day vulnerability is a subclass of all vulnerabilities that is published while the affected software has no available patch that would mitigate the issue. Similarly, a zero-day exploit is an exploit that uses a vulnerability that has not yet been patched. Edit: Alternatively, the term zero-day can be used to refer to a vulnerability that has not yet been published publicly or semi-publicly (for example, on a closed mailing list). The term zero-day exploit would then refer to an exploit for an undisclosed vulnerability. The two differing definitions for the term zero-day may be influenced with the recent media attention security issues received. Media, maybe unknowingly, have coined the term zero-day to represent critical issues that are disclosed without being immediately patched. Nevertheless, zero-day as a term is not strictly defined and should be used with care to avoid ambiguity in communication.

Unpatched vulnerabilities can allow malicious users to conduct an attack. Attacking a system or an application is the act of using a vulnerability's exploit to compromise the security policy of the attacked asset. Attacks can be categorized as either active, which directly affect integrity or availability of the system, or passive, which is used to compromise the confidentiality of the system without affecting the system. An example of an ongoing active attack can be a distributed denial of service attack that targets a particular website with the intention of compromising it's availability.

The terminology described above is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the security world. IETF RFC 2828, for example, consists of 191 pages of definitions and 13 pages of references strictly relevant to IT security. However, the knowing the difference between terms such as threat or exploit can be quite crucial when assessing and communicating a vulnerability within a team or a community.

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Martin Prpic